How Overthinking Can Create Relationship Problems

Does any of this sound familiar:

  • You’re constantly wondering why your partner or the person you’re dating hasn’t texted you back…and becoming increasingly anxious as your mind jumps to all kinds of negative conclusions…
  • You experience uncertainty related to your partner and/or your relationship as very difficult to tolerate…and end up taking actions in an attempt reduce uncertainty, even if those actions, at times, cause discord in your relationship
  • Find yourself ruminating a lot about your partner and your relationship, and treating all those thoughts, including the negative ones, as truths…

Our minds are amazing. They give us the ability to learn from the past, envision a beautiful future, derive a sense of self and meaning, be creative, and so much more. Thinking, however, can also fuel distress. Too much rumination, dwelling on a past that cannot be changed, excessive worry about a future, a need for certainty in an inherently uncertain universe can create painful emotional experiences, seemingly limit options and possibilities, and, when acted upon, possibly lead to destructive self fulfilling prophecies.

Imagine you are in this scenario: You’ve been dating someone for a few months, and things seem to be going well. You decide it’s time to disclose something personal, something vulnerable, something you don’t typically share. You decide to be courageous and take a risk: you text your partner about it. No response. Two hours later: no response. A long time goes by and you have no response. What do you imagine your mind would be doing? Like many minds, it would perhaps be creating a narrative, some kind of explanation for your partner’s behavior. It would try to make sense of what was happening, with limited information. The alternative, to be with rather than think about the experience is generally not what most people do. And, what kind of explanations does your mind come up with? Some people’s minds might generate negative explanations: feel shame towards themselves (“I shouldn’t have shared that”), maybe anger towards their partner (“they are insensitive and are just ignoring me! They don’t care about me!”). Other people might have more positive, kind thoughts: “Maybe something happened to my partner” or “They must be busy, I’m sure they’ll respond later”.

Uncertainty can be very uncomfortable. It is a liminal space. Many experiences we would prefer not to have can show up here: Inadequacies, self doubt, and fears of losing your partner may be unveiled in a liminal and uncertain space. Rather than experience and just be with what is happening, as it unfolds, many people turn to overthinking as a way to avoid the discomfort of uncertainty. This is common and totally understandable! When we turn to thinking as a way to avoid an unsettling experience, we cut ourselves off from experiencing it and learning more about what within ourselves has been triggered. Turning to overthinking as a strategy to manage discomfort in a relationship can fuel negative thoughts that, when acted upon as truth, become self-fulfilling prophecies that push your partner away as you lash out at a perceived slight.

Practices that can support being with what unfolds rather than overthinking it include:

  • Learning effective ways to communicate wants and needs
  • Nourishing yourself with nutritious foods and restful sleep to help support emotion regulation
  • Embodied practices that support a mind-body connection
  • Adopting an attitude of curiosity and exploration towards your emotional experiences
  • Doing the opposite of what intense emotions are pulling you towards, especially if it involves lashing out at your partner
  • Finding effective practices to self soothe and regulate emotions
  • Giving and taking healthy space in your relationship
  • Understanding your and your partner’s attachment styles
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