How do I stop being so paranoid in my relationship?
October 30, 2013 7:54 AM   Subscribe

Damaged by a previous infidelity, I find it hard not to read every ordinary, innocent thing as a Sign. It's hurting an otherwise loving relationship with a wonderful woman, and I hate being this way and feel I am committing my own kind of betrayal. Looking for advice on strategies to stop, deflect, lessen.

Long story cut very short. Some time back my wife had what we’ve settled on as an ‘emotional affair’. Not physical, I’m told, and I’ll settle for that, as it’s a long time done and we have had many good years since. It had a life-changing impact on me though, which has left me sadly jumpy at the prospect that it could happen again. This paranoia comes and goes, but the last eighteen months have been very hard.

One reason why I am sure I am being unhealthily suspicious and fearful is that at various times there have been various possible candidates. Could she have/have had an affair? Yes, these things happen. Could I have been right each and every time…I am sure I am not. It feels that I have the paranoia to start with, and then hang that on a convenient person. This creates a vicious circle - she is scared that I will misinterpret something wholly innocent so she doesn’t tell me about it, I then find out and the not being told then becomes a sign…

…but in this state of mind, everything is a sign. She puts her phone away, it’s a sign she doesn’t want it lying around. She leaves it out, aha, she knows I am concerned so it’s a deliberate tactic to put me off. I can manufacture a story in which anything is a sign, and I am well and truly fucking sick of it but I don’t know how to stop. If I'm in the wrong mood then whatever happens I can create a great fiction around it with no evidence at all...but it almost feels to me as if what I have made up has actually happened. It’s like a gut reaction, something learned like riding a bike. I need help to unlearn it.

An example - the phone is a problem for me, and when I'm in the low mood any sound of a message coming in is like a little electric shock. She has offered to let me pick it up at any time and look but I refuse. A year ago, I let it get to me so much that I checked on her phone a few times. I stopped and told her I had done it and have never so much as looked at it since, and very much regret doing it. I will not go back there, that much I do know, and I have not gone back there even when my fears have been very strong. If she is unexpectedly late, or takes longer when out than expected, I worry. If she seems a bit quiet, I worry. These are ordinary things, and she has a right to have friends and message them, be late, do something or go somewhere not planned, feel a bit tired and so be quiet, and not have that seen as a sign that she's up to something.

We have talked, but it is difficult to tell her sometimes when I’m feeling vulnerable to it, because quite naturally she then feels under suspicion and worries what she’s done to make me feel that way, or gets angry that I am thinking like that. I hate to do that to her, and to make her feel that way. I have had some counselling, which helped a bit but I feel there’s a long way left to go.

I’m sick to death of feeling the way I do, and I’m sick to death of hurting the woman I love very much by feeling like this and not being able to hide the way I feel. She has been patient and loving, but if I go on behaving like this, there’s the ironic danger that my behaviour could bring about the thing I fear.

How do I train myself to think in a different way, and get this Iago in my head to shut the hell up? Strategies to stop my paranoia and jealousy running away with itself, and creating a film in my head which starts to feel like a memory, not an invention. How to see the best in things, the million prosaic explanations, not the worst possible story? To deflect a thought, and move on in a more positive way. Anything, really, other than what I have.

My life is good, and I have people who love me. I should be happy. But I am really, really miserable and worst, it's through my own invention.

(although answers here are better in case they help someone else at some time in the future, if you have something helpful but feel that you can't post here and can email anonymously, you can get me at
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
This is exactly what CBT is designed for, these are intrusive thoughts that can be successfully worked on. If you're not in a place to afford therapy there are workbooks online, can't search for you right now unfortunately.
posted by ellieBOA at 8:07 AM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

You don't mention current therapy. Are you currently receiving therapy?

If not, go back. State up front that this is your problem, maybe even print this question out and bring it with you (or send it ahead of time). Outline what success looks like for you (not being worried about the phone, being less jumpy, etc.

While you work on getting back to therapy, something that has helped me immensely is scheduling time to worry. 20 minutes a day, at a specific time, you go sit in a chair and worry. Throughout the rest of the day, if worry thoughts come up, you put them away and tell yourself you can worry about it at the scheduled time. Go back about your business. Eventually, you might find yourself sitting in your worry chair, annoyed that you still have 15 more minutes and can't leave until your worry time is up. At first, it helped me to envision those worries as dropping off a conveyor belt into a box. This imaginary box was marked "things to worry about at 6pm."

