Thought-Stopping for Hurt Partners

The Perils of Rumination

In an earlier post, I have discussed the idea that obsession and rumination by a hurt partner are the first major stumbling blocks to affair recovery.  In order for Hurt Partners to heal, they have to regain control of their thoughts. I described the importance of overcoming intrusive thoughts and offered the observation that it is normal and expected for hurt partners to dwell on their attachment injury. In this post, I hope to offer hurt partners a technique for bringing obsessive rumination under an ever-growing conscious control.

The Idea of Thought-Stopping

Most mental health specialists will tell you that Thought-Stopping is a technique that has roots in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Thought-Stopping is in fact, quite an ancient method of self-management. It is a well-known mental exercise in both the East and the West, specifically, ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophy, and Buddhism. It requires you to notice your thoughts, and practice modulating the degree to which you indulge them.

Principles Behind Thought Stopping

The principles behind Thought-Stopping work are deceptively simple. The Hurt Partner Interrupts obsessive thoughts with a “stop” command which serves both as a distraction and a prompt. Research on Hurt Partners tells us that obsessive thoughts tend to ruminate or repeat in their minds for an average of 18 to 24 months after the disclosure of an affair. Therapists are confronted with the challenge of helping the Hurt Partner deal with an increasing cascade of disturbing and seemingly automatic ruminations. By employing the technique of Thought-Stopping, the Hurt Partner becomes more aware of distressing thought chains and nurture a growing skill in diverting attention away from ruminations which negatively trigger the nervous system.


One of the important benefits of Thought-Stopping to a Hurt Partner is a sense of control. Thought-Stopping employs a sense of contrast and substitution. It is not enough to banish toxic rumination; the Hurt Partner must also begin to install healthy thoughts to replace them. This growing sense of agency helps Hurt Partners to acquire a more conscious appreciation for their ability to engage in thought processes that might at first seem beyond their control.

Thought-Stopping Techniques

To curb toxic thoughts, focus on the thought and then shout “Stop!” to interrupt the thought. At first, you will shout the word “Stop!”out loud. The importance of this is to tell your nervous system that there is a new sheriff in town.

You might even startle yourself out of a mild trance that these toxic ruminations float in on.

Good. Later on, you will imagine a bright red stop sign in your mind instead. Let’s break your Thought-Stopping ritual down step by step:

What Are Your Most Toxic Thoughts? What are the unwelcome ruminations that trance you out, and distract you from your daily routine?  At first, you may believe you are powerless over them. You want them to stop, but they keep occurring at will. Take a toxic thought inventory.

Write Down These Toxic Thoughts. Start With the First As The Worst.  How many distinct toxic thoughts did you come up with? List them in order of intensity, and start with the ones on the bottom that you consider to be the least intense. We need to get some “wins” under your belt.

Imagine The Toxic Thought. For your first attempt, lie down in your bedroom (assuming it is not a triggering setting). Breathe deeply and relax. Close your eyes. At first, remember a time when you had this particular toxic thought. Then gradually allow the thought to fill your awareness.

Stop The Thought.  As I mentioned earlier, Startling your nervous system is a great way to interrupt a toxic thought.  Here are two different ways to startle your nervous system.

Remember women tend to react to a startle with fear. Imagine making that thought too afraid to show up. Men react to startle with anger. Hurt male partners can imagine doing battle with toxic thoughts and vanquishing them.

Use your imagination to recruit your nervous system as an ally in your Thought-Stopping Ritual.

  •   Set a timer on your watch to ring in 3 minutes. Begin to allow your toxic thought to enter your mind. When the alarm rings, shout “Stop!” loudly and firmly.
  •   A physical action concurrent with shouting “Stop!” will help it become anchored into your nervous system. There are several options here.  You can jump up when you say “Stop!” Or raise a defiant fist into the air. Imagine the thought on a TV screen that you just turned off. Watch the image sputter, flat-line, and fade.
  •    Breathe deeply as you empty your mind, and try to keep it empty for about 30 seconds. If the toxic thought comes back during that time, shout “Stop!” again. And repeat the physical action you chose along with it.
  •   After using a timer for about 6 thought-stopping sessions. Switch your technology. Record yourself shouting “Stop!” at intervals of 3 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute. Do the thought-stopping exercise. Focus on  allowing the thought to fill your awareness, and then imagine the thought fading as if on that TV set you just turned off  at the moment you hear your recorded voice shout “Stop!” Hearing your own voice instructing you to stop helps to neurologically enhance your commitment to getting rid of the toxic thought.
  • Practice and rehearse steps 1 through 3 until the toxic thought fades when told to do so. Repeat the process. This time, interrupt the thought by only saying the word “Stop” in a normal tone of voice.
  • When you achieve to the point where your normal voice can stop the Toxic thought, try whispering “Stop.”
  • Once that works, imagine simply hearing the word “Stop” inside your mind.
  • Move up to the next distressing thought that bothers you a bit more than the last one, and continue your ritual of Thought-Stopping.


Other Thought-Stopping Techniques

It’s helpful to mix it up when you are Thought-Stopping. Learn to do it in a variety of ways.

  •   Close your eyes and take five deep breaths.
  •   Vividly imagine a huge, bright-red stop sign. Picture a stream of cars stopping at the sign, and waiting patiently and obediently until they can move forward. Stop. Wait for your turn. Then take a deep breath and drive across the imaginary highway. Are you still holding that toxic thought? It will take time and effort, but your brain and nervous system will adjust on their own, and these toxic thoughts will fade.
  •   Make yourself aware that you are having an unwanted toxic thought by saying to yourself (for example) “I’m having the thought that my husband is with another woman right now.”  Speaking the thought aloud is a reminder that you are the generator as well the observer of the thought, and that the thought derives no reality from what your senses are taking in at the present moment.
  •   This last part is crucial. After you successfully interrupt a toxic thought, generate an image that allows you to feel more grounded and calm. This image should not be connected to the toxic thought.  You might have an image of yourself having a great time with friends, engaging in a relaxing pastime, on lounging on a beach.
  •   Breathe deeply and feel gratitude for wrestling your mind back from toxic rumination.

About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.

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