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Stop overthinking your relationship

A wheel of spinning colors

The following is an excerpt from “Stop Overthinking Your Relationship” (New Harbinger Publications, Inc.). Copyright ©2022 by Alicia Muñoz.

"Stop Overthinking Your Relationship" cover art

Have you ever observed a colorful little beach ball pop up on your computer screen, usually when something has gone wrong? Macintosh users refer to it as the Spinning Beach Ball of Death—or sometimes the Marble of Doom. If you’ve witnessed this endlessly spinning rainbow pinwheel in action, you know it’s a sign of trouble. You may have to force-quit your software program and lose some of your recent work. You could end up spending hours on the phone with tech support. The Spinning Beach Ball of Death is a nifty metaphor for overthinking.

When overthinking interrupts the natural flow of your life, it’s also a sign of trouble. Unlike a beach ball, rumination cycles aren’t colorful. They’re dreary and predictable, made up of repetitive negative thoughts instead of rainbow colors. The more they spin, the more space they take up in your mind. They can spin so fast and take up so much space that it gets hard to see past them. It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming their anxiety-provoking content is true.

When overthinking combines with the emotionally charged needs and fears in an intimate adult bond, you can end up reliving the same conflict with your partner over the course of many years—though it may disguise itself in novel forms. You may even hear some couples talk about having the same fight they had on their first date a decade later. Awareness of your repetitive negative thinking can reduce the intensity of conflicts—or even defuse them completely. The differences between partners don’t make or break a relationship. What does is how partners think about these differences.

Rumination cycles

Like the Spinning Beachball of Death or a snowball rolling downhill and gathering momentum, ruminative thoughts turn in a seemingly endless loop around the same painful themes. I’ve identified five distinct rumination cycles centered on the themes of blame, control, doubt, worry, and self-pity.

All of us are capable of spinning all the rumination cycles, and it’s not unusual to spin a hybrid of two or even three of them at once. But most of us have a dominant cycle: the one we spin most often. We may spin it so much that it colors our identity and personality. As you investigate your own dominant rumination cycle, you’ll probably discover you have a secondary one too. This is the cycle you spin when your dominant cycle fails to bring resolution, relief, or closure.

As you identify your dominant and secondary cycles, get curious about what triggers them. Draw on practices that can help you counteract your cycle’s reality-distorting power by cultivating the missing “nutrient” of acceptance, being present in your body, trust, letting go of perfectionism and control, and taking responsibility for your contribution to problems.

Blame cycle

Antidote: Practice acceptance

This is my fault. I’m such an idiot. How could I let this happen? It’s unacceptable, intolerable, horrible, awful. My partner is selfish. They’re wrong. They should pay for this. They should apologize. Don’t they realize how much pain they’re causing me?

Thoughts, memories, and images in the blame cycle revolve around painful past events. A conversation escalated into a fight. You’re sure you’ve been unfairly treated, taken advantage of, and misunderstood. You had good intentions, and your partner misinterpreted what you said or did. You planned a special trip, and your partner ruined it with their irritability. The dinner ended awkwardly for you and your dinner guests. You recall the past selectively. Events confirming your own (or your partner’s) flaws are magnified.

Has your partner ever sincerely praised you for something you reflexively denied or minimized? Maybe they said, “You look great,” and you responded, “No, I don’t,” or “I’m tired.” Maybe they said, “It was so thoughtful of you to pick me up from the airport,” and you said, “Well, of course, why wouldn’t I?” When you spin blame cycles, you’re too busy blaming your partner—or yourself—to take love in.

When blame is directed at your partner, it’s fueled by aggression and resentment. As long as you focus on what’s wrong with your partner, you don’t have to look at your contribution to problems. You can cry, “I’m innocent!” A false sense of superiority protects you from the truth of your own human imperfections and flaws. When you direct it at yourself, it’s sustained by guilt, shame, and regret. You’re self-critical. You should have known better.

If blame cycles are your go-to form of overthinking, you suffer from an acceptance shortage. Practice accepting what you normally blame yourself or your partner for. If you blame your partner for regularly taking the last sheet of toilet paper on the roll without putting in a replacement roll, accept the fact that they do this (you may as well, since they’re doing it whether you accept it or not). If you blame your partner for their current stress level, try accepting it instead. They are under stress right now. It is happening. If you blame yourself for being angry, accept your anger. How does it help you or anyone else for you to reject what you already are?