I suggest dialectical behavior therapy a lot here, because it's the modality that I am most familiar with. It was designed for people with a particular diagnosis, and has been shown effective for trauma survivors. Our group therapists all talked about how much they think everyone should be actively taught these skills. There's emotion regulation, mindfulness, distress regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness. The key to this kind of therapy is practice. You work on these skills when things are easier, so that when you are faced with a difficult thing, the skills are comfortable and easy to reach.

Someone is also going to drop in and suggest Gift of Fear. So yeah, maybe read that too. But talk to your therapist about that first, I think.
posted by bilabial at 8:09 AM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't know if it would be possible, but it might be good to take a 3-6 month break from each other. Get some space. Clear your head. Give you the time and distance to trust again or know for sure, that you never will.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 8:09 AM on October 30, 2013

It's not through your own invention, it's through an episode of infidelity the two of you have clearly never resolved, healthily or otherwise. You should see a qualified relationship therapist specialising in infidelity. You clearly need more tools to resolve this and restore your relationship than what you have to hand now, and seeing this as a problem that is yours to solve alone isn't going to get you there.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:09 AM on October 30, 2013 [16 favorites]

Trust and self-confidence. You have to have self-confidence to put your trust in someone else. Your trust might be repaid with a cheating spouse, but that's the risk all couples have to accept.

there’s the ironic danger that my behaviour could bring about the thing I fear.

Good for you. That's how it usually works.

Your lack of self-confidence is YOUR problem. Projecting it onto your old lady is wrong and not fair to her and if you keep it up, it will become self-fulfilling. Listen to your own advice, wise up, and knock it off.
posted by three blind mice at 8:14 AM on October 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

You are not hurting your wife by not being able to trust her. Your wife is hurting you by continuing to behave deceitfully and secretively after an emotional (and possibly physical) affair. Her affair is not your fault. Her behavior is not your fault. If she gets defensive when you open up to her about what's eating at you, she is hiding something more and she is feeling guilty about it. NONE of these things are your fault and if she is saying or doing things to deflect blame off of her and onto you, your wife is failing you as a person and as a partner. Let her be in charge of your behavior, and stop trying to control what is not yours to control. Even if you were the most locking and amazing partner ever your wife could still have cheated on you. That's a failing in her, not in you. Don't treat it like it's the other way around.

Ultimately what this boils down to is that you and your wife have never worked on resolving this together. Why is that? Why does the burden f healing and forgiveness fall solely to you? It has to be a joint effort for a marriage to survive after infidelity. It sounds like you feel so responsible and so guilty for your wife's transgression that you have absorbed what should be a dual effort and made it only yours.

You should keep going to therapy, and specifically seek out counselors who can do CBT and EMDR for you to help you make sense of what has undoubtedly been a traumatic incident in your life. But your wife needs to go to marriage counseling with you. If she's not willing to go, or if she goes but doesn't put in any effort, you must be honest with yourself about deserving better than that. She may have left your marriage a long time ago, and nothing you do will bring her back. She has to want to come back on her own, and so far it doesn't sound like she's been fulfilling her end of the bargain by doing right by you.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:17 AM on October 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

She cheated. She created this environment where she violated your trust, so it's only natural to not entirely trust her. You can promise forgive, but you can't ever promise forget.

I'd show her this AskMe. You two need to be very very open with each other about how you feel if this has any chance to work. You have to come clean about your suspicion and she has to know it. Maybe you really can't as a couple get past it. But the only possible way you can is by laying it bare.

Tell her that you don't want to be paranoid, but you are. Tell her you don't like that the result of you feeling this way is that she hides more which exacerbates the suspicion.

If talking just the two of you doesn't solve the issue, then you need to have couples therapy, bringing in an impartial third party.
posted by inturnaround at 8:19 AM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

This really strikes me as an anxiety and OCD issue more then an infidelity one. You had an emotional event that triggered it, which happens to be infidelity, but that's just a red herring.

The standard cbt therapy, self care, maybe medication rules all apply.

Honestly, I had several of these events happen before I finally noticed the pattern. They were all completely legitimate and bad things, my worries were justified, it was how the worries manifested and consumed me that was the real issue.
posted by Dynex at 8:19 AM on October 30, 2013 [9 favorites]

I feel like a broken record so I apologize, but I would suggest mindfulness meditation as a short-term, fairly easy solution to your instances of anxiety. While they won't cease, you will be able to recognize the signs of impending cycling/obsessing and you can control your actions.

