Relationships; Using REBT, the philosophical CBT, to solve relationship problems


“Remember that the best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other”

Dalai Lama

It is common for most of us at one point or another to have experienced difficulties or challenges in our personal relationships whether it is with your spouse, or partner. However when such problems become entrenched or habitual then people begin to feel stuck and a merry mix of negative emotions, such as anxiety, anger, hurt, depression, embarrassment, guilt, jealousy and envy.
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Some of the more common problems experienced in relationships could be: feeling anxious about a partner leaving for another, ending the relationship or thinking about infidelity or of an infidelity already. You may also experience anxiety about communicating your feelings in the right way and worry that you must always say things in the right way or with the right tone. There could be anxiety about a partner’s anger, anxiety about confrontation or irrational jealousy, where you track your partners every move, check text messages which may result in confrontation leading to aggressive behaviour, anger and hostility. It is also common to experience hurt where you think that your partner’s insensitive behaviour towards you implies lack of care and love. You also may experience feelings of guilt about past behaviours or wrong doings. You may also know that your partner’s behaviour towards you may be inappropriate. That you are being put down in public, in front of your friends but you do not know how to resolve it because you have low self-esteem about yourself.

These are some of the common problems we deal with in Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), one of the main schools of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT).

“There’s no evidence whatsoever that men are more rational than women. Both sexes seem to be equally irrational.”

Albert Ellis

At the heart of CBT is that our thoughts and beliefs provoke our emotional states and our behaviours. If your thoughts and beliefs about yourself or your partner are unhealthy then your feelings and behaviours within the relationship will also be unhealthy. Albert Ellis identified in his REBT model of CBT that our beliefs can be healthy or unhealthy. Ellis explained there are four identifiable properties of unhealthy beliefs, they tend to be: rigid, illogical, inconsistent with reality or untrue and not at all helpful. He recognised the imperative demand that something “should” or “should not be” was the foundation of unhealthy beliefs (other imperative language is, “ought to” , “got to” , “need to”, “must” , “have to” – listen out for yours – we all have our favourite!). Their healthy versions are flexible, logical, consistent with reality and helpful. Healthy beliefs are based in preferences with the rigidity taken out and sound like this: “ I strongly prefer that you answer all my texts immediately you get them but you don’t have to, I don’t like it but I can stand it, it does not mean you do not love me when you don’t”.
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If we accept that it is our beliefs that inform our perception and feelings and not the other person, we are able to take control of how we feel. We can check whether the beliefs we hold are healthy or unhealthy. Ellis considered that when you hold an unhealthy belief you are mostly going to experience an unhealthy negative emotion such as anxiety or jealousy.

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2, William Shakespeare

Essentially the message is that we are responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, our behaviours and the types of relationships that we put up with. When you don’t take this responsibility then it is likely that it will be projected on to your partner and you will believe that your partner is the “cause” of your feelings and for the way that you act. Common beliefs like ‘he made me feel this way,’ or ‘she makes me feel small,’ ‘he makes me shout,’ are rife, but this is not true. It is you that makes you feel how you do and makes you do, what you do.

So some basic techniques from CBT which you may find helpful as a starting point:

1) Accept that you are responsible for your own emotions and actions.

2) Communicate without pointing a finger, use expressions like, ‘I feel angry about…’ and not ‘You made me angry about…’ Accept you are responsible for your own emotions and actions within the relationship. Humans have a tendency to apportion blame to something or someone other than themselves. It’s important to accept that we are responsible for how we think and feel and our partners do not “make us feel” emotions. It is, generally, how we are thinking that creates those emotional responses and the subsequent behaviour.

3) Guilt can corrode relationships. If we begin to recognise that as human beings we are prone to making mistakes but that we can learn from these mistakes and change for the better, it allows us to be forgiving of ourselves and our partner. As we take emotional and behavioural responsibility we can judge our behaviour rather than our worth. Accept yourself as a valuable but imperfect human being, for example, accept that you are a fallible human being but you can learn from mistakes and change for the better.

4) Be assertive and not aggressive. Communicate your thoughts and feelings appropriately and not defensively. When you understand emotional and behavioural responsibility you recognise stating how you feel is valid and you are not responsible for how the other person reacts. You are responsible for your thoughts feelings and behaviours and your partner is responsible for theirs, including their feelings to what you may have said. Being assertive means that you have the courage of your own convictions but that you are also prepared to compromise if you see another person’s point of view.

5) Do think of the bigger picture and to remember to focus on your partner’s good qualities and demonstrate that. Often we can get embroiled in the small detail of what we like or dislike about our spouse and what is wrong with our situation. Step back and view the bigger picture as you consider your partner’s good qualities and demonstrate that in your behaviour. It’s very easy to slip into the habit of always complaining that this or that is not done or isn’t happening. Instead begin to notice what is happening as well.

6) Carry on with your own interests and hobbies. Your partner was attracted to you because of who you are – maintain your individuality throughout your relationship. Your hobbies and interests reflect who you are so don’t stop doing these because you’ve married or entered a relationship – it can lead to resentment if you do. It’s great to miss someone but how can you do that if they are always at your side and never doing their own thing?

7) When communicating with each other remain civil and respectful towards each other. It is very easy when we are disturbed by strong emotions to act out of those emotions, so when we are angry we tend to raise our voice, shout and sometimes bang the table imagining that we can be heard better. Agree a strategy of how you as a couple will manage difficult emotions. All relationships will have times when emotions run high so having an agreed strategy beforehand enables the communication to remain civil. This doesn’t mean suppressing your emotions; being angry yet in control and responding rationally is the aim. Tip: walking and talking when emotions are involved is a helpful way of remaining in control of your thoughts.

8) Continue to make small acts of thoughtfulness. Displaying thoughtfulness to your partner in small ways on a daily basis is an important part of a successful relationship. As you consider each other’s life experience and respond with small acts of kindness or thoughtfulness, a strong supportive relationship will grow rather than the one that is built on competitiveness.

“Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.”

Lao Tzu

REBT is a humanistic philosophical approach to life based in common sense. Albert Ellis’s book “How to stubbornly refuse to disturb yourself about absolutely anything, yes anything” is an excellent introduction to his philosophy, based in ancient Vedic, Buddhist and Stoic philosophical writings.

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