Cognition, Chaos and Relationship Betterment

Have you heard of “CBT” or “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” before? CBT is a very popular therapy today, and much of its popularity is due to the vast amount of empirical evidence backing it (Butler, et al., 2006; Hofmann, et al., 2012). CBT begins with an assessment of thought patterns and the behaviors that these thoughts fuel. It then teases these apart, to unveil which core beliefs are warping reality and making life feel worse. These core beliefs tend to be beliefs that don’t allow oneself to arrive at one’s goals, such as: “If I don’t do this perfectly, I may as well not do it,” “My husband finds me unlovable” or “Being vulnerable isn’t safe.” Once core beliefs are identified, CBT helps to figure out what thought patterns support the core beliefs, as well as what thought patterns support alternative, more helpful beliefs. Finally, once alternative thoughts are identified, CBT helps build these up and create a better life and better emotions with these better ways of thinking and being. 

The Book: Love is Never Enough

Many therapists and social workers use CBT skills to help their clients today. However, it’s not as common to hear about CBT being used for relationship and marriage therapy. Is this because CBT is made to help individuals, and not couples? No. In fact, the inventor of CBT, Dr. Aaron Beck, wrote a book on how CBT can help men and women improve their marriages: Love is Never Enough (Beck & Padesky, 1988).

Some of my articles over the next months will cover portions of this book. If we can take pieces of CBT and use them to improve real marriages today, our work is well worth it. Let’s begin by diving in to the first joinings of CBT with relationship work. 

CBT and Couples

In his book, Dr. Beck notices that some of his couple clients hold unhelpful core beliefs just like his anxious patients (Beck & Padesky, 1988). These couples tend to fixate on the bad things in their interactions, and, at the same time, to disregard the good interactions. This creates emotions, in each partner, of sadness, anger and dissatisfaction. Beck notes, again and again, that how we think determines how enjoyable our life is (Beck & Padesky, 1988, p. 2). When faced with fixation on the bad things, Beck says that the remedy is straightforward thinking. He paints an image of a happy marriage, where illogical reasoning, negative interpretations and symbolic meanings darken and deafen the path, while logical reasoning, gracious interpretations and straightforward meanings illuminate and ease the path (Beck & Padesky, 1988, p. 2). He also notes that, when walking a darkened path due to poor thought patterns, we tend to hurt others along the way.

Dr. Beck warns that, if not checked and corrected, these negative core beliefs can grow upon themselves, reaching a point of no return (Beck & Padesky, 1988, p. 3). Therefore, awareness and mindfulness for one’s thoughts, their impacts and the evidence against the negative ones can be powerful tools. If we can catch and work with our negative thoughts, we can remake them into positive thoughts.

Chaos Pulls Us Apart

If thoughts have this much sway over a relationship’s success or failure, wellbeing or ailment, pleasure or pain, then shouldn’t thinking about one’s thoughts be a central part of married life, in order to aid it? Yes, and yet, so many of us partner up and take our thoughts as facts. For example, the same thing that we thought of as endearing in our beloved during the first months of dating becomes the thing we think of as insufferable during the later years of marriage. It’s the same stimulus, but now different thoughts. And it’s those thoughts that breed resentment to the point of breaking. Acknowledging this, Dr. Beck notes that “Love is not enough” (Beck & Padesky, 1988, p. 5). There are other forces in our lives, and these are enough to pull us apart from each other, no matter the pull of love. Clinical psychologist, Dr. Jordan Peterson, might call these other forces chaos (2018). Chaos, in Peterson’s view, is the force of the unknown, which opposes order. There are ways that chaos can appear in a romantic partnership. Here are two examples:

Imagine communication that exits one partner’s mouth, travels across the air, enters another partner’s ear and is misheard with a completely different intention than actually intended. This is chaotic. In this example there is disorder, warped meaning and pain coming out of the disarray. An argument ensues. If the miscommunication continues, the argument escalates, ending eventually with hurt feelings, if not worse. If this pattern continues over time, it’s easier for each partner to build an unhelpful core belief that creates harmful feelings and behaviors. “We always fight.”

Imagine the aforementioned example of what was once endearing becoming insufferable. This is chaotic. The meaning of the once-endearing thing has changed, and it has changed into something that does not match with the fact that you don’t believe you’re supposed to be married to someone insufferable. That’s chaos. That’s pain. That’s out of order. 

What Then?

The way to save a marriage from this chaos and pain, then, is acknowledging negative thoughts, acknowledging that those negative thoughts might not be factual, constructing alternative positive thoughts, and intentionally choosing actions that bolster the positive thoughts. It is creating order again. It is discovering positive core beliefs that match the fact that you’re married to this person. It is, essentially, CBT applied to marriage. And it is what I love to help my married clients with in therapy. Dr. Beck notes that couples who choose to forgive each other’s quirks, are patient and generous with each other and take responsibility over their individual negative thoughts are on the right track to creating a flourishing relationship, set in happy order through the management of thinking.

In future Tuesday Series articles, I will be digging further into this idea, including examples, applications and solutions. Subscribe to my mailing list, below, for updates.


Beck, A. T., & Padesky, C. A. (1988). Love is never enough. New York: Penguin. 

Butler, A. C., Chapman, J. E., Forman, E. M., & Beck, A. T. (2006). The empirical status of cognitive-behavioral therapy: a review of meta-analyses. Clinical psychology review, 26(1), 17-31.

Hofmann, S. G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I. J., Sawyer, A. T., & Fang, A. (2012). The efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy: A review of meta-analyses. Cognitive therapy and research, 36(5), 427-440.

Peterson, J. B. (2018). 12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos. Random House Canada.

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