Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Dangers of “All-or-Nothing Thinking” in Adult Loving Relationships

One recent one Friday night after one of my co-ed softball games, a couple of my teammates and I went to the bar that sponsors our team to lift a few eight ounce curls and celebrate our victory. Amid the enjoyable cajoling and imbibing, a buddy of mine was talking to me about his new girlfriend and said, “About a month ago when she and I first met, she promised me that she’d always come out to our games and join us afterwards. Tonight she called me and said that she had had a tough day at work and just wanted to go home and chill out. Ticked me off! She invited me to stop by after the game, but I told her I had a tough day too. I don’t think this is going to work. She came to all the other games! No…I don’t think this is going to work.”

I enjoy spending time with my buddy, albeit that he tends to be an all-or-nothing kind of person. And as we discussed his thoughts and feelings about his girlfriend not coming to our game, I shared with him that it might be helpful for him to remember that almost everything in life is within a range. “We do have a few things that are all-or-nothing such as death and pregnancy. You either are…or you aren’t,” I added. “Even being ‘near death’ is not death.” He understood what I was suggesting – “So it’s like tonight when I made one error in the game, I said, ‘I played a terrible game tonight’.” As I smiled and clinked his glass with mine, I said with a bit of sarcasm, “Exactly, nobody noticed the great catch you made in the third inning or the three-run home run you hit in the fifth.”

An interesting article entitled What ‘All-or-Nothing” Says About You, captures my buddy’s approach and what I think is underlying his difficulties in his adult loving relationships: “A recent study conducted at Yale University found that people who think about their partner in fluctuating terms of all good or all bad suffered from poor self-esteem. They also tended to get into relationships quickly and idealized their partners as being better than they really were in reality. Then when they perceived even the smallest of faults in their partner, they tended to withdraw into themselves in an attempt to avoid feelings of disappointment. Overly critical, all-or-nothing thinkers stifle their own needs until their lack of fulfillment explodes into criticisms and resentments. Over time they may not have any idea what they’re looking for in a partner.”

In my contemporary romance novels, I occasionally address this phenomenon. For example, in my recent novel, If Ever Again…It’ll be for Love, when Diane and Michael were on vacation in Jamaica for a week, where and when they met, she thought he was perfect. When they returned to the real world, however, the first time he was unable to do something she invited him to do (he had a business meeting) she seriously considered ending their relationship.

In my pop-psych book, Living Life, Anyway, in Chapter 7 when discussing “Living Life, Trustingly” I talk about some of the vicissitudes of all-or-nothing, dichotomous kinds of thinking. Below is that part of that chapter that I want to share with you.

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“Sometimes our relationships with other people take on “all or nothing” kinds of considerations. Now and then I will hear someone say, “I am either going to spend the rest of my life with Tommy or I am going to leave him by the end of next week,” “If I can’t trust my boss in every way, then I can’t trust him in any way,” and “If he doesn’t want to spend the entire weekend with me, then I’ll tell him not to come at all.” Also known as “dichotomous thinking,” this kind of thought processing easily can erode potentially good relationships because it focuses on one of two extremes, and that is not always a fair way of evaluating or putting expectations on people. To illustrate, it may be reasonable for your boss to trust you to lock up the office on Friday afternoon, but not to take an important client out for drinks on a Saturday night. Likewise, it may be reasonable for a busy person with an important sales meeting on Monday morning to want to spend Friday evening through Sunday midday with you, and not want to stay with you until Sunday night. And when situations such as these bother you or confuse you, try to remember that there is a good possibility that the person may very well be making his or her decision because of many things other than you. “After all,” as one of my students poignantly said to me, “there are more important things in the world other than myself, inasmuch as I would like to believe otherwise.” (pp. 58-59)

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Question: Have you ever had difficulties in an adult loving relationship because you or your partner was engaging in all-or-nothing kinds of thinking?



Cole Reising said...

Hi Bill -- don't have an answer per say to your question, but I came to this post first to read as it captured my interest. I love your points and how you tie them in with your stories.

Hope your doing great!

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hi Cole,
Thanks for stopping by -- always great to have you as a guest.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill,

Thanks for a very insightful article. I used to be in a relationship with a "All-or-Nothing" man for 6 years. The dynamics you describe very closely match the issues I faced at that time. Even though, I did absolutely my best to match the super high expectations imposed on me and our relationship, somewhere down the line, (due to some less than perfect circumstances in our lives), he grew highly critical of the smallest slip-ups .....

To cut a long story short, 2 years after our break-up the "All-or-Nothing" attitude is still very much there, but dressed under the more flattering description: "Pride". My attitude is that being together with someone for 6 years shouldnt be thrown away so lightly, ultimately that can be one of your closest friends and ally since they know you so so well. So, I have tried to extend my hand and break through his ice curtain but I have only come back with red-burned cold fingers.

Luckily for me, after I became single, a string of highly eligible bachelors started knocking on my door and I feel liked and loved more than ever.

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello Anonymous,
Healing six years of scars and re-learning how to relate to people in loving relationships takes time. Nonetheless, it sounds like you’ve turned that corner and are moving forward… that’s terrific!
Whenever a family member, friend or client asks me about someone they’re interested in, I suggest that in adult loving relationships there are only two questions: (1) is he or she good for you? And (2) is he or she good to you?
Hang in there and enjoy your new journey!