Center for Shared Insight, PC

3 Reasons Black and White Thinking Can Damage a Relationship

September 6, 2017
Posted By: Kristen Hick, Psy.D.
Man walking away from woman

Do you think in black and white or fifty shades of gray? Do you prefer absolutes, certainty, and a clear relationship path or a more spontaneous relationship journey? Do you spend too much time thinking about the ultimate outcome of a relationship rather than simply embracing the moments with your loved one?

Black and white thinking is a common relationship dynamic or defense mechanism, usually with one of the parties involved. This “either/or” thinking might include needing absolute answers about where the relationship stands, is going, and the associated timelines. It can sometimes manifest as a preoccupation with the next relationship milestone or the relationship status.

Black and white thinking can make it difficult for a relationship to endure, and here are three reasons why.

1. Premature decision-making

If you suffer from black-and-white thinking, you desire certainty. Therefore, you put situations and/or people in clear buckets like good/bad, healthy/destructive, all/nothing or right/wrong. When you fail to see the gray, it’s harder to come to a resolution about a relationship situation that might have been undesirable for a day, because your tendency is to categorize the entire relationship as “bad” after an “off” day with your partner.

Notice your desire to make a decision before you have all the facts and see the situation from all perspectives. A bad day in a relationship does not mean that the relationship is doomed. If you feel the tendency to “quit” on a relationship or break up with a partner after he/she upsets you or you have a bad day together, black-and-white thinking is probably the culprit. Instead, focus on the lessons in that conflict and how you can plan to overcome future, similar problems to keep the relationship strong.

2. Lack of compromise

Successful relationships are about give and take. They are about finding middle ground or a reasonable compromise. When you come into a relationship with unrealistic, predetermined needs and a desired path, you’ll be less likely to step into your partner’s shoes and see things from his/her point of view. And, empathy is a key element in a healthy relationship.

For instance, let’s pretend that you firmly believe that it’s important to wait six months before introducing your new partner to your kids. When the opportunity arises for a great family outing around month five, and your partner really wants to attend, if you are a black-and-white thinker, you might refuse to include your partner in that opportunity because it falls before that six-month threshold. This lack of compromise means you all miss out on the opportunity to enjoy the time together despite the relationship going really well in month five, along with the general sense that both parties are ready for that next milestone.

Remember: boundaries, such as timelines, are important in creating healthy relationships, but you also need to look at the “grey” area too, such as how do they treat you and others, how consistent are they, how do you feel about the person, and are you on a similar path together?

Choosing “the gray” or the middle ground in the situation might be including your partner in a casual way on a night out with your kids without making it feel like a giant, scary milestone for everyone involved. Perhaps you meet at the family-friendly event, and behave more like friends as a compromise for a one-month early introduction to the children. Choosing a shade of gray in this situation means choosing a compromise for the happiness and health of everyone involved.

3. Unrealistic Expectations

When you are an all-or-nothing thinker, you want to define the relationship clearly. Yet, couples have their ups and downs and rigid thinking can easily set you up for unrealistic expectations. Dating someone with black and white thinking means added pressure that the relationship meet certain thresholds for time together, intimacy, and/or a level of perfection. These expectations aren’t realistic as people, as well as couples, have on days and off days, and can’t be held long-term to a certain expectation of perfection.


Black and white thinking can sometimes be confused with healthy boundaries, which are limitations you might set to ensure you remain healthy within the relationship. These vary from black-and-white thinking as they are set with the intention of creating a healthier relationship rather than establishing rigid ultimatums. Boundaries can and should exist without the need for all-or-nothing scenarios.

Recognizing the resistance to living in uncertainty, even just briefly, is the first step to transformation. Recognize your tendency to obsess about the small things. Find ways to sit with uncomfortable feelings or unknowns about the future, embracing the not-knowing, and coming to terms with a tendency to judge, obsess, control outcomes, and over analyze details will go a long ways to finding just a single shade of gray on the relationship spectrum.

Talking with a therapist about having an absolute mindset can help you identify and overcome such thinking patterns and the associated defense mechanisms. A neutral third party can help provide feedback on the process of shifting behaviors to make permanent change. To learn more about the way Center for Shared Insight can support this transformation, schedule a free consultation with our team of relationship therapists.

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