You don’t have to like something to accept it. You don’t have to give up on expressing your needs and wishes either or on improving your life and your relationship. You can accept your partner taking the last sheet of toilet paper without putting in a new roll, and at the same time, you can let your partner know how you feel and what you want when you’re calm and they’re more likely to hear your feedback. You can say, “When you take the last sheet of toilet paper without putting in a new roll, I get mad. It puts me in a tough position. Can you replace the roll next time?”

Doing this with acceptance increases the chances of your partner listening and altering their behavior since the negative charge of blame isn’t leaking into the relationship field, raising their defenses, and making it harder for them to relate to you.

Control cycle

Antidote: Release perfectionism and what you can’t control

I know best. I’m rational. I’m in touch with my emotions. My views should hold sway. I’m more genuine. I’m kinder, wiser, healthier, superior, younger, older. Because I’m the extrovert, I’m more suited to organize our social life. I’m the one who keeps us healthy, safe, and happy. I’m justified in pursuing and enforcing my agenda. I’m the one who knows how to handle this.

These thoughts orbit a desired future outcome and the best way to achieve it. Your partner must sit down at the table immediately. They must talk to someone—a therapist, parent, boss, or real estate agent—ASAP. It’s time for an emergency meeting with your attorney because you know what the next step is. You’re curious about consensual nonmonogamy, and so they should be too. It’s time to go to Hawaii. You’re done with long-distance relationships. You’re showing up on your partner’s doorstep with a suitcase, a toothbrush, and an espresso machine.

If you’re in the control cycle a lot, get grounded in one breath often. Remind yourself that absolute certainty and invulnerability are pipe dreams. You can trust yourself, others, and life wisely and gradually. You can entertain a more complex, nuanced worldview. Practice trusting and enjoying the process instead of striving for a predetermined outcome.

What if events can unfold in everyone’s best interests, even when you don’t micromanage them? Ask yourself, “Is this person, event or situation mine to control? Will control get me what I truly want here?”

Doubt cycle

Antidote: Cultivate trust

Can I be sure of my own perceptions? Maybe I’m imagining things. Did what I think took place really happen? Why is every other couple doing better than we are? Why did I choose my partner? Is there someone smarter, kinder, more attractive, or richer out there for me? Why did my partner choose me? Am I a fraud? Can I trust my own choices? My intuition has misled me in the past. What if I keep making poor choices?

Gaslighting refers to a form of psychological manipulation done by one person to another where the gaslighter disorients the gaslightee by denying, minimizing, questioning, and undermining their perceptions of reality. In this cycle, your own overthinking gaslights you. You selectively recall, minimize, and deny what you know. Or else you overdramatize embarrassing, shameful, or negative aspects of things you’ve done and choices you’ve made. Like a fisherman casting a line into a stagnant pond, these kinds of thoughts fly and land with a plop. They don’t hook what they’re trying to catch. There’s never enough certainty. There are never absolute guarantees. No evidence is ever ironclad enough to support your choices, decisions, or actions. Good times seem insubstantial and fleeting. Searching for evidence only reinforces doubts.

Painful insecurity and self-judgment are the hallmarks of chronic doubt cycles. The more you overthink, the less you trust your own recollections and intuition. You risk giving others’ negative perceptions of you—real or imagined—more importance than they deserve. When your overthinking regularly gaslights you, caring feedback from a supportive partner can open your eyes to a broader perspective. It can reduce the imbalance created by your constant second-guessing of yourself and your choices. If the thoughts in your doubt cycles undermine your own or your partner’s assessment of your strengths, accomplishments, and positive qualities, recognize it. Remind yourself, “Here’s doubt, gaslighting me again.”

Invest yourself fully in the process of living your life, even when your choices don’t deliver the outcomes you expect on your timeline. Make decisions and choices to the best of your ability, even when the outcome can’t be known in advance. Be gentle with yourself and cultivate realistic expectations. When things don’t work out the way you want them to, be with the vulnerability you feel instead of thinking about how you shouldn’t have trusted yourself. Remind yourself, “I’m doing the best I can with the knowledge and abilities I have. Missing the mark and learning is part of being human and relating authentically to other people.”

