Science and Sensibility

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5 Mental Traps Relationships Can't Escape

Expert advice for avoiding damaging thinking and words.

Let’s look at five mental traps that can mess up intimate relationships. I’ll share an antidote for each. If you catch yourself in one or more of these, you can take steps on your own to break free and develop an appealing calm composure.   

You may see your mate in some of these traps, but you don’t have to call them to your mate's attention and put his or her nose to the fire. Instead, by working to develop a calm composure on your own, you'll be in a good position to non-threateningly encourage your partner to work with you and work out problems that plague your relationship.

At the end of this post, you’ll find the common threat that connects each trap. Snap that thread, and you’ll open new opportunities to enjoy your relationship as well as your life. 

1. Distressing Demands

If your partner caters to your every wish, you’ve found a robot, not a mate.  

People can upset themselves by imposing demands and expecting immediate compliance. You cannot reasonably expect your mate to cater to your every whim. People will not always do what you want—and such expectations invariably lead to exasperation.

But our demands are not always obvious. Watch out for disguised demands,found in innocent-sounding questions like, "Why do these things always happen to me?" The real message to your mate in such a question is often, "These things should not happen to me." Instead of imposing irrational demands on yourself—or others—substitute preferences: "I prefer it this way" can reflect a genuine desire. This softer thinking is not only associated with a calmer bearing in life, but also opens opportunities for mutual problem-solving discussions.

2. The "Is" of Identity

The verb to be, in its different forms, seems harmless enough. But it can be a trouble maker and cause problems to escalate. Here is an example: You tell your mate, "You are unemployable," or some other criticism of that ilk. But the key word is are.

This identity thinking distorts a complex person. If you say, “You are a loser,” or something that is heard that way, you've made a blanket characterization. People frequently make such "is of identity" errors. And saying ti frequently doesn't make it more accurate—after all, there was a time when practically everyone believed that the world was flat.

As an antidote, practice substituting objective statements for identity statements. For example, be specific: “Your unemployment insurance is running out and I’d really like you to talk to Joe about a job.” By focusing on specific behaviors, you have asserted your preference without putting your mate down. It’s easier to discuss an issue with someone who doesn’t think his or her identity and personal worth is on the line.  

3. Awfulness Thinking

When you awfulize—such as telling yourself, "It’s awful that my mate inconveniences me—you use language that exaggerates a situation. This makes an already difficult situation feel worse. Words like awful, terrible, and horrible, when applied to everyday inconveniences, are like a lighted match over a can of gasoline. To snuff it out before it sparks an explosion, ask yourself what awful means in this situation. Follow with another question: How is this inconvenience awful? Insist on honest answers from yourself. If you can’t be truthful with yourself, who can you be truthful with?

4. The Indefinite Referent

You can stress yourself, and put yourself into a helpless position, by distorting your reality with indefinite references, such as it, that leaves the referent for the statement unspecified. This verbal vagary is another lit match. Consider the statement, "I can't stand it," which contains the indefinite referent, it. In this case, it connects to a stressful state of mind. It also may serve to distance you from your significant other, who may be unclear about the issue and have no reasonable idea of what to do about it.

What is the it that you think you can’t stand? Anxiety? Not getting your way? Has someone violated your personal rules? Do you feel frustrated about a mistake that you or your mate made? Do you feel stressed and can't find a reason? As an antidote, translate the vague referent into a concrete one. For example, saying "I dislike it when my boss criticizes my work in front of my co-workers" is significantly more manageable—and probably less stressful—than saying “I can’t stand it!" When you get more specific about what you tell yourself, you put yourself in a good position to realistically work out a problem.

5. Crisis Creation

When your blinders are on, you can create a problem. For example, you don’t think you are getting enough attention, so you create a crisis to get attention. Here’s how: You make general statements and act as if they had precise meaning. You tell your mate, “I want you to make me happy," or, "You're not romantic enough." Now it’s the other guy’s fault and the fur starts flying.

To escape this trap, flip things around. Get specific: What do you want your mate behaviorally to do? Can you trade off something that your mate wants you to behaviorally do?

A Common Thread

These five mental traps are examples of negative fuzzy thinking with connections to overgeneralizations, and overgeneralizations are at the core of much human misery.

Overgeneralizations are exaggerations that unjustifiably go beyond reasonable limits. If you think your mate is deficient, as are all members of his or her gender, you haven’t allowed for individual differences. And you’ll have a hard time proving that all of your mate’s personal characteristics can be squeezed into one category.

As you recognize and rid yourself of overgeneralizations and blind spots, the clarity you gain can grow on its own momentum. As a bonus, you may find that you are less susceptible to anxiety, depression, and anger, which are all tied to these overgeneralizations.

With less stresses from exaggerations, you may find that you make better judgments and choices. You may experience stronger self-control, a wider range of emotions, a stronger sense of emotional well-being, and a warmer, closer relationship with your significant other.

Confidence wedded to clarity is formidable. Check it out and see.

 

This blog is part of a series to celebrate the 100th and 101st year anniversaries of Albert Ellis’ birth. Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behavioral therapy, is among the most prolific and famous psychotherapists who ever lived. It’s fitting we honor his enormous contributions.

Albert Ellis Revisited (Carlson & Knaus 2013) is the Albert Ellis Tribute Book Series centennial year book.  The publisher, Routledge, offers a 20% discount on the book. Control click on this link: Albert Ellis Revisited. Type the code Ellis for the discount.  The book qualifies for free shipping and handling. Bill Knaus’s royalties from this book go directly to the Denan Project.

 

© Dr. Bill Knaus. All Rights Reserved

Bill Knaus, Ed.D., is the author of more than 20 books; one, "Overcoming Procrastination", was co-authored with Albert Ellis.

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