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How to Change 7 Thought Patterns That Hurt Your Relationship

Recognize the cognitive distortions that lead to conflict and breakups.

Key points

  • Your thoughts are a filter that strongly affects how you see your partner and colors the quality of your interactions.
  • Cognitive distortions are biases in your thought processes and can contribute to alienation and mistrust.
  • You can strengthen your relationship with your partner by closely examining the stories your mind tells you about them.
fizkes/Adobe Stock
Source: fizkes/Adobe Stock

Our thoughts are a filter that strongly affects how we see and feel about our partner—for better and for worse. Positive thoughts lead to good feelings, harmonious interactions, and intimacy. Negative thoughts lead to bad feelings, anger, and resentment.

The assumptions we make in relationships are often a form of cognitive distortion, or thinking error. If we engage in these distortions all the time, they can contribute to conflict and breakups. Read on to learn about some of the most common cognitive distortions in relationships, and how to rewire these harmful thinking patterns (adapted from Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).

1. Overgeneralization

We assume one instance applies to every situation.

Example: We think our partner is “always” critical or “never” likes the gifts we give them.

Try this: Look for more nuanced ways of seeing things, since the truth typically has more shades of gray.

2. Catastrophizing

We believe a situation is much worse than it actually is.

Example: We think our partner will never forgive us for a simple mistake—one we would easily overlook if the roles were reversed.

Try this: Look for alternative ways of seeing the situation, like that our partner may be a little upset with us but it won’t be the end of the world, or of our relationship.

3. Personalization

We believe that events having nothing to do with us are all about us.

Example: We assume our partner left a pan unwashed because they wanted us to know they resented having to do the dishes; in reality, they just overlooked it or planned to wash it later.

Try this: Ask yourself if your partner’s behavior is necessarily caused by or directed at you. More than likely, it has little to do with you and everything to do with them.

4. Emotional Reasoning

We assume our feelings are giving us useful information.

Example: We believe our jealous feelings must mean that our partner is being unfaithful.

Try this: Practice seeing emotions for what they are—signals that get our attention but that may or may not be grounded in actual facts about the world.

5. False Sense of Responsibility

We believe we have more power than we actually do.

Example: We think our partner’s happiness is entirely up to us, and assume it’s our fault when they’re upset.

Try this: Question whether you have as much control as you assume you do, and remember that others’ feelings and actions are their responsibility and not yours.

6. Shoulding

We think things ought to be the way we would like them to be.

Example: We want our partner to take out the trash so we tell ourselves that they should take it out, when in reality there is no absolute rule that says they’re supposed to.

Try this: Reframe your should as a preference or a wish—for example, “It would mean a lot to me if you took out the trash.”

7. Mind Reading

We assume we know what our partner is thinking.

Example: We think our partner is disappointed with our physical appearance, when they might actually like how we look.

Try this: Challenge mind-reading assumptions, which often are just your own projected thoughts rather than your partner’s true beliefs. Sometimes it can be helpful to ask your partner what they’re thinking, which may disconfirm your assumptions.

Shift Your Thinking

The next time you’re upset with your partner, use this TEA exercise to work through any thinking errors.

  1. Thoughts: Write down your thoughts about your partner.
  2. Evidence: Take a slow, easy breath in and out. Then examine the evidence for and against each one. Is it 100% true? Does it tell the full story? Notice how these thoughts affect your feelings toward your partner.
  3. Alternative: Finally, think of at least one alternative way of thinking about the situation that might be more accurate.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to catch my mind telling familiar lies that could alienate me from my wife, such as “She doesn’t care about me” or “She thinks I’m an idiot.” There are a lot fewer problems in our relationship when I’m not assuming what her motivations are, what she’s thinking, or what she “should” be doing.

By challenging our unhelpful beliefs, we can move beyond the mind’s lies and half-truths that muddle our thinking and muddy the waters of our relationships.


Gillihan, S. J. (2022). Mindful cognitive behavioral therapy: A simple path to healing, hope, and peace. HarperOne.

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