- Toxic thoughts are those nagging, distorted exaggerations of what you don't like about your partner.
- It's essential to be aware of your distorted thoughts and how they affect your emotions and behaviors.
- If you have toxic thoughts, try reframing them into more positive and constructive ones.
Samantha, one of my counseling clients, was filled with toxic thoughts about her fiance, Connor.
"Dr. Jeff, Connor doesn't ever listen to even one thing I say," she said, adding, "And then it's like he's always trying to control me."
By "toxic thoughts", I refer to those nagging, distorted exaggerations of what you don't like about your partner. They can lead to resentment and anger. These negative emotions can then manifest in behaviors such as lashing out with mean comments, withdrawing, or being defensive, which can further damage the relationship and negatively impact relationships. Toxic thoughts influence our emotions, behaviors, and actions, and if we consistently let toxic thoughts go unchecked, they can lead to problematic behaviors that can hurt our relationships.
Learning To Reframe Your Toxic Thoughts
As I further discuss in my relationship book, Why Can't You Read My Mind?, it's essential to be aware of your distorted thoughts and how they affect your emotions and behaviors. If you have toxic thoughts, try reframing them into more positive and constructive ones. For instance, instead of "My partner doesn't care about me," try reframing the thought as, "My partner may be busy right now, but I know they love me." It's also important to communicate with your partner and address any issues or concerns you may have constructively and respectfully.
Remember that relationships take effort and commitment, and having a positive and healthy mindset can go a long way in maintaining a strong and fulfilling connection with your partner.
Let's now zoom in and look at seven thinking patterns I have identified that occur in intimate relationships. Remember, managing them comes from being aware of them and challenging them, as I will describe below.
7 Toxic Thoughts
The All-or-Nothing Trap: You see your partner as either always doing the wrong thing or never doing the right thing. ("He always has to be right!")
The Fix: Remind yourself that, as tempting as it is to travel into "all-or-nothing land," it is laden with explosive mines. Instead, be more charitable, such as saying, She has her views on alternative medicine for some reasons that are important to her. Respecting her views will help get us closer to calm, constructive conversations a lot more than me getting rigidly science-like to prove her wrong.
Catastrophic Conclusions: One partner exaggerates negative actions and events concerning the other partner. ("She bounced that check, and now we are heading to the poor house!")
The Fix: Ask yourself when your erroneous conclusions have previously been wrong to help be understanding and patient with your partner and yourself. OK, so your partner may not be a great pick to teach a course in personal finance. So, try saying: How would you feel if I take the lead in managing our joint finances because my anxiety tends to get the best of me at times with our financial matters?
Label Slinging: You unfairly, and negatively, label your partner and lose sight of their positive qualities. ("You are so lazy!")
The Fix: Challenge negative labels by reframing them with supportive, positive ones. For example, I value how he steps up to help out my mom when she needs things fixed at her house.
The Blame Game: You unfairly or irrationally blame your partner for relationship issues, or even bigger issues. ("My life only sucks because of you!")
The Fix: Remember that rigidly assigning blame to your partner is not fair. Instead, try thinking, "I am the one responsible for the choices of my life, not them."
Emotional Short Circuits: Emotional short circuits occur when one partner becomes convinced that their partner’s emotions can’t be “handled." ("No one can ever reason with her!")
The Fix: Extend your own shortened fuse by taking care of yourself (healthy diet, exercise, and sleep). Strap yourself onto your partner's positive versus negative behaviors. For example, He was pretty cool about tolerating my parents' extreme political views when they visited this past weekend.
Overactive Imagination: In this case, you reach negative conclusions about your partner that are not based on reality. ("He's so preoccupied lately; he must be having an affair.")
The Fix: Talk yourself back into reality by weighing the evidence of what is going well. For example, you might say, OK I do feel a bit threatened by him being mentored at work by a genius, but he values me for my mind, my personality, and my loyalty. It further helps to trust what our love is based on versus my fantasies driven by feeling insecure. And, now that I think of it, it feels good that he just carved out time from his big new overseas project for us to go out together.
The “Should” Bomb: One partner assumes the other will meet one or more of their needs—just because they seemingly should know that need. ("You should know how much I hate my job, even though I tell everyone what a great opportunity it is.")
The Fix: Stop "shoulding" on your partner. Try replacing your shoulds with "would like." For example, in this case, you could say, I would like your support when I feel frustrated and overwhelmed with my job. Just knowing I can vent to you without you judging me helps me feel calmer and more optimistic that I can manage my work demands.
Learn To Dwell On Your Partner's Positive Versus Negative Qualities
While there may certainly be kernels of truth underlying some of these toxic thoughts, it is the extent to which we distort, exaggerate, and focus on them that can suck the joy out of loving relationships. Being able to look for, and then dwell on, your partner's positive qualities and behaviors are the key to overcoming toxic thoughts.
Happy, satisfied couples that do not get bogged down in toxic thoughts have a better, more realistic, and healthier way of thinking about each other. This way of thinking enables such couples to improve communication, solve problems, and enhance romance. This true foundation for a happy relationship, this elusive secret to your success, can only be found or built in one place—your mind.
Being aware of and challenging your negative thoughts is an important way to prevent your loving relationship from blowing up. It is incumbent on us to take responsibility to give our partners the benefit of the doubt, within reason.
© Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D. (All rights reserved,). Unauthorized retention, duplication, distribution, or modification of copyrighted materials is strictly prohibited by law.
Bernstein, J. (2003), Why Can't You Read My Mind? Overcoming the 9 Toxic Thought Patterns that Get in the Way of a Loving Relationship, DA Capo Books, New York, NY.
Cahill, V. A., Malouff, J. M., Little, C. W., & Schutte, N. S. (2020). Trait perspective taking and romantic relationship satisfaction: A meta-analysis. Journal of Family Psychology, 34(8), 1025–1035. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000661