The terms “cognitive errors” or “cognitive distortions” refer to the types of thought processes that we have which are errors or exaggerated distortions in our thinking. These thinking errors are often illogical, rigid, self-defeating, and incorrect and can create or worsen conflict between you and your partner.
Examples of the types of cognitive errors or distortions (i.e., unhealthy/problematic thoughts) that people often have related to couple conflict and parenting include:
- All or nothing thinking – Seeing things in rigid black and white categories (and failing to see the “gray” areas in between). For example, seeing your partner as a complete failure if he or she makes a minor mistake.
- Ultimatums – Using words that are extreme and definitive like “never” and “always” instead of words like “often,” “sometimes,” or “rarely.” For example, turning to your partner and claiming “You never give the baby a bath at night!” or “I always have to take care of the kids’ lunches!” Statements like these are rarely true and worsen conflict by overlooking any efforts that have been made and putting your partner on the defense.
- Overgeneralization – Looking at one event or situation that did not go well or as expected and assuming that a pattern of similar events has begun. In other words, overgeneralizing the impact of one event or situation. For example, anticipating that the whole day will go horribly because your partner overslept in the morning and the kids were late for school.
- Negative mental filter – A negative worldview that involves focusing more on negative details (or focusing on them exclusively) and failing to see positive ones. For example, focusing only on your partner’s faults and the things that they don’t contribute to the family with no acknowledgment of their role and the things they do contribute.
- Personalization – Seeing yourself as the cause of a negative event or situation, or making something about you that has nothing to do with you at all. For example, assuming that your partner’s bad mood at the end of the day is because of you when in fact it could have been due to a difficult day at work for him or her.
- Jumping to conclusions – Assuming the outcome of a situation or assuming that you know what someone else is thinking, feeling, or doing without any evidence of this. Usually, involves jumping to the worst possible conclusion. For example, assuming that your partner forgot to check on the kids’ homework to annoy you and make a point.
- “Should” statements – Using statements like “I should be ___” or “He shouldn’t do __.” Such statements often provoke guilt if you’re not doing what you think you “should” be doing or frustration, anger, and resentment if you feel that others are not acting according to your “shoulds.” For example, thinking that “My wife should take over and cook dinner for me and the kids if she can tell that I’ve had a rough day at work” or “My wife shouldn’t stay at work late if she knows the kids have a softball game.”
In the next session – session 6 – you will learn how these negative ways of thinking can become automatic habits and how to challenge them. But before then, we do an exercise to identify your own cognitive distortions related to couple conflict and parenting.