All couples experience periods of difficulty in their relationships. Occasional disagreements, disappointments, and frustrations are a part of every long-term committed relationship. When things get complicated many women find themselves trying to improve things, but they may discover their efforts are met with resistance from their partners, or are simply ineffective. This can prove immensely frustrating, and women and their partners run the risk of falling into a cycle of misunderstanding and distance.
One challenge in communication with our partners is the belief that the onus is solely on our partner to change. When things are rocky, it is natural and understandable to assign blame to one’s partner. And sometimes in frustration with our partner, we employ maladaptive strategies to the conflict - giving the silent treatment, picking fights, or engaging in sarcasm or manipulation to get our partner to change. Not only do these strategies typically not work, they further disconnect us in relationship.
The good news is that there are strategies that can be implemented to create more connection, and it starts with our own thinking. The somewhat radical first step toward the goal of a closer relationship is to start with ourselves! At CTWPS, we work with women to identify and address difficulties in their relationships, with a special focus on both the thinking and the behaviors that can perpetuate problems of disconnection. Below are three of the most common distortions in thinking that come up for women in relationships:
1. Negative bias
Negative bias occurs when the positive aspects of our relationships are washed away by overemphasizing the negative qualities of the relationship, or “reading negative”. Addressing this requires really taking stock of how you view your partner. Idealization vs. devaluation is one kind of biased thinking: imagine a woman when she is most in love with her partner. He is perfect! The kindest, most attractive, smartest, most considerate partner; she wonders how she ever get so lucky to have him! But when her mood changes and she is angry or frustrated with her partner, the picture quickly darkens. She views him as selfish, inconsiderate, inattentive, and far worse than her friends’ partners. She feels foolish for having ended up with him. This kind of black and white thinking conceptualizes our partners as being either all good or all bad. At CTWPS, we help women create an honest accounting of how they view their partner, and provide specific training on how to create a balanced perspective of their partner (even in conflict!).
2. Rigid expectations and rules: the power of “shoulds” in your relationship.
We learn about what relationships are “supposed” to look like from many sources - observing our parents’ partnership when we are children, hearing about friends’ relationships, even experiencing fictional characters’ love in books and movies. The lessons we learn are internalized deeply as a set of “shoulds”: i.e., if my partner loves me, he should do a certain behavior every day, or verbalize certain things, or spend a certain amount of time with me. These “should” beliefs are so closely held that when our partners do not live up to them, we can feel deeply unloved and hopeless about the relationship. However, these “shoulds” vary across individuals, and many times a woman’s partner is simply unaware of what hers might be. Adherence to a set of “shoulds” can get relationships into trouble when our partner’s benign behavior is interpreted as malicious or rejecting because it does not align with our “should” beliefs. In therapy at CTWPS, we take a close look at a client’s “shoulds”. Sometimes these beliefs run so deep that we see them as fact, and so acknowledging them as beliefs rather than facts is the first step toward developing flexibility internally and with our partners. We’ll search together for opportunities for perspective taking, communication, and behavioral adjustments that can make all the difference in the level of comfort and ease you feel with your partner.
3. Wanting to win
We all like to win! But sometimes a woman’s desire to protect her position prevents her from engaging in effective communication. When it comes to having critical conversations with a partner or asking for what we need, many women find themselves thinking about it as a zero-sum game in which there is a “winner” and a “loser”. The assumption here is that someone in the discussion is right and someone is wrong, when in fact often both partners see the same set of circumstances in different ways, both feeling and being “right” from their perspective. Women can find themselves stuck between two tough options: I can be honest and true to myself and attack my partner (“winning”, being right), or I can be peacekeeping and swallow my needs by withholding the truth (“losing”, being wrong). At CTWPS, we work with women to increase cognitive flexibility, to move beyond a winning-and-losing style of communication, and to increase the number of options a woman has for maintaining closeness with her partner.
Conflict is hard, and it is easy for any of us to fall into some distorted patterns of thinking when stressed. At CTWPS, we will support you in your relationship goals by teaching you strategies to manage your thinking process and keep your perspective as clear as it can be (even when you are in conflict with your partner). These steps start with your perspective and are the beginning steps to creating healthier communication and relationship.