Years ago, I remember when I was leaving for Costa Rica for a couple of months and my boyfriend at the time had said goodbye to me in such a sad and withdrawn way. We already had a roller coaster relationship.
But it really left me thinking about why he said it that way and what he really meant, and what did it mean for us???
It kept me up at night…even when I was thousands of miles away.
I churned the moment over in my mind and tortured myself with the “why” and “what ifs”.
I couldn’t enjoy the beautiful ocean landscapes or the misty rainforest hillsides. My mind was somewhere else.
So much of my mental and emotional energy was preoccupied with my relationship.
Can you relate?
Have you ever had thoughts like these in your relationship?
When your partner arrives late at a scheduled date night, it may be easy to think that they are neglecting you and prioritizing work over your relationship.
Similarly, if your partner don’t initiate lovemaking, you may start thinking or worrying that he’s not attracted to you in bed.
Or maybe your partner appears distracted during dinner, you may start to worry that they are bored or uninterested in talking with you.
These situations may lead you to feel like the connection in your relationship is deteriorating.
When you find yourself feeling threatened in your relationship, it’s common for negative thoughts to arise and multiply.
These reflexive thoughts, fueled by anxiety, can become rumination, spinning out of control.
As a result, your perceptions of your partner become distorted and you stop fully engaging with them.
Over time, these distortions build into stories that hinder genuine connection and intimacy.
In my coaching practice, I have witnessed firsthand how overthinking can erode love and relationships when left unaddressed.
And as someone who has personally experienced the destructive effects of chronic worrying, I empathize with the impact it can have on one’s well-being.
After more than twenty years, my perspective has shifted. I now understand that happy love stories are not a matter of chance, but rather something that is intentionally built.
Through my own experiences and the work I’ve done with countless women, I have witnessed the power of undoing rumination in relationships.
This transformative process has allowed my husband and me to develop a deeper intimacy over the past twelve years, and it has helped others create more fulfilling connections as well.
Why do we overthink in our relationships?
If you find yourself constantly trying to analyze people’s emotions or worrying about whether someone is upset with you, it’s possible that you have an insecure attachment style.
Just a quick summary of what this is: this type of attachment style can develop when we grow up in an unpredictable and unstable environment.
For example, a parent may have used the silent treatment, displayed anger outbursts, or made us feel like we’re constantly walking on eggshells.
As children, we learned to constantly try to understand and manage our parent’s emotions in order to protect ourselves.
Our minds and bodies are very smart: it is a protective mechanism against trauma and overwhelm, because our bodies remember when we were traumatized or emotionally overwhelmed in the past.
Unfortunately, this pattern often continues into adulthood, causing us to overanalyze conversations, always assume someone is mad at us, or constantly worry that we are doing something wrong in our relationships.
For instance, imagine you’re talking on the phone with your boyfriend, and he lets out a sigh after you share about your day.
Afterwards, you may spend a significant amount of mental and emotional energy trying to decipher the meaning behind his sigh – questioning if you offended him or if he simply doesn’t care.
This constant search for meaning in other people’s actions becomes draining as it applies across all interactions.
As children in dysfunctional households, we might have learned that mind reading was necessary for our physical or emotional protection.
Unfortunately, this habit also leads us to take on others’ emotions as our own responsibility.
However, as adults it is not our role to constantly interpret the intentions behind people’s actions.
The bottom line is: this coping mechanism developed as a result of growing up in such an environment but it is no longer necessary or healthy for us now.
It is our responsibility as adults to effectively communicate our issues, problems, and confusion. We must remember that we are not accountable for the emotions of others.
While it’s important to be considerate in partnership and have emotional attunement, being considerate and attuned is not the same as mind reading or “managing” another person’s emotions.
So let’s explore the concept of healthy emotional responsibility.
The different types of rumination and how they affect our relationship
There are actually different types of rumination.
Overthinking in romantic relationships can become a detrimental cognitive habit that narrows our capacity for awareness, empathy, curiosity, and self-reflection.
Similar to a snowball picking up speed as it rolls downhill, ruminative thoughts circulate endlessly around recurring distressing themes. This is why we often call it spiraling.
Alicia Munoz, an author and couples counselor, has classified relationship rumination into five different categories and five distinct cycles of rumination.
Blame. It’s all my fault. I’m such an screwup. How could I let this happen? It’s unacceptable, intolerable, horrible, awful. My partner is selfish. They’re wrong. They should apologize. Don’t they realize how much pain they’re causing me?
The blame cycle centers around past events that have caused pain. When reflecting on the past, it is natural to selectively remember events that confirm either your own or your partner’s flaws.
Control. I know best. I’m the one who knows how to handle this. I’m rational. My views should hold sway. I’m more genuine. I’m kinder, wiser, healthier, superior, younger, older. I’m the one who keeps us healthy, safe, and happy.
The process of controlling thoughts revolves around achieving a desired future outcome. Within the control cycle, tension, mistrust, and rigidity tend to take hold. Thoughts become steeped in moral judgments.
It becomes imperative for your partner to align with and fulfill your vision for the relationship. Possibilities and choices are seen through a lens of absolutes: there is either good or bad, right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy options available.
Doubt. Can I be sure of my own perceptions? Maybe I’m imagining things. 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? What if I keep making poor choices?
In this cycle, painful feelings of insecurity and self-evaluation define the characteristics of recurring cycles of doubt. Relentless overthinking erodes trust in your own memory and instincts.
Worry. What will happen if he gets hurt while scuba diving on vacation? What if we break up and I don’t see his children as much as I do now? He might cancel our next date if he finds out I’m allergic to alcohol. One of us might catch COVID and give it to my mother.
