How Black and White Thinking Creates Relationship Crashes

by Coach Ellie

 More than 800,000 blind-spot accidents occur each year, according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report. Blind-spot accidents occur when you do not factor in the area around your car that you have no way to see with your eyes or mirrors.

But you know how to avoid this kind of accident, right? First, you acknowledge that cars have blind spots. Secondly, you do not fight this fact. You do not blame any of your passengers or the other cars on the road for this undeniable truth. You do not feel shame for having a car with this limitation.

Instead, you deal with it. Even if you are fortunate enough to have a car with a blind-spot detection system, you look around, check your mirrors and then proceed with caution.

Similarly, if you do not check yourself for the blind spots caused by black-and-white thinking, relationship wrecks can happen. Absolutist thinking creates a blind spot that leads to collisions involving harsh outbursts and negative emotions.

What is black-and-white thinking?

Black-and-white thinking happens when you divide everything and everyone into two categories. A person is either “good” or “bad.” A hero or a villain. A winner or a loser.

Nuance is a no-no.

Seeing things this way keeps you comfortable. It protects you from considering things that may challenge your assumptions. In more extreme situations, keeps you from dithering when you need to act immediately. Outside of emergencies, though, black-and-white thinking is not helpful. It stops your curiosity. Instead of allowing yourself to ask questions, you wall yourself off, safe in the knowledge that your beliefs are the right ones.

This keeps you feeling snug as a bug in a rug — in the short term.

Over time, black-and-white thinking becomes tragic and even unsafe.

As it happens, oversimplification complicates things. When you are unwilling to see an opposing point of view, your own life gets small. You become juvenile and defensive.

You squeeze your eyes shut, clap your hands over your ears and drown out contradictory info by saying la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la. Conflicting assessments are unwelcome. You are shielding yourself from reality.

You become McGruff the Orwellian Crime Dog, snapping at others for their thought crimes.

Life becomes more about duty and obligation and less about exploration and fun. Your relationships are disappointing because very few people meet your exacting standards.

For example, let’s say the person you are dating neglects to text you good night. You can turn this into a big deal — a disaster, even. In this absolutist frame of mind, no text message doesn’t just equal no text message. It’s hard evidence that they don’t really care about you after all. It’s time to talk, and it probably means Splitsville!

No relationship worth having can survive this harshness.

We are, each of us, a complex mix of positive and not-so-positive characteristics. Black-and-white thinking erases this fact. It makes us unable to let ourselves and others be anything less than perfect.

Engaging in zero-sum reasoning cripples and exhausts you. Never seeing the middle-ground makes you childish.

Nuance, on the other hand, is about maturity.

Gray-area thinking lets you be open to reality as it is, not as you create it. Paradoxically, this also lets you be much less anxious. You can stop clinging to one way of thinking. When you are free to consider different angles and alternative points of view, new possibilities arise.

When you allow yourself moderate thought patterns, you invite cooperation and mutual understanding. How nice is that?

There is no need to demonize yourself or others.

Your partner not sending you a “good night” text could mean many things other than that the relationship is on the brink. Maybe they fell asleep on the couch after a hard day at work. Perhaps they thought it would be rude or presumptuous to send a late-night text. Possibly you never articulated just how much a quick check-in means to you.

There are endless reasons for any one person’s behavior. However, black-and-white thinking limits you to the bleakest ones. You start to believe that if news is bad, it must be true.

Image by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.

Meanwhile, in fact, the best parts of life are born out of tenderness and graciousness.

When you allow yourself and others to be vulnerable and imperfect, you allow connection. After all, isn’t it human nature to root for the little guy? Comedians don’t make us laugh when they brag about winning an Oscar and making seven figures. The pie-in-the-face moments are the relatable ones.

If you let your partner or the person you are dating know what is meaningful for you, like receiving a little text before bedtime, you are being vulnerable. You are flipped on your back, like a Schnauzer exposing its belly. You are relinquishing control.

It’s then up to you to either reap the requested reward or to be mature enough to handle a potentially negative response. And you totally can. Coaching can help you get better at this.

If you lack a sense of self, you are unlikely to risk expressing your needs like that.

To save yourself from engaging in mucky emotions, you deploy the black-and-white thinking. You can cook up any story to make yourself the victim, thereby avoiding exposing your squishy parts.

Is black-and-white thinking always bad?


If you are crossing the street and suddenly a bus is headed straight for you, it’s a good idea to make that snap judgment. Run! However, outside immediate danger, black-and-white thinking doesn’t serve you well.

Absolutism is a quick but limited solution. In most circumstances, this kind of “A or B” limitation is a cognitive distortion. When you don’t leave space for option C, you miss out.

Sticking with the no-text-from-partner example, imagine you opted for the middle ground. If we assume they aren’t a jerk who never cared about you anyway. AND you do not discount your need for connection and just pretend like it did not hurt your feelings that they didn’t text you, what else is there? What other options can you think of here?

The question isn’t who needs to take the blame.

What are your needs, and how can you get them met? If you need to feel cared for and loved, but they don’t like to text at night, what else could you do to fill that need? What request (not demand) could you make of them or yourself?

Honestly, there are endless ways to get fulfilled that do not include manipulating others to do it your way. It’s about building a relationship with yourself so that you know what to ask for in the first place.


Black-and-white thinking blocks you from discovering new perspectives. Absolutes are gratifying when you are experiencing emotional overwhelm, but what feels like comfort at the time can push you into a corner, making for a stiflingly small life.

Choosing to view your own black-and-white thinking with compassion releases you. Just being aware that you have this tendency can help. The more you witness your thoughts, particularly your extreme ones, as mere thoughts, the better the chance you have to stay calm.

There is no need to condemn yourself or anyone else for this tendency. Without diving into child psychology, just knowing that black-and-white thinking is an oversimplified, outdated self-protection system can help you back off a bit.

You CAN take a breath and contemplate the gray.

New possibilities will emerge. It’s the same way you pause and check your side mirrors before merging into another lane of traffic. Once you know you have a blind spot, you can use that knowledge to avoid a crash.

Do you struggle with black-and-white thinking? Are you looking for clarity on your relationship issues? Schedule a no obligation, discovery conversation with me today.

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