The erosion of a relationship happens over time in slight incremental ways. In reality, no one would enter a relationship where they were treated badly. So, it follows that all relationships start out good and decline over time.

As that decline progresses, we find ways to deal with these changes- first, we may try to discuss our concerns and if that doesn’t work, those discussions can turn into fights, angry silences or withdrawal of affection. As the relationship continues to disintegrate, we find other ways to “make it work”. Often we cope with our disappointment and the dysfunctional nature of the relationship by turning our discontent inward. Only after years of trying to manage our unhappiness does counseling finally become an option.

Years of “self-management” result in number of coping mechanisms-some not very healthy. We call these cognitive distortions.  While it may seem that they are successful in keeping the relationship together, more often than not, the results are a loss of self -worth and self- confidence. Filled with self-doubt , these people often report, “My partner refuses to come to therapy and says this is all in my head.” Then they look at me anxiously, hoping I won’t confirm this to be true but on some level hoping I will. For these people, they are so used to blaming themselves, and being victim, they can’t imagine seeing themselves as powerful and brave. They cannot imagine they can change their situation.

Commitment is a difficult thing to break; most people are fiercely loyal and so to reinforce the strength of their relationship, they find ways to minimize or deny their own experience. Here are some of those cognitive distortions. Perhaps, you recognize you implement a few of these.

1. False Hope. This yearning for what once was, without any concrete evidence that it could change (i.e. the other partner’s honest desire to change) slides from hope into “false hope”-that is, clinging to something that is no longer possible. Friends and family have tried pleading, begging, bargaining, screaming-almost anything to get us to face reality. After a while, they often throw up their hands and give up trying. Those looking on from the outside see things very differently than you do.

2.  Relabeling. This is a kind of distortion or misinterpretation. So while a violent act may be seen by others as a possible prelude of things to come, someone invested in the relationship will assign it a different meaning-they may see it as a selected episode or a moment of “losing it”. For example, they call a violent outbreak of temper – a “bad moment”, a “breakdown” or episode, but those on the outside can often see it is “rehearsal” for what is to come.

3. Watering down is another kind of cognitive distortion applied- This often happens with substance abuse but can certainly happen even when alcohol/drugs are not an issue. The partner may be furious at the drunken episode that ends up in a legal problem, but they may condone “social” use. This kind of distortion is often an attempt to avoid conflict and is supported with other distortions- for example, “When I am with him, his drinking isn’t bad at all.  It is only when he is with business associates. If he restricts his drinking to beer, that will be fine.”

4. Rationalizing bad behavior by placing it in historical context.  Examples of this include, “He doesn’t know any better, or “Given what she grew up with…” When we use history to condone unacceptable behavior, we can avoid our own feelings, shut down our instincts and ignore our own voice. I find many people who are involved in troubling relationships utilize this kind of thinking to redirect the conversation and then of course, wonder why nothing changes.

5. Accepting your partner’s voice as your own. “I wonder if I am crazy”, or “Making a big deal out of nothing”. Often these are not really authentic thoughts, but rather, after years of being pummeled with cognitive distortion you were taught to think about yourself with self-doubt. Examples of these is: “You don’t deserve better”, no one will ever want you”, “you should be grateful for what you have”, “ I can do so much better than you” or “You will have nothing with me.”

6. Editing. Sometimes the facts are so upsetting to us that we have edited them out of the narrative. It can be months in therapy before the darkest secrets/the most painful aspects of the relationship are discussed. “I can’t believe I forgot that” muses the client who finds she/he suddenly has access to buried trauma.

At some point most people find an internal battle ensues-the cognitive distortion once employed to manage unhappiness begin to break down as the interior authentic voice fights to be heard. This dissonance sometimes manifests in physical symptoms- digestive distress, migraines, back trouble or depression. While stressful and often anxiety provoking, this dissonance is the beginning of your healthy self fighting back and your primal need to survive beginning to come to life again.

Deciding whether your relationship is worth saving first requires an honest assessment of what is really going on. As you consider your relationship be aware of your own cognitive distortions- a reality check with a friend or even better, a therapist can help you look at what cognitive distortions you are applying and how to get beyond them so your assessment is an honest one. Only when you have all the facts, can you make healthy choices.


 © 2013 Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC is a psychotherapist in private practice in Farmington, CT since 1986. She is the author of the award winning From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce now available in Kindle format for $9.99 as well as in paperback

One Comment

  1. cj golden on the 29. Sep, 2013 remarked #

    OMG – I did it all and it kept me in that first marriage for far too many years. Except that, i was not ready to move on until I was strong enough to recognize that I was clinging to all of those distortions.

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