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It’s not just a matter of black or white

Image: 123RF

The black-and-white mindset — a polarised thought process also known as dichotomous thinking or all-or-nothing — is a common thinking error that ravages many marriages.

This happens when you see your marriage as either completely positive or completely negative, or your spouse as never doing things or as always doing things.

When your mind is thinking in absolute all-or-nothing terms, usually words like “always”, “never”, “every”, “nothing”, “either or” are used.

You don’t see things holistically, but only as right or wrong, good or bad, black or white, and middle ground is not considered.

Instead, you feel that they never listen to you; or they’re always displaying selfish behaviours; or they tell lies every time; or they do nothing around the house.

However, this is probably not the reality.

This thinking pattern turns spouses who “suffer” from it into bitter perfectionists who get emotionally irritated by the smallest deviations from unreachable expectations.

All-or-nothing thinking usually comes with you convincing yourself that things should be different (read perfect) and if they’re not, your spouse has something to do with it.

But the world is not an either/or place.

And when life happens in the midst of your black-and-white faulty thinking, you are constantly irritated and frustrated since many things — in life generally and marriage specifically — aren’t as black-and-white as you believe they should be.

Furthermore, people’s lives are full of shades of grey.

By seeing the world in black-and-white, rather than in the complexity that it actually is, you make it challenging for yourself to separate good from bad, right from wrong, and beautiful from ugly.

Why this poisonous thinking?

It’s likely because you have a perfectionist personality, where everything must be done very well, in order and very neatly — and anything short means the whole thing must be thrown out.

Furthermore, you may also be behaving in this manner to alleviate the stress and tension it causes you when your spouse’s statements or actions don’t make sense to you: How could she not know that always leaving dishes in the sink drives me nuts? Or when they don’t fulfil your needs: He never supports me and I’m always left to fend for myself.

The extremes of this type of thinking then reduce emotional tension by giving you a convenient, easy-to-understand way to explain your spouse’s behaviours that disturb you.

So, in the face of these inconsistencies, you attempt to simplify how you view your spouse in your mind with all-or-nothing thinking.

This is about self-protection: “It’s not my fault. I’m not the one who always falls asleep.”

You need to explain to yourself why your needs aren’t being met and why you’re not the culprit.

But, unfortunately, black-and-white thinking is far more destructive than protective.

When you tell your spouse, “You always...” or “You never...” we can guarantee that you and your spouse will not be discussing the real issues.

You would have forced your spouse to defend themselves: “What do you mean I always leave dishes in the sink?” And the whole conversation deteriorates from there.

The following are just a few of the ways this type of thinking could poison your marriage:

Destroys confidence

The all-or-nothing thought pattern in marriage is exhausting, and will thus send your marriage through constant ups and downs.

Your spouse will always come short, feel less-than and live with a dented self-confidence.

You’re likely going to be highly critical of them. And your consistent criticism will not only cause a rift between the two of you, but will also cause serious insecurities in the marriage.

Faulty perception of your spouse

When your spouse doesn’t live up to your all-or-nothing expectations, you may begin to see them in a negative light when their human weaknesses surface.

Actually, many times, you’d even believe you married wrong.

And that belief, though you may suppress it, will always surface above your pretences.

Now, imagine their insecurity in the marriage and the walls they’d build around themselves owing to your dichotomous thinking.

You’ll rob yourself of fully experiencing the reality of who they are, and what your marriage could authentically be.

This can cause the two of you to grow apart and even lead you to resent your spouse so much that the marriage fails. 


Black-and-white thinking can prevent you from seeing your spouse’s point of view for what it really is.

As such, they’ll likely feel as though you’ll never understand where they come from, or that you disregard their feelings.

Furthermore, conflict resolution will also be quite challenging in your marriage.

Unnecessary drama

With black-and-white thinking, any small imperfection turns your marriage as well as your life into a big drama.

A small disagreement or a normal “bad hair day” that’s common in marriages, may lead to impulsive decisions that could throw the baby out with the water.

Divorce, even though you wouldn’t necessarily want it, is always imagined in your mind.

You also become judgmental. If your spouse makes one mistake or has one undesirable quality for instance, you may view them as being entirely bad.

You easily misdiagnose issues. More often than not, your mind tries to convince you that things are much darker and terrible than they actually are.

Missed growth opportunities

Simplifying things into easy, binary terms robs you of much of the complexity that makes marriage so rich.

When you see the world in black-and-white, it distorts your thinking, as you may view a situation as being catastrophic or entirely negative, when in reality, there’s good and bad in most situations and in all of us.

Because you’re not perfect, life rarely is perfect. In fact, no emotionally healthy person would expect you to be perfect.

That can only be an expectation from people who suffer from the same cognitive distortions and people who are unhappy with themselves — as you are when you think in absolute terms.

But you can be happy, even when life is not perfect. Being realistic in your marriage means seeing yourself and your spouse on a continuum of strengths and weaknesses.

Being in a healthy marriage means that you don’t see your spouse in all-or-nothing terms.

You see them as a complete human being with their own life experiences, dogmas, values and a set of beliefs that frame how they view and interpret the world.

It’s not about right or wrong. It’s just how they’ve experienced life.

Accept that in the backdrop of your own complex journey.

Then a healthy and fulfilling marriage could be born from there as you grow in love together.


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