I too sense you and your wife (who is not a criminal, who undoubtedly had reasons for emotional cheating, maybe making it a mutual responsibility ...) haven't resolved this. Good luck, it hurts, I know.
posted by thinkpiece at 8:41 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I really don't think you are going to be able to solve this in isolation. What I mean is, I think your wife is going to have to be involved and play a part in this situation to have it solved. You say she has been patient, but I think she needs to do more than just be patient to help your relationship survive this. Maybe that means couples therapy. Maybe that means the two of you take a break from each other for a spell. Maybe that means the two of you have a very long, very difficult, very honest conversation about the past infidelity that seems to have never really been resolved. Maybe that means that for the next while she is extra communicative of her plans, what she's up to, etc. so that you feel at least a bit more comfort while you continue to work through this on your end.

The problem with infidelity is that we can want to forgive, we can want to forget, we can want to move on... but sometimes that just isn't possible. You say you've settled for it, you've settled for her explanation that it was just emotional, you've settled for her assurance that it wasn't physical. I don't think you have settled for those things at all. You're trying VERY HARD to accept them and move on, but you clearly haven't. It sounds like you are in a pretty intense tug of war between what you WISH you could do (forgive and forget) and what is actually happening (your hurt, upset, betrayed, you don't trust her anymore). I don't care that it has been a couple of years, there is no time limit for how long you can be upset over infidelity. I'm not saying she is an evil person. I have no idea what lead to her cheating, but there were probably contributing factors. Have you two dealt with those? Maybe if the reasons behind the affair were addressed you would feel less insecure in your relationship.

You are not okay with the fact that your partner had an affair, and that is okay and understandable. You don't have to be okay with the fact that she cheated. You don't have to be okay with the betrayal. The fact that she says it was "just" emotional, not physical, doesn't have to make it better or easier. However you feel about this, that is okay, but be honest with yourself about how you really feel. For some people infidelity is a dealbreaker, even when they wish it wasn't. It is possible that her affair has broken your trust in her so deeply that you may not be able to repair it. Then again, you may very well be able to come back from this. The problem is that you don't know because you two have never fully resolved what happened and what led up to it. You need therapy (couple and/or solo) to help you work out how you actually feel, what you are and aren't able to move on from, what you are and are not able to forgive.

Maybe I am being unfair, but I think your wife needs to be doing a hell of a lot more than just being patient in this situation. To me, cheating is a complete deal breaker, and a huge betrayal of trust. I believe there is always a moment where a person decides to either give in to an affair or to address the issues in the relationship that led to them looking to another person in that way. There is always a choice. No one is ever FORCED to cheat. No one is ever helpless against giving in to infidelity. There were likely existing problems in your relationship that led to her cheating on you, that falls on both of you to fix, but she was the one that had the affair. She was the one that looked at your leaky dam of a relationship and then drove a wrecking ball through it. I think that she needs to be much more aware of the part her actions played in your feeling and behaving this way now, and that she needs to do more to help your relationship work through this. Patience isn't enough. The responsibility of healing your relationship after this cannot fall on you alone.

Best of luck, friend. You are in a very very difficult situation.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:31 AM on October 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

this may not work, but do you think it would help if you were just.. allowed to be paranoid for a little bit?

I mean, I'm pretending I had an emotional affair and told my boyfriend, who now is having trouble trusting me, understandably. and I think if I truly regretted it and wanted to make him feel better, I'd probably just allow him whatever access to my life he wanted for a little while while we rebuilt trust?

like maybe, you could read her texts or something if you REALLY need to, then you won't have to beat yourself up with guilt about sneaking it. you can look at her facebook over her shoulder without pretending you aren't, you can text her 14 times while she's out for dinner with friends and she'll respond within reason. and while she allows you this temporary access to her life in good faith, you will really work on getting over it and forgiving her. assuring yourself that there's nothing going on, and actually working to rebuild the trust so you can stop feeling like you have to snoop.

I do think that therapy and stuff would help, but she did make a mistake, and it is okay to want comfort from her when you're worried or upset in the relationship. it's a partnership. she should be trying to make you feel better, not getting upset with you that you're not justifiably suspicious of her.
posted by euphoria066 at 9:38 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also think you should seek couples' therapy. The problem is not just your reactions to things; it's that fact that you are suffering in a way your wife may not really understand, and she needs to understand it if you guys are gonna make this work.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:52 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ok, here's a shot in the dark.

