Help me end intrusive thoughts
November 21, 2017 7:03 PM   Subscribe

I was in a relationship that ended almost 3 years ago. I can't stop thinking about the person. Tawdry details inside.

I had a brief, intense and selfish affair with another married person. I was discovered and I chose to work hard on myself and my marriage. After a brief email explaining it was over, I haven't spoken to my affair partner again. I adore my spouse and I will carry the guilt of the pain I caused forever.

The consequences of the affair were awful for me and my family. From all indications my partner's spouse was unconcerned. I grieved the loss of AP like a death. AP explicitly took advantage of me in the immediate aftermath, knowing I would maintain no contact, and that I could not speak to others to prevent the person's machinations. AP was able to achieve a significant professional success, and cause me a significant professional loss, directly by this betrayal of me.

I have every reason to despise this person, who is clearly a POS psychopath. I get that my giant ego boost was based on lies and manipulation. Others who have also been used by this person confirm this.

But I am still obsessed with thoughts of the person I thought I knew during our relationship, as if that person were real. I wish I could speak to AP, but it feels like the pull of an old addiction, like I imagine alcoholism must be. I wonder what they're thinking, doing, if they're happy, how good it felt when we were together.

I have no illusions. This person was/is evil. I am obsessing over the adrenaline of our relationship, not over a human being.

I want to be the best spouse I can, and the near loss has prompted me to change many things in my marriage. I am truly a different, and better, person.

But still, in a mental compartment, after three years I can go about 3 hours without thinking of AP, tops. It's not angry thinking, it's longing, partly for how it all felt, and partly for her to suffer consequences.

So there's some background, but the question is: how do you stop obsessive thinking? I was in therapy for two years afterwards but my focus was always on addressing the issues that caused me to stray, and being a better spouse. When I would bring up these thought patterns they would try to logic me out of it. "what's the point?" "focus on your family instead," "the person exists only in your mind." I get all this, didn't help.

Also germane: I had zero romantic experience before marrying. I had terrible lifelong self-esteem issues that this affair magically made disappear for the most part. I'm in my mid 50s.
posted by chonched out to Human Relations (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Have you ever tried bringing the feeling home to experiences when you were very young? Some adult that made you both feel bad about yourself (the low self-esteem) and make it all better? There must be some parallels. Apparently your therapy didn't go there. Maybe if you connect the dots you can bring it home: usually it's a sad connection to a relationship where as a powerless child you were dependent on getting the good feeling from outside you/the other person and the other person wasn't that reliable, kind or available. I think the phenomenon has the obsessive aspects in adult life, because those refer to that total and utter (very real) dependency on others of a child. Seeing this bridge to the past helped me totally understand some things of myself as an adult I could before only label as very weird and shameful. And on top of the understanding myself better, I got sad in a productive way looking back on that past I already knew about in other ways, and the strange adult tendencies have since then dissolved, disappeared from my life even (N=1).
posted by Mariemma at 7:58 PM on November 21, 2017 [10 favorites]

I'm sorry you're going through this. A way of framing my previous emotional affair that was useful to me, which some respondents to my various questions this year and my therapist have also emphasized: It's totally normal and makes sense to long for the emotional and/or physical connection you had with that other person, and for the way you saw yourself through their eyes. Things to remember: You're still the person who felt those things. You still have within you that potential for the joy you had with them. It speaks well of you, on some level, that you were still able to feel those things with the affair partner, even if that someone wasn't the right someone and you didn't go about it in a way that maintained your integrity. Those are some of the more positive internal parts of this, even if painful memories will always accompany the joyful ones.

The less positive internal parts and the external parts: You're understandably very focused on yourself and on what you bring to your marriage, and how being all-in on your marriage gives you a sense of being a better person. I feel that way and have spoken that way about my long-term commitment and marriage to my spouse as well: I'm a better person than I was a decade ago, certainly. You understandably feel guilt about having strayed, you care about your spouse, and you've changed some things accordingly. But this phrasing left me wondering: "the near loss has prompted me to change many things in my marriage." You've changed things, but has your spouse? Or are you still in service to a debt of guilt from actions that you took 3 years ago now, in which your spouse is forever the aggrieved party, while you are forever in the role of the one in apology or supplication?

What did your spouse change after this was all revealed? Were you the only one who went to therapy, and if so was it labeled (by you, your spouse, and/or your therapist) as "your problem," or did you go to couples' therapy together? No doubt it's "correct" for you to feel guilt for your conduct, but it's important that that doesn't drive you too far into self-abegnation. People don't have affairs because they have a deep need to deny themselves—they often have them because there is finally an opportunity to feel a thing or experience a thing that perhaps they feel long-denied (even if ultimately, that feeling is sometimes misplaced or exaggerated). I'm worried that if you continue to deny that there was any importance to the feelings you had during the affair, you're going to continue feeling like you're missing something with this current approach to therapy. In some respect, I fear guilting yourself into doing what you've agreed is "the right thing" could really be a bit of an easy way out for everyone, because that makes it solely your problem, while ignoring any underlying motivations and structural issues with your marriage that made an affair both possible and likely (and that may continue to fuel your repetitive thoughts). Affairs don't happen in a vacuum.