Worry cycle

Antidote: Connect with your body in the here and now

What will happen if he gets hurt on the job? What if we divorce and I don’t see our children as much as I do now? What if they stop loving me? She might cancel our next date if she finds out I’m a type-1 diabetic. One of us might catch COVID and give it to my father. This could be the last time we’re happy together as a couple.

Ruminative worry is an attempt to generate knowledge through forecasting and prediction. But nobody can truly know what will happen in advance. In this cycle, positive outcomes are dismissed or ignored. Worst-case scenarios rule. Fear keeps this cycle going.

You convince yourself you’ll be safe as long as you prepare for the worst. Your mind does this by thinking of everything that could go wrong. Instead of helping you feel safer, this strategy heightens your sensitivity to danger. Like a game of psychological Whac-A-Mole, for every worst-case scenario you think of and imagine fixing, another worst-case scenario pops up. There’s no way you can prepare for every potential catastrophe or possible negative outcome.

If you spin worry cycles regularly, the antidote is connecting with your body in the here and now. Worry commandeers awareness, siphoning it away from the present moment and wasting it on a nonexistent future. Tuning into your body can bring your awareness back to what does exist: you. Now. Like oil and water, worry and the present moment don’t mix.

When you find yourself worrying about an event or situation, insight meditation teacher and founder of Mindful Shenandoah Valley Shell Fischer has a mantra she offers retreatants. She suggests settling in, getting grounded in your body, and then saying these words to yourself as often as you need to: “If this thing I fear transpires the way I would like it to, that would be great. If it doesn’t, that will be okay, too, because either way, I am and will be okay.”

Self-pity cycle

Antidote: Take responsibility for your part

Why me? There’s nothing I can do. Life is unfair. I don’t deserve this. How come bad things always happen to me? I’ve tried everything. My situation is hopeless. We don’t stand a chance as a couple. Nothing makes a difference. The universe is against me. Suffering is my destiny. There’s no solution. Giving up is my only option. Nothing will ever change.

The self-pity cycle kicks in when the other cycles don’t bring resolution or relief. If you convince yourself you’re never the problem or are always wrongly treated, you can ignore your own irresponsibility, selfishness, immaturity, or passivity. Self-pity distracts you from your part in creating or sustaining hurtful situations. Life looks simple through a fairy-tale lens of good and bad, right and wrong, particularly if you’re always on the “right” side of the lens. Often, the unacknowledged expectation is that by embracing the role of a victim, you’ll inspire your partner to rescue you. But when you make your partner responsible for your well-being or behave as though you’re completely helpless when you’re not, they end up feeling controlled.

Even if your partner bends over backward to help you feel better, sooner or later they will get annoyed with you. They may complain of feeling manipulated. When you use self-pity to extract care or concern, you take advantage of other people’s goodness.

Often, the self-pity cycle is a reaction to unacknowledged shame, self-judgment, and self-hatred. It’s a weak substitute for the self-acceptance and self-love a person caught in self-pity truly longs for. People who find themselves spinning self-pity cycles can work on grieving losses, changing or accepting a difficult situation, and taking responsibility for their part in creating relationship problems. Forgive yourself for things you’ve said or done reactively or defensively. Allow yourself to feel remorse and make amends for what you’ve done. If you face your flaws, it brings you closer to self-acceptance than denying them or blaming them on your partner or other people. Ask yourself, “What can I take more responsibility for here?”

I’m not saying you should blame yourself for things you haven’t done, ignore your own hurt when people mistreat you, or deny injustice. Becoming a masochist isn’t the answer—it’s another facet of self-pity. If you find yourself on the receiving end of insults or aggression, this must be addressed when it’s safe for you to do so. Enabling partners to behave in devaluing ways isn’t good for you or them. You can recognize your needs and assert yourself while also facing your contribution to problems. Be humble without needless self-sacrifice. Tell the whole truth.

When you recognize your rumination cycles, you empower yourself. You’re no longer at the mercy of anxious overthinking that’s hidden and hard to spot. Identifying cycles deflates them, like bubbles you pop with a prick of needle-sharp awareness.

About the author

Alicia Muñoz, LPC, is a certified couples therapist and the author of four books, including “Stop Overthinking Your Relationship: Break the Cycle of Anxious Rumination to Nourish Love, Trust, and Connection with Your Partner” (New Harbinger Publications, 2022). She currently works as a senior writer at Psychotherapy Networker and as a couples therapist in private practice.

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