Challenging “All-or-Nothing” Thinking in Relationships

 By Kristen Quinones, LMSW

Maintaining healthy and strong relationships can be challenging at times. Every person comes with their own background, belief system, personality, interests, and emotional needs. The complexity of people's communication styles and views on what constitutes a healthy relationship can often differ so much from our own that it can create conflict. This may be especially challenging to navigate for individuals coping with anxiety or depression.

Questions that may arise in one's mind during conflict may be:

  1. Why won't my friend text me back right away?

  2. Why wasn't I invited to that event when my other friend was?

  3. Why didn't they reply to my Snapchat when they're posting on their Story all day?

  4. Why didn't they come out for my birthday?

These questions not only stir up more anxiety, but begin to make us question our relationships and their value. Here is where dangerous all-or-nothing thinking comes into play.

  1. Why won't my friend text me back right away? They must not want me to talk to me anymore.

  2. Why wasn't I invited to that event when my other friend was? They must be trying to cut me out of their life. I wasn't important enough to them to be included.

  3. Why didn't they reply to my Snapchat when they're posting on their Story all day? They're ignoring me and think I'm annoying.

  4. Why didn't they come out for my birthday? They don't care about me or our friendship anymore.

This type of thinking is dangerous because it completely disregards evidence that may challenge it.  These flash judgements can make us feel badly about ourselves, badly about our friends, and sometimes encourage us to end friendships prematurely. With all-or-nothing we often miss the gray area. The gray area should include evidence to support and/or dispute the all-or-nothing claim.

  1. Why won't my friend text me back right away?  GRAY AREA: It's frustrating they won't answer, but their phone can be off or on silent, they could be driving or on a call, they could be in a meeting, or they could be waiting for some down time to send me a thoughtful reply. In the past they always answer me eventually.

  2. Why wasn't I invited to that event when my other friend was? GRAY AREA: I feel hurt to be excluded. Maybe they made these plans quickly and were careless in who they texted. Maybe they thought they invited me or assumed another friend invited me. Maybe they wanted their own one on one time. Maybe they didn't think I would be interested in the event.

  3. Why didn’t they reply to my Snapchat when they're posting on their Story all day? Maybe they're enjoying themselves in the moment and plan to reply later. Maybe they did not believe my message warranted a reply.

  4. Why didn't they come out for my birthday? Maybe they were having a bad day or not feeling well or short on money or going through their own mental health struggles.

Trying to challenge your thinking into the gray area should soothe anxiety and open up the possibility that this one situation doesn't make your friend “all bad.” Ask yourself, “Most of the time, are they a good friend? Do they try their best to be a good friend? Are they struggling with their own communication issues? Do they know I feel this way?”

Thinking these types of situations through should help you organize your thoughts in a productive way so you can effectively communicate your feelings with these friends and resolve the issues. This will also lead to feeling more connected to them, more open with them, and emotionally closer.

Kristen Quinones, LMSW is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like to work on maintaining healthy relationships, visit cobbpsychotherapy.com to learn more about how therapy can help.