Updated: Aug 7, 2019
Couples have told me that they may have sixty to seventy thoughts a day about the affair relationship. Some couples believe that they are completely without
control of their thought process and are merely victims to this obsessive thinking.
It is important to recognize that obsessive thinking is a process that moves like a river to emotional distress and that the individual can take control by disrupting the process in some way, even if it is momentarily.
Couples seem unprepared for managing this problem and will ask for concrete strategies to reduce or eliminate the obsessive thoughts. Though it may seem logical to work with the person to stop the thoughts or force the thoughts out of their mind, my guess is that stopping rarely works in this situation.
In fact, research suggests that attempts to stop obsessive thoughts may only intensify obsessive thinking (Hubbard, 2015). A better strategy is for the clinician to help the person minimize engagement in the obsessive process, but can this be done? Here are a few strategies to minimize the engagement with the process.
Moving From the Internal World to the External Experience Obsessive thinking is an internal process. Maintaining the internal process allows for rumination and disengagement from real-world experiences. It is helpful for the person to get out of their head and to be more engaged in the real world around them. Mindfully focusing on a behavior can be beneficial. Refocusing on what is happening now in the moment or even taking the time to practice mindfulness can be useful.
Shifting to a Predetermined Thought This strategy encourages the person to shift from the negative, obsessive thought to a more reasonable alternative thought. Rather than attempting to “stop” the obsessive process, it works by shifting the attention to a predetermined thought. For example, state, “These are just thoughts and they are not helpful” or “I am okay and I will now refocus on my work,” and then move on to the task at hand.
Practicing Distraction Many couples find success by simply distracting the thought by doing some alternative activity, even if it is only ten minutes. The simpler the better; activities such as going for a brisk walk, playing with their child or pet, or playing a video game can help disengage from the obsessive process.
Cataloging and Moving on With this strategy, the person notices the thought, catalogs it, and then moves on to the task at hand. From the catalog list, the person is asked to one or two of the thoughts with their partner at the end of the day. They are also encouraged to ask any questions related to the thoughts. Their partner should listen to and validate these feelings and answer any questions as thoroughly as possible.
One couple stated the benefits of this (Losey, 2017): • Did not feel so isolated with their thoughts • Helped reduce her own curiosity about facts and events • Gave permission to ask multiple questions and to ask the same question more than once • Allowed her to write the questions down and fi lter out the ones that were just angry questions
I have had a number of couples talk about the emotional breakdowns they experience as a result of a trigger. As they describe a breakdown, there are several negative aspects that they indicate, including feeling like they are unable to maintain control, feeling guilty for the breakdown, or saying hurtful things to their partner. However, couples will also identify positive aspects of an emotional breakdown. For example, the breakdown is an opportunity to vent feelings and share thoughts that have been repressed, there is a period of emotional calm following the breakdown, distressing dreams are less vivid, obsessive thinking is reduced, it is more difficult to be triggered, it gives the participating partner opportunity to apologize, and there is a reduction in overall energy for the hurt partner.
Interestingly, I think that couples can construct structured emotional experiences that allow for some of the positive aspect of these intense emotional experiences. Couples that have been successful with this in my practice use this technique for a short period of time each day. The hurt partner is encouraged, and sometimes expected, to deeply experience his or her feelings. The structure would need to include short and clear start and end time frames for the discussions, passive listening of the participating partner without defensiveness, limits around escalation, and refl ection through journaling each experience.
Hubbard, B. (2015). Obsessive thinking, worry and cognitive-behavior therapy . Retrieved July 30, 2015 from http://cognitive-behavior-therapy.com/cognitive-behavior-therapyfor-obsessive-thinking-worry-rumination/.
Losey, B. (2017). Creating an effective couples therapy practice. Routledge, New York.