How to stop thinking about my relationship?
May 1, 2014 8:45 AM   Subscribe

My marriage is in limbo and I need to stop giving it so much emotional energy.

My spouse and i have been married for a few years. We recently started couple's counseling to address some dynamics of our relationship we both really dislike and, frankly, my significant doubts about whether my spouse is the right person for me. I do love my spouse and think they have a lot of good qualities - however there is also a lot that I do not get from them that I'm not sure I can live without. We both really like our therapist and no matter how this turns out, I think going is a very good decision.

My problem is that I can't stop trying to decide whether or not to leave my marriage. I have had these same doubts throughout our entire marriage and most of our engagement. (I know.) Increasingly over the years I have spent more and more time trying to make up my mind. Every time I think I have come to peace with a decision I second guess myself again. Now my doubt itself has become another reason to doubt this relationship. I spend hours every day going over everything again and again. It is starting to affect my productivity and manifest physically. I want so badly to be free of these feelings. However I am by nature a very anxious and analytical person and always have to have "a plan."

I have tried to steel myself for either possibility but I can't stand not knowing what to expect or what to do. But I need to give counseling a fair shot. I really really want to stop thinking about everything all the time and just try to focus on improving this relationship. But how, when I know there's a decent chance it won't work out?

I should also note that my spouse really wants to work things out and will be crushed if I end up leaving, which also complicates the thought process.

Does anyone have any tips, mantras, stories or general advice when dealing with something like this? I do plan to discuss this at our next therapy session but I could really use some help in the meantime.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Were I you, my "plan" would be to proceed through the next six months as if leaving is NOT an option, therefore relieving yourself of the stress of having to contemplate that choice. Put everything you have into making things work well for the pair of you. Re-visit how you feel about ending or continuing the marriage in six months. Set a date if you have to, but every time the thoughts crop up, remind yourself that you are not making this decision today and tell your brain to move on.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:50 AM on May 1, 2014 [16 favorites]

As a fellow anxious person, I recommend meditation. Our brains want to believe that if we just think harder about a problem, we'll resolve it. But in this case, like many, we have to stop thinking about it all the time, because it's not helping. Simple mindfulness meditation helps me have the tools to redirect my mind.

When that fails, I will confess that I just try to catch myself as the intrusive thoughts begin, and distract myself with something fun. TV show plot? My next workout? A book? Thinking about something cuddly like puppies or bunnies? Yep, I have used all of those things.

Lastly, the anxiety is hindering you, so also do things that help you with your anxiety: exercise, yoga, etc.
posted by ldthomps at 9:03 AM on May 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

You might want to do some googling/reading about detachment as a concept. It's not meant for exactly this situation, comes up more in codependency discussions and/or discussions about how to deal with your partner having a mental illness. But to the extent that it's about keeping yourself from spinning yourself into an all-day-every-day frenzy of overthinking the relationship that you're in, you might find something useful there.

You might find something useful in anything that gets you out of your head, really. Mindfulness meditation might be an option. Letting yourself journal about it for 30 minutes a day but then relegate it ONLY to that time and do your best to set those thoughts aside if they come to you any other time might be an option. Picking up a new hobby, together or with your spouse. Exercising to help wear yourself out so you don't think about this stuff when you're trying to fall asleep at night. Setting up a regular coffee date with a friend. Joining an online book club.

Anything that breaks that cycle of you getting way all up in your own head trying to plan and analyze twenty steps down the road is your friend right now.
posted by Stacey at 9:03 AM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Are you addressing your anxiety as a separate issue? That strikes me as the most urgent concern here.

To show you my perspective, imagine instead of your marriage you were trying to decide whether to have steak for dinner next time you eat out. There are reasons to do it, and reasons not to. And every day you agonise over it for hours, and in the meantime, you don't get to really enjoy your food at all, because you keep thinking how delicious steak would be if you could have it and simultaneously how you wish you didn't want steak so much and what to do about your cravings.

The point isn't that it's a nightmare not being able to make the decision. It's that it doesn't matter as much as living life in the meantime, and it's your anxiety that is stopping you from doing that.

Figure out how to live your life without this question occupying so much of your time and energy first (with the help of a therapist if necessary) and then think about the question itself.

I also have a feeling that when you live a less anxious life, the answer will be much clearer. After all, how can you love your spouse if you keep your distance in case you jump? And how can you separate from them if you can't separate your thoughts from them for more than a few hours?
posted by greenish at 9:06 AM on May 1, 2014 [12 favorites]

I was once given the advice to approach difficult marital issues by asking myself "if nothing ever changes, if circumstances stay exactly the same way they are today, could I be happy being married to this person?"

You have to be willing to answer the question honestly.

