People will inevitably face all sorts of adversities such as injustice, loss, infidelity, illness, and ultimately death. REBT incorporates elements of Stoic philosophy and is the cognitive behavioral psychotherapy that is particularly useful when one’s worst nightmare occurs.
In REBT we distinguish between healthy negative emotions and unhealthy negative emotions. Thinking which is rational helps us to function and cope in the real world and change what we can change or to move on if we cannot change the adversity. Healthy negative emotions provide the motivational fuel to change what we can in the external world or change something that maybe modifiable within ourselves. Healthy negative emotions result from straight thinking. Such thinking involves holding flexible and non-extreme beliefs about adversity.
Unhealthy negative emotions result from crooked and extreme beliefs about the adversity encountered. Here is an example of crooked thinking or rigid and extreme beliefs about an adversity: “Because it is undeserved, unjust, and undesirable therefore my partner absolutely should not cheat on me. His betrayal is unbearable.” In REBT we would point out that this belief largely contributes to the unhealthy anger, shame, and hurt people usually feel when their spouses are unfaithful. As an REBT psychologist I would first establish and show my patient how a healthier set of emotions might be healthy anger, disappoint, and sorrow. I would point out that unhealthy anger, shame and hurt would likely motivate the betrayed spouse to engage in a wide range of self-defeating behaviors (e.g. shutting down the channel of communication, impulsively speaking of terminating the relationship, perhaps violence or other self-defeating displays of unhealthy anger) in response to the infidelity. This maybe a statistically “normal” response but it is not necessarily an effective or strategic response to infidelity. I would also show how healthy anger, disappointment, and sorrow would facilitate resilience in the face of infidelity.
The most important part of the facilitation of resilience would come from the discussion of the belief “Because it is undeserved, unjust and undesirable therefore my partner absolutely should not cheat on me”. In our Socratic dialogue I would show the patient that this seemingly rational belief is dysfunctional, a myth and illogical. The discussion would point out that holding this belief largely leads to dysfunctional feelings of unhealthy anger, shame, hurt and subsequent self-defeating behavior. I would also show the patient that this belief appears to be a truism but in fact it is a myth. Yes it would be better if one’s spouse honored the marital commitment and had NOT cheated on their spouse. Nonetheless, I would show the patient that if this rigid belief were true their spouse would be compelled not to engage in infidelity. However, as is so clearly and sadly the case no such force exists which compels marital fidelity. Lastly, I would show the patient how it is an illogical statement to go from the premise that because something is unjust it therefore absolutely should not exist. This is what is called a non sequitur as the conclusion does not logically follow from the premise stated in the first part of the belief. A logical belief would be “Because it is undeserved, unjust, and undesirable this is why I am so disappointed with my partner for having cheated on me. I wish he had not done this but there is no absolute law that compels faithfulness. I can choose to move on or allow for the repair of the relationship but the reality is that these unjust betrayals happen in marriages. People are human and do not always live up to their important commitments. Now how is it best for me to respond to this betrayal”? This is straight thinking and it leads to resilience. Why you ask? Because the feelings which come from these beliefs lead to healthy negative emotions which will lead the betrayed partner to acknowledge the reality while remaining in an emotional state that enables her to either allow for the repair of the relationship or to move on from it in the pursuit of a more committed, faithful partner.
Next I would show my patient how her belief “His action is unbearable” is an extreme belief that leads to dysfunctional behavior, is a myth, and is illogical. The alterative non-extreme belief would be “His action, despite being very painful, is not unbearable.” This belief about a husband’s infidelity is functional, a truth, and logical. This too is straight thinking.
Please keep in mind that I am not excusing infidelity and advocating not holding husbands, wives, or significant others accountable for their betrayal. Betrayal is unethical and REBT espouses ethical behavior. What I am advocating is straight thinking in the service of healthy emotional and behavioral reactions so that fallible humans can live well with each other when betrayals and other nightmares occur.
Ellis argued that humans can think in a straight way but when it is most needed it can be very difficult to think well. Our default is rigid and extreme beliefs. We surely are capable of training ourselves to hold flexible and nonextreme beliefs but it does take effort. When important values are violated, when nightmares happen, if you will, this is exactly when reason is most often difficult to display. Difficult does not mean impossible and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy teaches you how to reason your way to resilience in the face of your personal nightmares and hardships.