Muddy Minds in Marriage

In my last Tuesday Series article, Cognition, Chaos and Relationship Betterment, I introduced topics from the book Love is Never Enough by Aaron T. Beck (1988). Today’s article will continue digging into the connection between thoughts and successful relationships by looking at where it all goes wrong initially.

If, indeed, it is the accumulation of unhelpful cognitions that can ultimately ruin a marriage, cognitions are then powerful enough that they must be investigated with plenty of mindfulness, curiosity and reframing tools if necessary. This investigation begins, though, in the origin of unhelpful cognitions.

The Origin of Unhelpful Cognitions

What gets in the way, that our thoughts can end up unhelpful to our relationship? Beck notes that the human mind is inbuilt with a tendency to exaggerate what we interpret from other people’s words and actions (1988, pg. 17). When we’re already in a negative mood — grumpy, hurt, disappointed, angry, offended, defensive — we are primed to exaggerate in a negative direction.

Think of it like this. Our brains are plastered with a mud of our current emotion or state of mind. Data from our partner doing something comes into our eyes and ears. That data from our partner passes into our brain through the mud and gets coloured by the mud. We then look at the data and misinterpret it because of how our muddy state of mind has coloured it, but we don't notice we are misinterpreting it!

As our exaggerations and misinterpretations build up or repeat often, it becomes easier to interpret the whole person of our partner negatively. It’s then not unlikely that we will fight against such a negative partner with words or behaviors of our own, even if what we’re fighting is just a thousand layers of our improper cognitions, not our real partner. Our partner is then faced with our rudeness, which leads them to have a “mud” of defensiveness, likely leading them to store up negative cognitions as well, if they’re not careful. Can you see the likely cycle here? That first over-exaggeration due to our negative mood was the seed for relationship breakdown. 

It is quite natural to exaggerate when we interpret others’ words and behaviors. It's also natural to not realize we are doing it. You’re not a bad guy if you catch yourself misinterpreting through your own mud. In fact, catching yourself is the most important first step. It takes training, practice and lots of intention to form a habit of being mindful of your cognitions as they arrive to ensure you aren’t exaggerating them. (Note also that exaggerating in a positive direction can still be detrimental, for example, in positively exaggerating the behaviors of an abuser with whom you are infatuated. It is accurate interpretations of the data that we are after.) 

A Starting Place

A starting place for this process of interpreting accurately is believing that your interpretations can indeed be wrong. What are some times you’ve misinterpreted? Has someone exaggerated what you meant once in their own mind? What happened? Have you noticed you interpret things differently when you're grumpy? On a scale of 0-100%, how much do you really believe that your interpretations can be exaggerated? Why do you believe that amount?

If you can get to a place where you do genuinely believe that your cognitions and interpretations can sometimes be exaggerated or misguided, you are on the right track for being able to catch and reframe them when they are, and trust them when they are not.

Here are some statements that may be helpful in the process of coming to believe that your interpretations can be exaggerated:

  1. It is not possible for me to always know with perfect accuracy the state of mind of my partner when they say words or do behaviors
  2. My mind uses its own coding system to interpret my partner in order to understand the data
  3. If I am in a certain muddy state of mind, I may be more likely to misinterpret my partner’s words or behaviors
  4. Just because I feel my interpretation is correct does not necessarily mean it is accurate, since I may be temporarily unable to notice my "mud" while I'm upset
  5. Questioning whether my interpretations are muddied or accurate can help me figure out what to do with my interpretations, rather than just believing them all off the bat

In future articles, I will be detailing what you can do when you catch yourself with a possibly exaggerated interpretation in order to reframe it and help your relationship.

If you want help figuring out your own "mud" and how to clear it, with or without your partner, consider booking a betterment therapy session.


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

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