This shitty thing happened. You are hating having to deal with it. Your wife has been trying to do the right thing (giving you access to phone, etc) but you hate SO MUCH that you have to deal with it that any kind of dealing with it makes it worse (ie, you react so negatively to having ever looked at her phone, even though she expressly invited you to do so in an attempt to reassure you.)

Do you respond this way to other shitty situations in your life? Freak out at the prospect of dealing with them? Refuse to deal at all if you can possibly avoid it?

If that rings true for you, I concur with the person upthread who says this reads more like an anxiety issue. Strongly recommend counseling for the two of you. If the pattern I described resonates with you, you may find yourself surprised by how much your avoidance has been undermining your marriage all along. You are wise to recognize that it needs to be addressed. Suffice to say that if you are unable to cope whenever something stressful arises in your marriage, that gives your wife absolutely no room to address problems that are evident on her end, and that's exactly the kind of situation that drives women into emotional affairs. BT, DT.
posted by Sublimity at 11:18 AM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't understand what your wife did or how it was resolved. Or why she's angry when you are afraid.

Couples counseling sounds like the winner.

Both of you need to sort this.

I don't see how you can deal with anxiety except by starting in a fact-based world. Couples counseling will give you a starting point and with that foundation you can address your issues.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:23 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Did you have jealous tendencies before the affair? I ask because if the jealous feelings are something new, then maybe you should listen to them. If you've always been inclined to jealousy, then going to therapy would be more useful.

You have a right to be paranoid. I am not a jealous person, but if this happened in one of my relationships, I would DTMFA. I have zero tolerance for affairs. Perhaps you are someone who has zero tolerance either. That's OK. There is no reason to stay with someone if it's making you miserable.

The question is whether you have issues trusting her in particular after the affair or whether you have trouble trusting in general. If you were in a new relationship, could you trust that person or would the same issues arise? If you think you could trust a new person, then I don't see a reason to stay married to your wife.
posted by parakeetdog at 11:26 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been in your shoes and did get over it with the help of a therapist. Like you, I could consciously see that the paranoia was profitless and hurtful, but kept letting myself fixate on those feelings, and that put my partner through the wringer for quite some time.

Nothing clicked for me until my therapist told me that trust is, to some degree, a choice. That I was chasing my tail by indulging these paranoid fantasies instead of making either hard choice A) open myself up to my partner again, or hard choice B) leave. That what I needed to do was to sincerely decide to trust him again, or not, and then stick with that choice.

I think your use of the word "unlearn" is apt. When that awful feeling came up, it became for me like the moment when you realize you have some lousy song stuck in your head so you put a different one there instead that you like. I reminded myself that I had decided to trust my partner from now on. I reminded myself of the reasons I knew that paranoia wasn't healthy or positive. In a few months, I stopped getting the awful feeling, and time and love did the rest.
posted by heatvision at 11:36 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hope this isn't playing devil's advocate... maybe your wife is actually not trustworthy? This troubles me:

she is scared that I will misinterpret something wholly innocent so she doesn’t tell me about it, I then find out and the not being told then becomes a sign…

She should tell you stuff. Lies of omission are lies. I'm uncomfortable with the fact that she is not keeping you informed because she fears your misinterpretation. That is the entire problem. Here is what honesty is, in a relationship, IMO: your partner keeps you informed of the events in her/his life that are emotionally relevant. If someone has had a thought 1000 times and it's relevant to your relationship, it gets said. If someone has a crush, or there is a new important friend, or someone is struggling at work, it gets said.

When your wife had an emotional affair, you saw that she was capable of not keeping you fully informed. There was something going on in her head (and in her life) that took up probably thousands of her thoughts per day. All that, days after days, weeks after weeks, and she never shared it with you. Knowing your partner is capable of not keeping you informed... that is feeling like there might, at any time, be an invisible tiger in the room who could jump out and claw at you.

If she is STILL leaving stuff out because she is trying to not upset you, that is bad. In my opinion. It shows that she is still the same person, at root, who doesn't understand what it is to be fully and transparently honest (consequences be damned). Sure, nobody is perfect in this. It would be foolish to not maintain any personal privacy whatsoever. BUT your wife did a horrible job when she had the emotional affair. And it sounds like she is still doing a bad job. Or let me put it differently. It sounds like, maybe she still doesn't understand about being honest.

