Read an Excerpt
The Power of Negative Thinking
Karen, an interior designer, described how she came home one day flushed with excitement and eager to discuss some good news with her husband, Ted. She had just been awarded a lucrative contract to decorate the offices of a prominent law firm. But when she started to tell Ted about this unexpected success in her career, he seemed distant and uninvolved. She thought, "He doesn't really care about me. He's only interested in himself." Her excitement evaporated. Instead of celebrating with him, Karen went into another room and poured herself a glass of champagne. Meanwhile, Ted--who was feeling somewhat dejected that day because of a setback in his career--had the thought, "She doesn't really care about me. She's only interested in her own career."
This incident highlights a common pattern we have observed in people with marital problems. When spouses' high expectations are thwarted, they are prone to jump to negative conclusions about the partner's state of mind and the state of the marriage. Relying on what amounts to mind reading, the disillusioned spouse jumps to damning conclusions about the cause of the trouble: "She's acting this way because she's bitchy" or "He's being this way because he's filled with hate."
As a result of such explanations, the injured spouse may attack or withdraw from the partner. And the partner, who very likely feels unjustly punished, usually retaliates by counterattacking or withdrawing. And so begins a vicious cycle of attack and retaliation that can easily whirl into other areas of the relationship.
Interpreting a partner'smotives in this way is fraught with danger, simply because we cannot read other people's minds. For instance, what Karen did not know was that Ted had been feeling depressed over a reversal in his accounting business and was anxious to discuss it with her. Karen had no way of finding this out because she left the room in a fury. She assumed that he was just too preoccupied with himself to notice her.
But her angry withdrawal in itself had many meanings for Ted: "She's running out on me for no good reason" and "Once again this proves she doesn't care about how I feel." These explanations added to Ted's sense of isolation and hurt. Ted, on the other hand, contributed to the disconnections in the relationship through his preoccupation with his own problems. In the past, when Karen would become excited about an experience or a new idea, he would start to analyze it rather than tune in emotionally to her enthusiasm.
This kind of misunderstanding and mutual mind reading is far more frequent in relationships than most couples realize. Rather than seeing that there is a misunderstanding, conflicting partners misattribute the problem to the mate's "meanness" or "selfishness." Unaware that they are misreading their spouses, partners incorrectly ascribe base motives to them.
Although many popular writings have focused on the expression of anger in intimate relationships, and how to deal with it, there has been scant attention paid to the misconceptions and miscommunications that are so often responsible for the anger and conflict. How one spouse perceives and interprets what the other does can be far more important in determining marital satisfaction than those actions themselves.
To avoid such marital misconceptions, it helps to understand how the mind functions--and malfunctions--when we are frustrated or disappointed. Our fallible mental apparatus predisposes us to misinterpret or exaggerate the meaning of other people's behavior, to make negative explanations when we are disappointed, and to project a negative image onto these people. We then act on these misinterpretations--attacking the very negative image that we have projected.
It rarely occurs to us at that moment that our negative judgment could be wrong, and that we are attacking a distorted image. For instance, when frustrated by Ted's moods, Karen projected an image of him as a kind of mechanical man, incapable of expressing feeling to another person. At the same time, Ted saw Karen as one of the Furies, filled with hate and vengeance. Whenever one of them would disappoint the other, these extreme images took over their minds and fueled their anger.
By using a set of simple principles that are part of cognitive therapy, couples can counteract the tendency to make such unjustified judgments and to project distorted images of each other. These principles can help each mate arrive at more accurate and reasonable conclusions, and thus prevent the cycle of misunderstanding that leads to marital conflicts and hostilities. Cognitive therapy has shown that partners can learn to be more reasonable with each other by adopting a more humble, tentative attitude about the accuracy of their mind reading, and its resulting negative conclusions; by checking out the accuracy of their mind reading; and by considering alternative explanations for what a partner does.
If Karen had been able to resist her inclination to portray Ted as uncaring and cold, and questioned him about what was preoccupying him, she might have been able to cheer him up to the point where they both could have celebrated her success. And if Ted had allowed himself to find out what Karen wanted, he could have avoided painting a negative image of her as cold and unsympathetic. But to do this, both would first need to realize that their conclusions could be incorrect and their anger could be unjustified or, at least, exaggerated.
The cognitive principles that helped Karen and Ted and other couples eventually to reach this point of selfunderstanding are the following:
- We can never really know the state of mind--the attitudes, thoughts, and feelings--of other people.
- We depend on signals, which are frequently ambiguous, to inform us about the attitudes and wishes of other people.
- We use our own coding system, which may be defective, to decipher these signals.