Anecdotally, I can tell you that being married to someone who always has one foot out the door is a guarantee of marital strife. Once you're either in or you're out, you can move forward. But if you're in, you gotta be all in, fully committed. You have to tell yourself every day, every time there's a fight, "leaving is not an option, this is where I'm staying". And you can't wait for the other person to give you the signal that it's time to be all in. Sometimes you have to make that decision based on faith alone.
posted by vignettist at 9:09 AM on May 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you know that you want out. And the only reasons to stay are to avoid hurting your spouse's feelings, or because you're afraid to leave, you've already left, it's just that your body didn't get the memo.

How about being honest in thereapy. There is nothing wrong with saying, "I have had my doubts for a long time now and I'd really like to leave. I don't think it has anything to do with anything that can be fixed. I need to have the tools to negotiate a graceful exit."

You may want to schedule a session on your own with your therapist. Ditto for your husband. Wouldn't it be a hoot, if you both liked and respected each other enough to try therapy, but ultimately, you both want to leave and just don't know how to do it.

In the end, there's never a good way to end something if it's one sided, but it must end one way or another, so it's just a matter of the best way to do it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:21 AM on May 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

You need individual counseling and consultation with a psychiatrist for your anxiety.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:30 AM on May 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

You need to be either in or out. If you're done, be really done. But if a part of you still believes this could work out, you need to fully devote yourself to doing the work. Not forever, but say in x months I will reevaluate. Otherwise, you're sabotaging your chances.
posted by Aranquis at 9:34 AM on May 1, 2014

I have a lot of the same anxious ruminations, and I just started cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and it's been really helpful. I'm learning a lot of techniques to adjust my cognitive distortions. One thing I've been trying to do this week is to really try to focus on what I'm doing. If I'm at work getting anxious about an unrelated situation, I say to myself (out loud if I can, or in my head) "What am I doing right now? Working on project X. I am thinking about project X." It sounds silly but it really helps me concentrate.
posted by radioamy at 9:34 AM on May 1, 2014

Anxiety medication changed my life in a lot of ways, and one of them was finally being able to derail myself from dwelling all day long on one thing for days at a time.
posted by Sequence at 9:45 AM on May 1, 2014

Wow. This could have been written by me, about four or five months ago. I always felt extremely committed to my partner but we had been going through a really difficult period and I started to have doubts, then intense pressure, and finally anxiety attacks. Feel free to memail me if you want to talk.

Anyone telling you either that you need to make a decision right now, or that the doubt means you absolutely don't want to be in your relationship is dead wrong, and you should not heed their advice. Not because they're wrong or right, but rather because they aren't you and aren't in your shoes, and therefore don't know any better than you do. Anxiety is multifaceted and very complicated, and can come from any number of different things.

On the contrary: you don't have to make a decision right now. The more you feel that you need to make a decision, the harder this will get, because both directions currently cause you enormous pain. I mean, that's what the anxiety is about, right? So the first thing is to find a way to lessen the anxiety.

First, try to understand that the anxiety is just part of you right now. I know that you want to get rid of it, and it frustrates you, but the first key is that you need to accept yourself for who you are and for what you are feeling at this difficult time. It will be hard, but everything to come depends on your own self-acceptance.

Then, you can try to look at the anxiety for what it is: anxiety. Try to hold it in your hand and act like it's something outside of you. Observe it, turn it over, figure out where it comes from. I know that anxiety feels a lot like physical pain--it's very immediate--but try not to let it dictate your actions. Instead, try to bring the anxiety down by working with it: by figuring out where it is coming from.

Here are a few things that I have been doing to bring down the anxiety.
  • I highly recommend The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne. You can find it on the Internet.
  • No caffeine. And limit the sugar. And don't use alcohol as a crutch.
  • Stay active. It is absolutely imperative that you get exercise right now. Exercise keeps your body healthy and brings your mind off of things. I've also read that since anxiety is a fight-or-flight reflex, activities that simulate one of those two things are helpful: so I started judo, which gives me a good fight twice a week.
  • Start journaling. This episode has caused me a lot of free-floating anxiety. Journaling helped me figure out when this anxiety would arise and why. For example, I was afraid to come home from work -- because I realized that I was afraid of the negative emotions that would come from another day of her unsuccessful job hunting. We talked about how we can change the emotional tone of these conversations, and now I feel a lot less of that fear. Every time I figured something out like that, it lets a little bit more of the air out of the overinflated anxiety balloon.
  • Meditate. Meditation helps you bring yourself out of yourself, so to speak. It helps you be aware and focused and in the moment, which is what you need. I'm working my way through Full Catastrophe Living, which is about "Mindfulness-based stress reduction", i.e. reducing anxiety through meditation, and so far it's been helpful.
Seriously though. Memail me. I'm going through exactly your problem, as we speak. Let's do this together.