Maybe this can be resolved in therapy. Like the other commenters above, I think that big changes might have to come from your wife as well as you. Your wife might need a new understanding of what her part is in fixing this.

The only piece of bad advice I read above is "trust is a choice" and that you should shut off your warning flags and gut feeling, and just trust. That might be a decent thing to do if you are under the rigid observation and care of a therapist who can help catch you if you fall. However, blindly trusting when you're not really feeling it, and shutting off your warning mechanisms, is a potentially disastrous idea. It might patch up your relationship now, but it also makes you extremely vulnerable to being hurt again. There are situations where you are just being paranoid and should just trust. However, I don't think that's "choosing to trust, despite a gut feeling not to" should be taken lightly and I wouldn't take a stranger's advice on the internet to do so.

In your shoes, I'd start with trying more to resolve the root of the issue, and finding real reasons to trust your wife that you feel solid about, which might mean pushing for more action and understanding on her part. Or working through it in detail with a therapist, couples or solo. Or if you don't like therapy, reading a lot of infidelity/relationship books and websites, to try to get a better understanding for yourself of what you are up against. Talking with people who've been through it. Etc.
posted by htid at 11:58 AM on October 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

Before I was married to my current husband we had an incident where I broke his trust. It took a very long time before the trust was reestablished. But I can tell you that it was excruciating and involved a lot of what you describe where he was wanting to see my phone, calling me at random times and just plain not believing things I said because frankly, why would he? There were quite a few times where I didn't think we would make it. I did my best to answer every question and any time he wanted to see anything I handed it over without question. It took a long time but things went from bad to worse and finally started to improve. This is simplifying it of course, there were a lot of terrible days and many days where I felt impatient but I knew that whatever I felt it was so much worse for him. I don't think you are strange for feeling this way, the only way it worked for us was 100% open communication. I do remember we sat down every night at the suggestion of a friend who had a similar experience and directly addressed if he was feeling the need to ask me anything or just how he was feeling in general/how I was feeling. I think that helped a lot too.
posted by heatherly at 12:42 PM on October 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Looking for advice on strategies to stop, deflect, lessen.

do none of these things. acknowledge without engaging the thoughts. note them when they appear. then do nothing except feel bad for the limited period of time the feeling is with you and then get on with your day.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:42 PM on October 30, 2013

This creates a vicious circle - she is scared that I will misinterpret something wholly innocent so she doesn’t tell me about it, I then find out and the not being told then becomes a sign…

I did this, in a relationship where nobody had cheated and nobody had lied.

From the beginning of the relationship, my partner at the time saw the kinds of signs you're seeing now. She had significant jealousy of my platonic women friends, and behaved in a way I teased her was very "stalker-y" (and in truth, it was; at one point she was going to MetaFilter multiple times a day to see what I was talking about, who I was talking to, etc., and defending it as normal because "it's public information.") I shared that, in my 20s, I had several friends that turned to stripping to pay their rent (while explaining why I've never been in a strip club and never will), and she fretted at length that I was really telling her I used to go to strip clubs to meet and start friendships with the strippers. Stuff like that.

The core of her concern: she believed my platonic friends actually wanted to date me, claimed I was too "dense" and "clueless" to see it, and that my lack of desire for them didn't matter -- if they wanted me, there would be affairs, because she felt men don't have the agency to resist. She felt that all of these relationships were, in one way or another, already emotional affairs: behavior that would be considered normal between straight men or between family members became suspicious if it involved me and a straight woman.

Ultimately I was unwilling to end the relationship over it, but I was also unwilling to give up all my platonic women friends (since they were, and continue to be, the majority of my support network) so I tried -- just once! -- not telling her about spending some time with a friend who was visiting from out of town. Nothing untoward happened, it was nice to catch up, it was 100% platonic as expected, and that was that.

She found out, obviously, and as you can imagine, it wasn't well-received, and now by lying I'd given her a concrete example of why I couldn't be trusted. Not an affair, because there wasn't one. Just the lie. She used that lie to bludgeon me with, over and over, whenever I wanted free time or to talk to a woman friend or any of the stuff she didn't like before. Her jealousy hadn't changed, but now any conversation about her irrational jealousy quickly turned into blaming her jealousy on the lie (and a refusal to acknowledge that the jealousy existed prior to it.)

I returned to telling the truth -- easy enough to do, the lie was actually really difficult for me, it's very much against my nature -- and instead insisted on either ending the relationship or her getting over her irrational jealousy.

