The Toxic Impact of All or Nothing Thinking for Couples
Being aware of this toxic thought pattern can help you avoid falling prey to it.
Posted Dec 01, 2020
Do you and/or your intimate partner get ensnared in the "all-or-nothing" thinking trap? This happens when you either see your partner negatively or as never doing things.
Take, for example, Kate and her fiancé Adam. Kate is frustrated with Adam because “he never listens.” In Kate’s idealistic, all-or-nothing vision of the relationship, Adam is always ready, willing, and able to listen to what she has to say. When expectations are not met—when Adam falls asleep on the couch when Kate has an important issue to discuss—you will inevitably grow frustrated, bitter, or fed up over time. This creates tension, and we are beings who seek to reduce tension.
As another example, which starts out as less toxic, Jack is considerate to his wife, Sophie, in many ways. He does the laundry because he knows that with three kids it’s hard to keep up with it. He fills her car with gas. He tiptoes around in the morning so she can get a little extra sleep. But he does have the habit of leaving dirty dishes in the sink.
Unfortunately, finding dirty dishes in the sink is the one thing that drives Sophie crazy, even crazier than when he folds the laundry and just leaves it sitting there on top of the dryer. Why can’t he just rinse the dishes and put them in the dishwasher? Doesn’t he realize he’s just making more work for her? It’s like he doesn’t respect her time or the fact that not only is she working full time, but she also does most of the housework. She’s asked him time and time again to please rinse his dishes and put them in the dishwasher.
Worn down with increasingly toxic thoughts, Sophie doesn’t consider how Jack helps with the laundry or fills the car with gas. Those aren’t the things she really cares about anyway. All she can think right now as she’s putting his dishes away is that he never thinks about her feelings. Why, she wants to know, is he always so inconsiderate? Jack, on the other hand, is now getting very upset and wants to know why “nothing I do is ever good enough for her.”
Welcome to the all-to-common and destructive world of all-or-nothing toxic thinking, which I describe in detail in my relationship book, Why Can't You Read My Mind? Based on hours and hours of listening to distressed and exasperated couples, this toxic thought problem is, without a doubt, the most common of all. If I had a dollar for every “always“ and “never“ I’ve heard from couples in distress, then I’d be on a tropical island writing this instead of in my office.
When you’re upset with your partner, feel misunderstood or hurt, it’s very easy to lapse into the black-and-white mindset that characterizes all-or-nothing thinking. By black-and-white thinking, I mean the tendency by one or both partners to see the other as either completely positive or completely negative. He’s never competent. She’s always saying the worst thing. My husband gets it wrong every time.
There is no “in-between” when partners see each other in an all-or-nothing way. And you may very well feel that your partner never listens to you or is always inconsiderate. However, this is likely not the reality. Most people have a range of behavior that includes sometimes being considerate and sometimes being inconsiderate. This range of behaviors is shaped from a combination of our genes and our upbringings. As individuals, we vary in both pleasant behaviors (like giving compliments) and unpleasant ones (like interrupting).
While I am a believer in the fundamental goodness of human beings, there are some people who do bring extremely undesirable behaviors to relationships, such as active addictions, venomous manipulations, and abuse. In most cases, however, it is the work of our all-or-nothing toxic thoughts that leads us to unfavorably exaggerate our partner’s undesirable behaviors.
So why do we do this? We fall into all-or-nothing thinking toward our partners to alleviate the stress and tension it causes us when their statements or actions don’t make sense to us (How could he not know that always leaving dishes in the sink drives me nuts?) or don’t fulfill our needs (She never supports me). The extremes of all-or-nothing thinking reduce emotional tension by giving us a convenient, easy-to-understand way to explain our partners’ behaviors that disturb us.
So, in the face of these inconsistencies, we attempt to simplify how we view our partners in our minds with all-or-nothing thinking. This is about self-protection (“It’s not my fault. I’m not the one who always falls asleep.”). You need to explain to yourself why your needs aren’t being met and why you’re not the culprit. Unfortunately, all-or-nothing thinking is far more destructive than protective. When you tell your partner, “You always…” or “You never…” I can practically guarantee that you and your partner will not be discussing your real issues.
All-or-nothing thoughts illustrate how, once verbalized, toxic thoughts distract couples from their real issues. If you’re telling your wife, “You never listen…” or your boyfriend, “You always ignore me when I’m upset,” these kinds of statements will inevitably lead the other person to defend him- or herself. The inevitable return volley of “Well, how about what you always do to me…” or “I do not always ignore you. Just last night we talked for two hours, but you obviously did not hear a single word I said…” then ensues instead of productive problem-solving.
OK, so maybe you are better with finances, and your husband is better than you at setting limits with the kids. That is fine and may be true. The toxic all-or-nothing thinking problems occur, though, when you start to generalize too much. It’s when your husband overspends, and you say to yourself, “I can’t rely on him for anything,” instead of reminding yourself that he is only human and does meet other needs for you. Or you forget to follow through on a consequence for the kids, and your husband thinks, “She has no interest whatsoever in teaching the kids right from wrong,” instead of realizing that you are feeling overwhelmed and discouraged.
What I try to stress to couples is that no one is perfect. You are not perfect, and, of course, your intimate partner is not perfect. As a good friend of mine says, “The only perfect people are in the cemetery!” Intellectually, we know that people have a range of abilities and weaknesses. Being realistic in your relationship means seeing yourself and the one you love on a continuum of strengths and weaknesses. Being in a healthy, vital relationship means that you don’t see your partner in all-or-nothing terms.
Bernstein, J. & Magee, S. (2003) Why Can't You Read My Mind? Perseus Books.