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5 Ways Cognitive Distortions Sabotage Your Relationships

If you have ever found yourself in what you thought was a good relationship but then watched it spiral downward it was probably very confusing. It may have been due to behavior of your own that you don’t understand or a behavior on the side  of your partner. How you interpret life in general of course affects how you interpret love relationships. If you are misguided or not thinking correctly or rationally then you are likely to make errors in the relationship that can end up sabotaging the whole thing.

Cognitive distortions are ways of thinking that affect how we see the world and interpret its meaning.  They have been around forever and we all engage in them from time to time, we usually even have 4 or 5 unintentional favorites! Distortions are ways of thinking that are not accurate but are based on our feelings or misperceptions of events. They are how we interpret the world and can cause unnecessary misery. Interpreting your world negatively or incorrectly can cause chronic anxiety, anger problems and depression. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you, these are just learned thought patterns. They can be unlearned.

If you are from a dysfunctional background of some type or have had unfortunate encounters while developing with caregivers or others it is likely you developed some ways of thinking that are not the most jolly. They may have been developed as a defense mechanism to protect you from further pain so they did their job. But now when you find them in the way of your happiness it is time for them to go bye-bye.

Unlearning these distortions does not change your personality or who you are. It just unblocks ways of thinking that help you be more resilient, more able to deal with challenges and offers you a better chance at happiness.

This is an extensive topic so I chose to go over just a few here and narrow the field down to the major ways these distortions can interfere with your relationships.

  1. Choosing a partner-One thing that sabotages a relationship right from the beginning is choosing the wrong person. The distortion that interferes with that choice is typically the one called Denial. This is where you ignore or minimize problematic behaviors on the part of the person in question. You may be so happy to have someone that you ignore blatant problems. These problems are almost always evident from the get go, you have to step back and trust yourself to see the red flags before you get in too deep. This distortion usually will have you making excuses or reasons for their bad behavior and shrugging it off. But those signals are going off in your brain for a reason and when you ignore them you are not utilizing the alert systems that would save you a lot of trouble.
  2. Losing a partner-We hate to acknowledge this but sometimes we all can be quite unpleasant. Bad days, hard jobs, losses and stress can bring out the worst in all of us. There is a distortion called a Black Filter that ensures we will always be at our worst and this has the potential to drive a good mate away quite quickly. A black filter means that you notice and dwell on the negative aspects of things above all else on a regular basis, making it unpleasant for those around you to enjoy themselves or remain upbeat. This can negatively impact friendships and work relationships as well as love relationships. A simplistic example would be where you go out for a nice dinner, the food was good, the service was great but all you think about is that your cab was 15 minutes late and the cabbie didn’t apologize. This bothers you to the point that the rest of the evening doesn’t matter, you will be in a funk and dampen the spirits of those around you. You may even go home and run the scenario over and over in your mind and think of things you wish you had said.
  3. Remaining in a bad relationship-this can be a product of Incorrect Blaming or Finger Pointing for bad things going on. If you grew up being abused or are dealing with a narcissist you may blame yourself incorrectly for the problems in the relationship as this is what the toxic others would like you to believe. You may have grown up being blamed or assuming blame for dysfunctional behaviors in your home. Recognize this as a distortion. Being treated poorly is not your fault, that is on them. Once you break free from that thinking pattern you can put your energies into what is best for you.
  4. Pushing away your partner -This happens when you have out your Crystal Ball (predicting the future) and are engaging in Mind Reading. These are two separate distortions that often go hand in hand. You may expect the worst always and prepare by making sure you minimize the pain of the event you are expecting. Sometimes this happens by you accelerating what you expect  (the end of the relationship) in order to hurry up and get it over with. An example would be if you are out to dinner and your partner is distracted, you may interpret this as them not loving you anymore and that they have a foot out the door. The reality is they may have had a very bad day at work. You may then go into panic mode and start a fight in order to hurry the conclusion of the relationship ending. I have even seen clients who go into this panic mode if their partner does not answer the phone or text response right away. Sometimes the end result is that your partner tires of these dramas and does leave, reinforcing the incorrect thought that you had to begin with.
  5. Giving up when one relationship ends– Maybe you had what you thought was a great relationship and the other person ended it, causing you great pain. In order to avoid this pain you may develop the distortion called Extension or Overgeneralization, where one negative event carries over to all such events. You give up the idea of a relationship for yourself as you believe that because that one person left you everyone will leave you or that you are unloveable. A healthier way to look at it would be that there are many fish in the sea and it will be fun finding yours! The other was just the fish that got away.

As mentioned above, these are ways of thinking that you learned somehow. They are not hardwired into your brain. Once you recognize them for what they are and how they contribute to unhappiness and stress you will want to eliminate them. Once you become aware of them you can catch yourself before you cause yourself unnecessary distress.

If you think that dysfunctional patterns are interfering with your life and relationships please go to my website through the link below in my bio, take the Dysfunctional Patterns Quiz and download the Dysfunctional Thinking Patterns (Cognitve Distortions) free resource and checklist.

Feel Good For Life!

5 Ways Cognitive Distortions Sabotage Your Relationships

Audrey Sherman, Ph.D.

Dr. Audrey Sherman is a licensed psychologist, coach and the author of the book Dysfunction Interrupted-How to Quickly Overcome Depression, Anxiety and Anger Starting Now. Her expertise is in defining, describing and transforming dysfunctional behavior and thought patterns learned in childhood or beyond that keep you anxious, depressed, angry, stuck in unhappy and unproductive relationships, jobs and more. Dr. Sherman developed the Dysfunctional Patterns Quiz and other free resources to help you determine the effects of these on your life. She works with individuals, conducts live and online workshops and trains others in her programs. To learn more about Dr. Sherman, you can visit her website.

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APA Reference
Sherman, A. (2020). 5 Ways Cognitive Distortions Sabotage Your Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Jul 2020
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