Now, if I take what I went through -- plus what you've shared -- and use it for informed speculation about your wife's perspective, here's what I come up with: she didn't actually do anything wrong in the first place, and she agreed to call it an "emotional affair" to placate your irrational jealousy.

Unfortunately, that just made your jealousy worse. Now your jealousy is so bad that she can't make a choice that will appease you -- for instance, if she leaves her phone out you're suspicious, if she puts the phone away you're suspicious, and if she offers to show you the phone you refuse and go right on being suspicious -- and so she can't do the right thing, as no choice (other than cutting off all contact with men, and perhaps not even that) is good enough to assuage you.

So, she's settled on having her innocent platonic relationships, and lying to you about them because she can't make a choice that will appease you anyway.

I don't have a solution for you, but that's my perspective. Hope it's useful.
posted by davejay at 2:19 PM on October 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

Note that I am basing my speculation significantly on your statement that "Some time back my wife had what we’ve settled on as an ‘emotional affair’." and interpreting that as you felt it was at least an emotional affair, she didn't, but she agreed to settle on that to put it to rest.
posted by davejay at 2:23 PM on October 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

OP, is davejay correct?

If so, your wife is not at all in the wrong.

It's hard to tell from your description what the situation truly is.

If you'll be willing to clarify your description of the infidelity, people will be better able to help you.

Did you force your wife to admit to infidelity, when in fact, there wasn't any?

That could be a BIG part of your problem. If your perceptions are totally out of whack, standard therapies for troubled marriages will not work.

Please clarify, maybe via the mods?
posted by jbenben at 2:52 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seems to me you need to get a couple of things clear.

First off: the whole idea of an "emotional affair" is total thoughtcrime bullshit. An "emotional affair" is nothing more nor less than a close friendship you don't approve of and are insecure about. I am 100% with davejay on this.

If you're giving your partner grief for "having an emotional affair", what's actually happening is that you're attempting to avoid the unpleasant experience of jealousy by forbidding somebody else to behave in ways that you see as legitimate triggers for it.

But that's never going to work. Your jealousy is your own experience, and as you're finding out with the phone thing, it has nothing to do with your partner's behaviour. You must already know this on some level - you must know you're whispering poison into your own ear - or you wouldn't already have labelled part of your thoughts "Iago".

So what you need to do to fix this has nothing at all to do with what your partner has done or is now doing. Nothing. What you need to do is nothing short of radically overhaul your entire approach to life. Yes, this is a large project, but it's totally worth it.

First thing you need is an aim: I will own my own feelings, I will allow myself to feel what I feel, and I will accept that my feelings are my issue and not something that anybody else should or indeed can manage for me.

Sometimes I am going to feel like I am about to burst with joy. Sometimes I am going to feel completely foul. Both are acceptable and don't necessarily mean anything needs to change. Feeling like shit is not, in and of itself, a problem to be solved; it's part of the rich and complex tapestry of human existence (the idea that all of us are supposed to be nothing but happy and content at all times is the Big Lie underpinning the marketing industry, and has no place in a healthy mind).

Next thing you need is a project: I will learn to understand the ways my feelings and my thoughts arise and tangle and interwork. This is where you take your cue from Ironmouth and get serious about mindfulness meditation. CBT works in nicely with mindfulness meditation if you want to pursue that too, and might save you a year or two; but mindfulness practice is something you can start doing today without needing to organize any help from anybody else.

For the next little while you're going to want a counter to the Iago-thoughts that crank themselves up when you experience the feeling of jealousy. You really don't need anything more complicated than flat refusal to play their little game: "Fuck off, Iago, I feel bad enough already without you fucking things up even worse" should be effective if applied vigorously and consistently. This is emotional first aid only - the emotional equivalent of patch-em-up meatball surgery. You will need to do the mindfulness thing to get lasting results.

And as for your partner: don't trust her because you think she's sorry about the "affair" or because she's offered you access to her phone or because she's wonderful or actually for any reason that's about her. Trust her because you choose to, or leave her. Pick one.
posted by flabdablet at 4:08 PM on October 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

I just want to congratulate you for being so honest with yourself about what is going on and trying to do something about it. I was in a relationship for two years with someone who went through the same mental process of anxiety and paranoia, and the way he described it was identical to how you described it. I was willing to deal with it for longer than I should have because I believed that it really was uncontrollable for him. For the record, I never cheated, or even flirted. I did everything I could to show him how "true" I was, only to finally realize that yes indeed, this was his problem that I was letting control me.

