054: Interpersonal Model (Part 1) — “And It’s All Your Fault!” Healing Troubled Relationships


In this podcast, David and Fabrice begin the first in a series of podcasts on how to transform troubled relationships into loving ones–if that’s what you want to do!

David begins with the story of how he got into working with troubled couples as well as individuals with troubled relationships shortly after his first book, Feeling Good, was published. Because cognitive therapy was beginning to generate excitement worldwide as the first drug-free treatment for depression, everyone thought it might also be effective for other kinds of problems, including troubled relationships.

And there were fairly good reasons to suspect that cognitive therapy might be helpful. When you’re in conflict with a loved one, friend, colleague or stranger who you can’t get along with, you’ve probably noticed that you will usually have negative thoughts like these running through your brain:

  1. It’s all his fault. (Blame, All-or-Nothing Thinking)
  2. She’s a jerk. (Labeling, Should Statement, Mental Filter, Hidden Should Statement)
  3. He’ll never change! (Fortune Telling, All-or-Nothing thinking, Discounting the Positive, Emotional Reasoning)
  4. All she cares about his herself. (Mind-Reading, Discounting the Positive, Mental Filter, Over generalization)
  5. I’m right and he’s wrong about this! (Blame, All-or-Nothing Thinking)
  6. She shouldn’t be like that. (Should Statement, Blame)

Sound familiar?

And as you can see, these thoughts contain all the same kinds of cognitive distortions that depressed individuals have, as I’ve indicated in parentheses. If you’re familiar with the cognitive distortions, you may be able to pinpoint even more than the ones I’ve listed. The only difference is that when you’re in conflict with someone, the distortions will usually be directed at the person you’re not getting along with, rather than yourself.

Although these thoughts will usually be distorted, you may not realize this (or even care) when you’re upset. You’ll probably be convinced that the person you’re mad at really is a jerk, or really is to blame, or really is wrong. In addition, these thoughts will tend to function as self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, if you think someone is a self-centered jerk, you will usually treat him or her in a hostile or unfriendly way, and then he or she will get defensive and hostile, and will look like a jerk. Then you’ll tell yourself, “See, I was right about him (or her)!”

David got excited about these insights and wrote a draft of a book called Couple in Conflicts, Couples in Love, and sent it to his editor in New York to see what she thought. The new book was about how to modify the distorted thoughts and self-defeating beliefs that trigger and magnify relationship problems. David’s editor called the next day with an offer of a large advance, exclaiming excitedly that the book was sure to be a #1 best seller.

David was ecstatic, and set out to edit the book for publication. In the meantime, he was using the new approach with troubled couples as well as individuals with relationship conflicts. But after six months of repeated treatment failures, he concluded that cognitive therapy was not at all effective in the treatment of relationship problems. The approach sounded great on paper, but it didn’t work in the real world.

David sadly returned the advance to his publisher and cancelled the contract. He promised that if he could figure out why cognitive therapy didn’t work for troubled relationships, and if he could find a better treatment method, he’d write another book. Figuring it out took 25 years or research and clinical experience, and the name of the book he eventually did publish is called Feeling Good Together, now available on

David and Fabrice then discuss some of the most popular theories about the causes of relationship problems:

  1. The skill deficit theory: We want loving relationships, but don’t have the communication and negotiation skills to get close to the people we’re not getting along with.
  2. The barrier theory: We want loving relationships, but something gets in the way, such as unrealistic expectations or distorted thoughts about the person we’re not getting along with. Other barrier theories include the idea that women are from Venus and men are from Mars popularized by John Gray, Deborah Tannen, and others. According to this theory, women use language to express feelings, and men use language to solve problems, so they both end up frustrated and not understanding one another. Another popular theory is the idea that we project childhood conflicts with our parents onto others, and thus recreate the same dysfunctional patterns repeatedly in every new relationship.
  3. The self-esteem theory: You can’t develop loving relationships with others if you don’t know how to love yourself.
  4. The motivational theory: We have troubled relationships because we WANT them!

David emphasizes that the first three theories are all very optimistic–they all are based on the idea that human beings are basically good and want loving, peaceful, joyous relationships. But something gets in the way, such as a barrier of some type, or the lack of communication skills, or the lack of self-esteem. And they are all very hopeful, since we can teach people better skills, or remove the barriers to intimacy, or help people develop better self-esteem.

David also emphasizes that these theories have only two problems. First, the theories that they’re based on are false. Second, the treatments that have evolved from these theories are not effective. David and Fabrice describe research on the validity (or total lack of validity) for these theories as well as the effectiveness (or lack of effectiveness) of the treatment techniques and schools of therapy that have evolved from these theories.

David then discusses the motivational theory which is much less optimistic about human nature, and emphasizes that humans have competing positive and negative motives.

In the next podcast, they will discuss the basics assumptions of the new treatment approach David has created for relationship problems, based on the motivational theory.


Baucom, D. H., & Hoffman, J. A. (1986). The effectiveness of marital therapy: Current status and application to the clinical setting. In N. S. Jacobson and A. Gurman (Eds.), Clinical handbook of marital therapy (pp. 597-620). New York: Guilford Press.

Baucom, D. H., & Epstein, N. (1990). Cognitive behavioral marital therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.Burns, D. D., Sayers, S. S., & Moras, K. (1994). Intimate Relationships and Depression: Is There a Causal Connection? Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62(5): 1033 – 1042.

Burns, D. D. (1993; revised 1999). Ten Days to Self – Esteem. New York: Quill. 1993 – present. (Also published worldwide).

Burns, D. D. (2009). Feeling Good Together. The Secret of Making Troubled Relationships Work.  New York: Broadway Books.

Iverson, A., & Baucom, D. H. (1990).  Behavioral marital therapy outcomes: Alternative interpretations of the data. Behavior Therapy, 21, 129-138.

Spangler, D., & Burns, D. D. (1999). Is it true that women are from Venus and men are from Mars? A test of gender differences in dependency and perfectionism. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 13(4): 339-357.


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Thanks! David



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