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