What can you do?

Apart from all the therapy suggestions, which I strongly support, I would just say you need to really develop confidence in yourself and a sense of security. These are controlling behaviors, and yes, as painful and miserable as they are for you, they are equally damaging and frustrating for her.

This isn't about your wife and whether she's faithful or not, because when it comes down to it, you can't control her.

That's where your anxiety comes from - you're trying to control her. But you can only control yourself. You have to do things for yourself that make you feel strong and secure and at peace with the world that you can't control, and also trust yourself to be able to deal with things you don't like or that are hurtful.

Once you finally feel strong and capable, you no longer have to resort to obsessive behaviors to protect yourself from possible unpleasant futures. You can focus your energy on the present, knowing that if anything difficult should happen, you will be able to deal with it.

An added bonus of finally living in the present is that you start getting the hang of good things happening and you start to feel certain that it's likely that more good things will come.
posted by Locochona at 7:58 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

You're able to recognize that the stories you're telling yourself are irrational. ("Phone away? Bad! Phone out? Bad!") Try to catch yourself as soon as you recognize those thoughts occurring. Ask yourself, "Can I know that for sure? 100% sure? What other explanations might exist?" Get in the habit of offering yourself alternative explanation for the "signs" that you spot. Once you can generate an alternative explanation, ask yourself, "How do I feel when I think [original thought]? How do I feel when I think [alternative thought]? Which would I rather feel?" Decide -- literally, consciously decide -- to believe the thought that makes you feel better.

You've trained yourself and your brain to get off on believing the worst about your wife -- which probably gives you a shot of adrenaline that makes you feel justified. You need to retrain your brain to believe the best about your wife, to activate those neurons that make you feel safe rather than activated. This process is going to take time and active practice. You need to do that work, as often as possible, as consciously as possible.

Choose to believe in your wife. You absolutely have the power to do so.
posted by jaguar at 9:40 PM on October 30, 2013

IANATherapist. You sound really hung up on this, and it sounds like it's going to be very difficult to stop seeing ghosts in the shadows. A different angle - rather than attack your fear of shadows, might it be easier to attack your fear of ghosts? As in, decide that nothing is worth turning your life into this hellish mire of paranoia, monogamy isn't worth ruining your life over, and so think about what it might feel like to decide (and tell her) that she can openly have other lovers if ever the situation arises, the thing you care about is that she loves you and you are her family. Could you feel less-stressed in a situation where you don't have to constantly worry about unknowns and deceptions, because monogamy has been dethroned as the defining be-all and end-all of your ideals?
posted by anonymisc at 11:40 PM on October 30, 2013

Mod note: From the OP:
Wow. Thank you all so much for your generosity in taking the time to post your thoughts. Some very helpful things here which I need to spend some time thinking about. Consider pretty much everything marked best answer.

First, the historical context. I do think the initial trigger was an affair, rather than my misinterpretation. In short, my wife met someone on a night out, and then agreed to see him again and did so, spending increasingly more and more time together - they’d meet up, go for a drink, spend time together, and I knew none of it because she lied about where she was. It didn’t last long as other events made her give it up (and tell me about it), but he was certainly pushing for it to be a full-blown physical affair, there was attraction between them and when we talked it over after it walked like a duck and quacked like a duck, even if it didn’t have sex with a duck. So emotional affair was her label for something that felt to her like an affair in every respect, not a friendship.

Flabdablet - lots of good stuff, thanks in particular for the thoughts about mental first-aid. I am going to try mindfulness meditation because it sounds like it might be helpful to get in-between me and my thoughts, if that makes sense. But I also need to start doing something now, and your suggestion is helpful. Ironmouth, get what you’re saying though about simply noting and naming and allowing the thought. Locochona, horrible to hear you had to live through the receiving end of this. A consistent theme from you and others about thinking about what I can control i.e. me and how I react. Maybe I ought to read a bit more Marcus Aurelius.

Jaguar - am I right in thinking that’s kind of a CBT approach? Will check out the online work stuff that ellieBOA suggests.

I’m not getting counselling or therapy at the mo, bilabial. I have had, but I’m not sure I made the best of it. I’ll check out dialectical behaviour therapy as it’s not something I’ve heard of before. Noted also all the suggestions of couples counselling. the counselling prior to that was on my own.

heatvision - brilliant to hear from someone who has been there and come through it, that’s really inspiring. I have made my choice, but now I have to live that choice.

anonymisc - interesting suggestion, and something I thought about at one point. Could I live with it, and be very sophisticated and think well, if I don’t know, who cares. Concluded with the answer that no, I don’t think I could.

