The past couple weeks I’ve been learning (in therapy … because I see a therapist … because good therapy is awesome) about something called “cognitive distortion.” Basically, cognitive distortions are ways we think about the world – ourselves, our spouses, our children, our friends, our enemies, etc. – that are inaccurate. The belief of cognitive therapy is that our thoughts shape our emotions which shape our behaviors, so if we have a harmful way of thinking about the world we will eventually act in harmful ways.
If this sounds like a bunch of psychobabble mumbo jumbo, it’s worth considering how often the Apostle Paul focuses on the importance of how we think: we are to have the mind of Christ, to take every thought captive, to not think like the world, but to renew our minds. You could argue this what Jesus is getting at when he says “cool, you aren’t actually having an affair, but you lust about women in your heart” (paraphrase … Jesus didn’t actually use the word “cool”). Jesus’s point is that truly goodness isn’t behavioral, it’s cognitive. It’s how you think.
Still with me? I hope so, because understanding this concept can take your marriage to a whole new world.
If I were to ask you what your spouse looks like you could (hopefully) give me a pretty accurate description; however, there’s a mental image you and I have of our spouses that isn’t accurate at all. Due to the families we were raised in, wounds we’ve received throughout life, and the months, years or decades of history we have with our spouse, we have all sorts of views of them that simply aren’t accurate. They are cognitive distortions. These distortions are what lead us into the same fights over and over again. They’re way you get so angry or insecure or hurt for seemingly no reason. The good news is once you see that this is all stemming from a cognitive distortion, you can get busy “renewing your mind” and letting God’s truth change your thoughts, which changes your emotions, which changes your behavior toward each other.
Sound good? Okay, so here are 3 common cognitive distortions we bring into our marriage.
What this sounds like: “he is NEVER on my side.” “She ALWAYS does this.” “It’s all her fault.” “I can NEVER do anything right.”
Do you feel like your marriage is either perfect or a complete trainwreck with nothing in between? Do you often feel like either you or your spouse can never do anything right? If so you probably tend toward an all-or-nothing cognitive filter. The truth that replaces this filter though is that the words “never” and “always” are always wrong and never right (these are the jokes guys).
When you find yourself thinking in all-or-nothing terms, replace those thoughts with moments that defy them. Your spouse isn’t ALWAYS against you, because remember that one time when ______. And is it true that your spouse is saying you NEVER do anything right? Didn’t he compliment you yesterday when ______.
What this sounds like: “she did that because …” “He wasn’t thinking of me when …” “Sure he said this but really he …”
While it’s fair to be hurt by your spouse’s behavior, it’s not fair to assume you know why they did what they did. Whenever we mind-read we project the worst version of events into our spouses mind, presume that’s accurate, then emotionally respond. But here’s the deal: you can’t read your spouse’s mind. You can’t. I know I know you know them so well and blah blah blah but you don’t know yourself very well at all and you’re probably blind to how your projecting your own insecurities into their head.
SO when you find yourself mind-reading, try something radical: assume the best instead of the worst. Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt, and then ask them from a calm, non-accusatory position.
This one is huge for me. I often find myself going emotionally berserk over something my wife just did, even though a part of me knows “this probably isn’t proportional to what just happened.” Have you ever wondered why you get so angry, shut down so quickly, withdraw so rapidly, or try to please your spouse so desperately? Often this is because you’ve experienced a legit emotional trauma in your past – an emotionally absent parent, a deeply wounding relationship experience, or emotional, spiritual, physical, or sexual abuse. It can be a “big T” Trauma – rape, assault, a tragic accident – or it can be a “little t” trauma – a painful breakup, being made fun of in junior high, a subtle message communicated by a parent for years. But whenever your spouse, say, laughs during sex, or looks at you a certain negative way, or seemingly ignores your needs, your emotional world goes nuclear.
To be honest, this cognitive distortion is best solved through a compassionate, highly-competent therapist who can help you identify the trauma and slowly unwind the emotional pain of it. However, what you CAN do is recognize in the moment that while you’re thinking “my spouse did ______” really that’s the emotional reasoning kicking in – your body is reminding you of something that happened long ago .
The good news for those of us who are Christians is that when we catch ourselves doing this, we can turn that emotion over to God and pray two things: 1) would you comfort this part of me that’s hurting and 2) would you bring people into my life who can help me understand where this is coming from.
One last thought on this: it will be helpful for your spouse to know that there are certain things he or she does that trigger this emotional reasoning in you. Don’t blame them for the response, just tell them that when ______ happens you _____ and you know it’s not their fault, and you want to get better, but as you work on that if they could avoid tripping on your emotional traumas, that would be helpful.