Stay strong. You're going to get through it.
posted by cinoyter at 10:03 AM on May 1, 2014 [15 favorites]

I think that some of these comments (the ones saying "be honest" and "answer the question") may not understand this anxiety, because it sounds like if you could answer the question, you would (right?).

Here's how I'd look at it. The obsessing isn't helping. You are taking concrete steps to address what isn't working in your relationship. Are you also taking concrete steps around the anxiety itself? (E.g., some combination of: individual therapy, reading books about anxiety, anxiety medication, and tracking the anxiety's rise and fall to test different lifestyle factors [meditation, yoga, exercise, eliminating coffee, getting enough sleep, good nutrition]?) If those two things are in place, then you have a plan. As DarlingBri suggested, commit to that plan for six months.

Anxiety is awful. Relationship anxiety like this is awful. Let yourself take a rest from it. You'll get through no matter what happens, so take things a day at a time and don't feel like you have to have it all figured out right now.
posted by salvia at 10:05 AM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Anxiety is a horrible, distorting, energy-draining, invasive, hard-to-kill monster. But you are not your anxiety. Take care of yourself (your anxiety, your guilty feelings about your spouse) first and your marriage second. Have compassion for yourself, and take care of your body, your heart, and your mind, because you are going through a rough time. What greenish and others here have said. Getting to a place where you are clear with yourself will make decision-making easier (or at least the answer clearer).
posted by butternut at 10:05 AM on May 1, 2014

My epiphany, after months and months in a similar situation, was that I would probably never feel 100% sure either way. When I realized this, suddenly I stopped feeling like a person searching in the dark for the elusive "right" thing to do, which it had seemed was surely out there somewhere if I just looked hard enough.
posted by pril at 10:13 AM on May 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

I can't help you not be anxious, but I can tell you that over your couples therapy you will learn a lot about you, your spouse, and your relationship. Sometimes couples therapy is a tool to bring two people back together, and sometimes its a nice soothing way for the two people to find closure with a mediator between the two parties. You are just starting couples therapy, why not give it a bit of time before you make a decision as to whether you are in the right relationship. That doesn't mean put it off indefinitely, but that 6 month period as someone suggested above might be a great length of time to figure out organically the best course of action. Until then, absolve yourself from the guilt of not knowing and commit to understanding how to communicate with your partner.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:15 AM on May 1, 2014

Strong, strong second to everything cinoyter said. Relationships are stressful. When they're rocky, even more so. And the rumination you're doing indicates less that you have to leave, or you have irreconcilable doubts, and more that you have anxiety you need to deal with. Once you've dealt with that, you'll be able to make a decision with a clearer head. No one knows what's right or wrong right now — including you, because your brain is being a jerk. CBT CBT CBT.

And to me, the fact that you've been like this your entire marriage and engagement indicates (I AM NOT A THERAPIST) (I AM NOT YOU!) that these issues are based less in your marriage and more in your own anxiety and fear.

Also, I urge you not to make any rash decisions when you're in the midst of an anxiety spiral. Six months break from decisions, as several people have said, is a great approach.

(I'll put in a plug for Sheryl Paul, at Conscious Transitions, as I always do. She's a little New Age-y and a bit cheesy, especially if you're of the cynical type, but there are nuggets of truth and relief buried within that calm my heart when I'm in the midst of an anxiety spiral.)
posted by good day merlock at 10:21 AM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

A few other thoughts --

- Consider putting on the table in your couples therapy that you are anxious about this. This is the kind of thing that a good therapist will be very good at validating. (For me, the therapist noticed it first -- "it sounds like you are feeling a lot of anxiety about X." It was the first time it was named. I almost started crying and gratefully exclaimed "YES! I am feeling SO MUCH ANXIETY about this.") The more that you and others can talk about the anxiety as a thing that happens to you instead of You, the more information you'll gain about it.

- The opposite of "I must decide this right now" is to live in the present moment. Ground yourself and take refuge there. Something bothers you about your relationship? Bring that up. You're feeling warm and cuddly about the relationship? Go ahead and cuddle. You don't know yet whether you want to stay in this relationship, so try just being where you are right now and troubleshooting problems as they arise.

So, when something minor happens that snowballs into "omg that means everything is wrong that means we must get a divorce," notice that you've fallen into all-or-nothing thinking and catastrophizing, let go of that, and return to looking at the present moment and the minor issue that is actually occurring. You had a good insight in realizing that most of your daily pain is coming from the anxiety itself and not [your partner's failure to pick their clothes up off the floor, or whatever].
posted by salvia at 11:20 AM on May 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

You've got some great advice already, but just wanted to chime in with a book recommendation.