Lots of suggestions about self-confidence. This is something I lack, terribly. Which is amusing, because certainly at work lots of people perceive me as being a really confident person. I think being more comfortable with myself would help me see all the reasons why my wife loves me and wants to stay with me. Once when I got really down about all this and talked with her, she spent some time telling me what it was that made her love me. That was great, but I guess my mind didn’t always want to accept it. That comes back to the ‘what I can control’ issue - I can’t control how my wife feels, but I can control how I am and behave.

Sublimity - your post really struck a chord. Yes, I can be bad at confronting issues, and instead of soberly and maturely addressing problems head on - ooh look, there’s a pony.
A couple of people on here and via mail have suggested that my behaviour could be an OCD issue - that’s a really interesting suggestion, because at times my thinking does feel like a compulsion that I’m locked into. Another really interesting analogy that someone made was that of a hypochondriac. Sometimes this does feel like I have a kind of floating anxiety, and these suspicions give me a great hook on which to hang it, if that makes sense. The anxiety comes first, then I invent a reason for it.

I’ve got a lot of work to do. You have all been really helpful in moving my understanding on of what that work might be. Thank you, so much.
posted by taz (staff) at 4:24 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

It didn’t last long as other events made her give it up (and tell me about it), but he was certainly pushing for it to be a full-blown physical affair, there was attraction between them and when we talked it over after it walked like a duck and quacked like a duck, even if it didn’t have sex with a duck.

See, there's something it should be quite useful to you to loud-pedal: the total lack of duck sex.

And she told you about it.

And when he pushed, she said no.

All of which means that she is in fact trustworthy and Iago doesn't have a fucking leg to stand on. Remind the poisonous little prick of that every single time he comes calling, and I expect he'll pack it in fairly quickly.

As for the initial nondisclosure: what do you reckon would have been her chance of finding out for herself whether she was capable of doing right by you of her own free will if she'd kept you fully informed? Based on the reasonable assumption that she knew full well how badly the resulting jealousy would affect you, I suggest that the answer there is slim to none. In her position, I wouldn't have told you either. Would you?
posted by flabdablet at 5:00 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

I just wanted to say that the little electrical current you feel IS the cycle. That is the amydigala (emotional brain) prepping itself for (imagined) badness to come. But it puts you in a heightened state which then scans the environment for danger. You see? The current CREATES the problem.

To break this cycle you must catch the moment before you feel the current. You are likely a very sensitive person who makes associations easily as you need to break this association. The feeling of electrical current IS the association. It is not protecting you, except that it is trying to protect you from feeling fear. I promise you that the fear of fear is worse than the feeling of fear itself. But you MUST face this current and stare it down, like a tiger of your imagination that you must dominate and subdue. YOU are the one in control here, not the current. Good luck.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:14 AM on October 31, 2013

It sounds like she momentarily had her head turned by a charming predator, but she didn't fall for his bullshit at the end of the day.

I think this is fairly commonplace and simply a sign that you and the wife need to strengthen your relationship.

Weird predatory guys (and predatory females) like your wife encountered only pursue others they sense a weakness in. Clearly, your marriage has some flaws, this guy sensed that you wife might be vulnerable due to these flaws in her marriage - but in the end he was wrong about your wife!

This type of person is KEEN on pursuing married or committed people out of sport, not because there is any genuine mutual attraction there. Do you understand?

Normal and genuine people don't pursue married individuals, but predators do.

You and your wife have some work to do, true. But in no way shape or form is your wife going to be swayed by bullshit like this guy was slinging a second time. He was never interested in your wife personally, anyway, just her status as a (perhaps mildly unhappy?) married woman.

The danger was real, sure. But it is no match for a genuine partnership.

Work on strengthening the intimacy and friendship with your wife. A fulfilling marriage is Everything and can not be compromised by outsiders.

Focus on the health of your partnership, not your irrational jealousy.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 9:52 AM on October 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

Yes, what I described is a CBT approach, but it's also mindfulness-based.
posted by jaguar at 2:40 PM on October 31, 2013

And when he pushed, she said no.

Yeah, that is huge. Focus on that.

Her response was not perfect, but it has a lot of good elements on which you can build a better partnership, going forward.
posted by htid at 8:52 PM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

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