Combating Cognitive Distortions

We live in a time of unprecedented marital instability. For example, currently in the United States there are slightly over 2 million marriages a year and slightly over 1 million divorces a year. For the Jews, the bad news is that rates of divorce have also increased dramatically in all segments of the Jewish community. The good news is that overall the Jewish community (and particularly individuals who identify with traditional Jewish values) show higher rates of marital stability.

(In contrast to an overall American divorce rate of 50%, the Jewish community has had a rate of approximately 25%. When one looks at synagogue-affiliated Jews – irrespective of denomination – the rate falls to approximately 13%. Estimates by Orthodox Rabbis are that the rate within their community, though rising, is now between 2 and 5%. A person's "years of Jewish education" significantly predicts the stability of their marriage. Similarly, Jews married to Jews – whether Jews by birth or by conversion – suffer half the divorce rate of Jews married to non-Jews.)

What has maintained that stability over the centuries?

That foundation has been a set of values, originally based on religious law, which infused even secular Jewish culture. One of these values concerns interpersonal conflict. Literally hundreds of Jewish writings over the ages warn us that sustained anger is forbidden, destructive and ultimately irrational. The primary point about anger is "Don't." It is understandable that we feel anger. It is understandable that we feel anger. But before we express it we must process it. However, before we express it in word or action, we are obligated to process that anger so that it is detoxified. We transform the energies of anger to positive purpose. For example: married people may need to express their needs and pain, to negotiate for what they want, to surrender and accept not getting what they want, or even to act unilaterally to protect their needs. Nonetheless they can do so without self-righteousness, contempt, and anger; they can even express sincere regret or understanding for the pain their actions may cause to their spouse.

As a clinical psychologist for nearly 40 years, I have found that the single greatest challenge faced by couples is how they handle their anger. How does one deal with the inevitable disagreements in marriage, without becoming angry? How can one disagree without being disagreeable?

Both modern cognitive psychology and traditional Jewish philosophy offer surprisingly compatible guidelines to neutralizing anger.

Cognitive psychology advises that people can resolve their own anger more easily if they realize that they are the person who creates the anger; typically, anger is not an inevitable response to something that came from the outside. It is not the external event that generated the anger, but rather the particular meaning that they put on that event.

Consider a relationship where a person feels embedded in his anger. Cognitive psychologists would assert that internally the person is making some negative statement about him or herself (perhaps unconsciously); it is that "self-statement" that perpetuates the anger. It might be: "If I put up with this, I'm a fool, a spineless victim, a failure." Frequently, the statement is irrational.

Secular cognitive psychologists assert that the source of people's psychological stress is their lack of an adequate life philosophy to deal with life's inevitable struggles. Where does a person seek out such a philosophy? May I suggest the Torah?

In this brief lesson, I will focus on one concept about anger that flows directly from Jewish tradition, namely, that interpersonal anger is always based on a cognitive distortion. The trigger for anger is an irrational thought. Frequently the thought is unconscious; nonetheless it influences our body and our emotions. For example, a woman may be angry at her husband who ignores her desire to receive flowers in honor of Shabbat. Internally, she may be thinking, "If he can ignore my clear desire for flowers, it means he doesn't love me. How can I love a man who doesn't love me?" In fact, it may well be that the husband loves his wife but is insensitive, or he may believe that it is a foolish waste of money to buy flowers. He would rather spend much more money to modernize her kitchen or to send her to a spa.

If she believes the second set of reasons for her husband's behavior, things can be negotiated calmly. She can accept that she needs to teach her husband. However, if she believes the "cognitive distortion" that he does not love her, there is nothing positive left to talk about.

Where do these cognitive distortions come from? Are they simply an accident, an error?

Torah warns us that we have inside us both a good inclination and an evil inclination. (The existence of such a destructive force inherent in man's nature was recognized by Freud only very late in his career, in Civilization and Its Discontents.) Anger is a very seductive and addictive force. The evil inclination utilizes negative emotions, such as fear and self-doubt, to generate anger. Underneath anger is fear about personal inadequacy. The evil inclination generates distorted thoughts that cause pain and fear. The evil inclination causes people to rationalize holding onto their anger. Therefore people need to scrutinize their angry impulses.

Anger is a very seductive, addictive force that presents itself as one's ally, similar to cocaine or alcohol. (Approximately 800 years ago, Rabbi Yehuda HaChasid warned of the addictive property of anger, in his classic text Sefer Chassidim.) One needs to ask, "What is driving me into anger? Why can't I either accept that I am not getting my way, or calmly negotiate, or take unilateral action, all without anger?" If you cannot discover the answer on your own, turn to a friend or counselor.

The 3rd century codification of the Oral Law (the "Mishnah") concludes with the statement: "G‑d has found that the only vessel that can hold His blessing for Israel is peace." When couples negotiate without anger they create loving solutions. May it be that we follow Torah guidelines to achieve marital harmony and thereby elicit the fulfillment of G‑d's explicit promise and ultimate blessing, the Final Redemption.