The current cycle operates under a mentality of worst-case scenarios. Fear drives this continuous loop, leading you to believe that your safety lies in thorough preparation for any potential disasters. Your mind actively engages in this process by envisioning all the possible things that could go awry.
Self-pity. Self-pity cycles revolve around an individual perceiving themselves as a victim. The universe is against me. There’s no solution. Nothing will ever change. Why me? Life is unfair. I don’t deserve this. How come bad things always happen to me? I’ve tried everything. My situation is hopeless.
There is a common, yet unspoken assumption that by assuming the position of a victim, you can motivate your partner to come to your rescue.
However, when you rely on your partner for your emotional and physical needs or adopt a helpless attitude when you are capable, it inadvertently exerts control over them.
As a result, you feel an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and lack of agency in your own life.
Each of us has the ability to engage in various rumination cycles, and it’s not uncommon for us to engage in a combination of two or even three simultaneously.
However, most individuals have a primary cycle that they tend to engage in more frequently.
In fact, this cycle may become so pervasive that it shapes our sense of self and personality.
Additionally, many individuals also have a secondary cycle, which they turn to when their dominant cycle fails to provide the desired resolution, relief, or closure.
So we went over 5 types of rumination cycles. Blame, control, doubt, worry, and self-pity.
Which one tends to be your rumination cycle?
How to break the rumination cycle
Even though your thoughts may seem like truth, rumination can actually serve as a defense mechanism.
It acts as a coping strategy to divert your attention away from your own vulnerability.
For example, let’s say you sent a text to your boyfriend seven hours ago and he hasn’t responded yet.
You start feeling upset and thoughts like “What’s he doing?” or “Has he forgotten about me?” begin to arise. As you think about this, you focus on all the ways he has let you down.
However, beneath all the rumination, there might be something else going on: you miss him.
Overthinking about your boyfriend is actually a way of protecting yourself from experiencing heartache and longing – emotions that are uncomfortable for you.
I repeat: Overthinking about your relationship is actually a way of protecting yourself from experiencing heartache and longing – emotions that are uncomfortable for you.
To combat rumination, it is important to shift your focus from dwelling on unsettling moments to fully acknowledging them.
This is not a skill that many people have a lot of support or practice in. When faced with an unexpected event that causes emotional or physical discomfort, do you intentionally take the time to acknowledge and understand your internal experience?
If your response is no, then you are like most individuals. The initial reaction for many is to attempt to eliminate any distressing thoughts.
Here are my recommendations for breaking the rumination cycle:
1. Examine your thoughts to develop an awareness of rumination.
- Take a pause and allocate just one minute of your time.
- Shift your attention inward and embrace a awareness of your entire being. Take note of any mental or cognitive activity currently unfolding within you.
- Engage in an inquiry. Pose the question, “Are the contents of my mind merely thoughts or a succession of thoughts?”
- Pay close attention to your inner responses. Does the answer lean towards a “yes,” “maybe,” or “no”?
When your partner cancels a date at the last minute, it’s important to take a step back and recognize that the thoughts racing through your mind may not be an accurate reflection of reality.
Instead of immediately assuming that they are intentionally trying to hurt you or that you can’t trust them, try to interrupt the cycle of blame by acknowledging these thoughts as just thoughts.
It’s normal to feel upset in this situation, but it’s essential not to automatically believe every thought that arises simply because of your emotional state…and create what we call false equivalence.
2. Identify the cognitive habit or recurring behavior. Call it out for what it is.
When you become aware of a thought arising in your mind, it can be helpful to label it by observing and noting what you notice:
- Notice the thought itself. Name the concern.
- Is the thought based on fact or is it simply a story—an opinion, judgment, assumption, or expectation that I am mistaking for truth? Often our rumination involves stories that aren’t necessarily accurate.
- The rumination cycle reflected in your thought—is it centered around blame, worry, doubt, control, self-pity, or some combination?
- Take note of the trigger. A trigger can be an action taken (or not taken) by your partner.
3. Tune into your body in the moment.
- Rumination prevents us from being in touch with our own feelings. If you want to start being more present in the moment, ask yourself these questions and see what comes up for you:
- “What am I feeling in my body right now?” Like, really tune into those sensations.
- And then, see what emotions are coming up for you. Just be curious about it.
- I invite you to challenge yourself: Instead of automatically acting on any impulses you have, just sit with them for a bit.
- Notice how they feel in your body and what they’re telling you. And don’t worry about any specific outcome or anything. It’s all about being present and mindful in the moment.
4. Embrace vulnerability and welcome the unknown.
Alright, now it’s time to just welcome whatever is coming up. One way to do this is by asking yourself, “What’s going on beneath the surface?” This question lets you know that you’re open and ready to acknowledge and accept whatever is there.
It’s totally fine if you don’t fully understand how your body is reacting as you listen and wait.
Maybe you’ll notice some fleeting emotions or feel a surge of energy.
You might even experience some discomfort or tension in your body. Whatever it may be, just stay present with it while staying connected to your body, remaining open and tuned in.
Sometimes, simply paying sustained and focused attention can amplify what your body is trying to communicate and bring about clarity.
This process allows us to expand our tolerance for uncomfortable emotions, sensations, and impulses, while staying present to our vulnerability instead of getting lost in imagined scenarios that disconnect us from the present moment.
The more you understand yourself beyond your tendency to overthink, the better equipped you will be to express your feelings and needs genuinely and directly, listen to your partner’s responses and feedback, and establish boundaries based on self-awareness rather than anxiety.
Breaking free from the cycle of anxious rumination doesn’t happen spontaneously.
It requires conscious effort and determination. Each thought, trigger, and day presents an opportunity for growth.