Too Good To Leave, Too Bad To Stay is really helpful at getting to what you really need from a relationship and helping you work out if those needs are being met. It takes away the "on one hand X but on the other Y" wrangling, because maybe Z is paramount to you and if you're not getting that then the other points are moot. Good luck.
posted by billiebee at 11:28 AM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

"my significant doubts about whether my spouse is the right person for me."

"there is also a lot that I do not get from them that I'm not sure I can live without. "

"I can't stop trying to decide whether or not to leave my marriage. I have had these same doubts throughout our entire marriage and most of our engagement. (I know.)"

Odd, when I read this my first thought was that it was your marriage that is the problem not inappropriate anxiety, but I could be totally wrong of course. I'm probably projecting but reading this made me flash to my first marriage. I had lots of doubts leading up to and through the marriage, and as a result a lot of anxiety, always kind of picking at "is this right?". But the anxiety was because the relationship really just wasn't right for me, not the other way around. I had even tried breaking up with my SO relatively early in the relationship, but he was just so devastated, and I did care about him and he was my friend and I just felt so damn sorry for him. And then when the relationship got further along, I couldn't leave because I'd made a commitment, and relationships are supposed to be about compromise, and I'd made my bed, and I'm not a quitter, etc. etc.

In retrospect my omnipresent sense of dread and wrongness and tension, weren't maladaptive reactions to my environment, they were a very appropriate response to the fact that I was spending YEARS of my life (and contemplating the REST of my life) in an unhappy, ill suited relationship. The anxiety was my warning bells going off, I just wasn't listening.

Anyway, I could be totally off base, but it might be worth considering whether maybe what's going on is that this just isn't a good, healthy, happy relationship for you. And that you know it, but feel bad about it, so you're in conflict between your needs and your sense of obligation ("But I need to give counseling a fair shot....I should also note that my spouse really wants to work things out and will be crushed if I end up leaving, which also complicates the thought process.")

Don't forget that you also have an obligation to yourself, to live the happiest, healthiest life you can. Good luck, this is difficult place to be in.
posted by pennypiper at 11:54 AM on May 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Have you thought extensively and carefully about what your life would be like, or what you would want it to be like and how likely that would happen, if you did leave? If you think there's a high probability that your life would be much (significantly) better, then you should probably consider making a change because it means there is something substantially wrong with your current situation. In other words, you could ask yourself a question about relative instead of absolute happiness: you are not happy with your current situation...compared to what?
posted by Dansaman at 1:21 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I spend hours every day going over everything again and again.

This is not healthy to do to for years as you describe. I don't think this is as much a legitimate concern of yours as much as it may be a possible maniacs station of OCD or related disorders. My husband was you, basically, a few years ago. It was his OCD that kept him in this loop of constant thoughts/anxiety/indecision about our relationship. Because it was relationship issues (and his parents were very meddling) it was not as obvious as if he had instead spent hours worrying about the stove. Have you discussed this with a doctor, especially a psychiatrist?
posted by saucysault at 6:26 PM on May 1, 2014

I think the best way to stop obsessing about a problem is to solve it.
posted by sam_harms at 8:54 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I too could have written this question myself.

I couldn't agree more about committing to something like 6 months. Doing that helped me in so many ways. It helped to know I wouldn't have to look back and wonder if I'd really tried, but it also helped with the stress of constantly feeling like I had a huge decision to make.

Once I truly committed that amount of time, whenever I thought, "I just can't stand this anymore," I could remind myself there was a date marked for me to evaluate that. Of course it didn't stop my upset altogether (and some part of my brain was saying, "Okay, but I'm noting this AND how often it happens!"), but with some practice I was able to redirect my thinking mostly to the here and now.

Having said all of that, and urging you to hold off on making a decision (which I think is what you're trying to do), I want to comment on the idea that the anxiety is a red flag about your marriage. It may be, but obviously you've already seen red flags. The anxiety could also be a very natural response to your sense of responsibility in making a big decision. You recognize that it's become crippling, so some redirection of intrusive thoughts, and maybe some anti-anxiety meds could be very helpful. Much respect for other opinions, but I do think fear and weight of a heavy decision can cause this kind of anxiety and obsessive thinking without some underlying disorder.

I'm all for meditation, etc., but I also know that when you're as emotionally tapped out as you are (my angst had taken a physical toll as well... extreme weight loss, sleeplessness, and so on), it can be overwhelming to try to learn new practices, even if the payoff would be great. Be gentle with yourself when it comes to trying to get all that stuff "right" and don't beat yourself up if you aren't up to learning new techniques. You can listen to music instead (make a playlist of stuff that you can sing along with -- it can help turn off the internal dialogue -- but songs that don't apply too directly to topics that trigger those thoughts). Ugh. It's not easy, and I'm so sorry. You're welcome to memail me.
posted by whoiam at 9:07 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

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