I'm thankful that my therapist didn't say things like "What's the point?" "Focus on your family instead," or "The person exists only in your mind." Maybe the idea there is tough love, but for me, the process of thinking through what my affair partner brought into my life and what I've been missing in my marriage has been an illuminating one. It's led me to ask more of my spouse, as well as to be much more upfront about what I think and feel and want. Given, my spouse is not aware of my emotional affair, which was a choice I had the privilege to be able to make in my specific set of circumstances. That's not the point—I'm not saying I come to this with any perfect perspective or even the commitment I once had. What I can say with some certainty, from the perspective of many therapy sessions of my own, is this: Your affair partner wasn't imaginary. And who they were to you was not imaginary. And even if they had been imaginary, those characteristics you imagined into being for them and still long for are important, since they're things you want, likely things you need, and maybe even things you're missing in your life with your spouse. Ignoring that possibility or pretending it's not the case doesn't solve anything.

So those are some things I think you should look into addressing, probably with a new therapist of your own and in couples therapy. You can always try cognitive behavioral therapy to address repetitive and/or intrusive thoughts, and that would be a fairly standard recommendation here on the green. You could try something low-key like Woebot to test it out if you want. That might help with the mindfulness aspect of this—learning to recognize the feelings that come up, the circumstances that trigger them, and ways to recast or redirect them. But it seems to me that until you confront whether your feelings are illuminating shortcomings that still exist in your relationship with your spouse, it is possible you will continue to experience some of these repetitive thoughts.
posted by o_O at 8:47 PM on November 21, 2017 [16 favorites]

I was in therapy for two years afterwards but my focus was always on addressing the issues that caused me to stray, and being a better spouse. When I would bring up these thought patterns they would try to logic me out of it. "what's the point?" "focus on your family instead," "the person exists only in your mind." I get all this, didn't help.

I get very attached to people whether they're good for me or not and also have a tendency to think about them very frequently for a long time after things end. So, yeah, this sounds incredibly unhelpful. I'd look for another therapist and try again.
posted by bunderful at 9:14 PM on November 21, 2017 [6 favorites]

The answer from o_O is a good one—there are still things to learn from your experience and still changes to make. One possible way to start figuring that out is a book by Mira Kirschenbaum called When Good People Have Affairs. It’s specifically about probing the motivations behind straying. You might read it and see what resonates with you, and use that as a starting point for exploring more deeply.
posted by Sublimity at 3:47 AM on November 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't know if you can end your intrusive thoughts. What you *can* do is to change your relationship to those thoughts.

Think about your mind like a TV set, and your thoughts as if they are like different shows on TV. What's happening now might be that you keep watching the AP show. The "AP thoughts show" start and you pull up a chair and watch and watch and then argue about watching and feel ashamed about watching and get mad at yourself about watching, and so on.

This is not a matter of blame. It's more like your so fascinated by the AP thoughts show that you keep reinforcing that show, in effect feeding your intrusive thoughts.

What I suggest instead is to put some space between yourself and those thoughts, kind of like a mindfulness activity. When a thought occurs to you, take a breath and say, "Oh, there's one of those AP thoughts again!" At some point that can move to "I notice I'm having AP thoughts again" and soon you might have enough space to ask yourself whether you want to keep watching that show, if there's anything there for you. Or, whether you want to spend your time becoming a better partner.

Don't struggle. Keep breathing. And get yourself into a place where you can choose how you want to spend your life.
posted by jasper411 at 6:53 AM on November 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

You might be able to use a cognitive behavioral therapy idea. When you start to yearn over Imaginary affair partner, try to back up and see where you are and recall what you were thinking two minutes ago. I could almost imagine it's like quitting smoking. If you can't prevent longing and brooding, then postpone it to a scheduled time, or distract yourself a bit. Fake it til you make it?

Understanding how she hooked you kind of fascinating. Did she appeal to something you needed?\

I'm sorry you are going through this. She doesn't deserve to occupy this much of your mindspace. You deserve to recover. While trying hard to make things up to your longtime partner, please also be kind to yourself.
posted by puddledork at 7:28 AM on November 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd guess part of why memories of the affair have you in their grip is that it gave you something that you're not getting enough of, before or after the affair. It may have to do with some of your lifelong patterns of relating to others and yourself, or with the master narratives that orient you to life, or both, or something else altogether; we have no idea, and neither, it seems, do you. Those possibilities might be something worth exploring and achieving some clarity on. That's why it's really unfortunate that you had the therapist you did--to be honest, they sound like they were terrible at actually doing therapy. If you feel up to it, consider looking for another therapist, and one who demonstrates curiosity in exploring what it is about this affair that's gotten such a hold over you, rather than rushing to solve the problem away. If that's not feasible, try trusted friends, family, and mentor-types, or consider exploring online forums that are for discussing struggles with infidelity (unfortunately I don't have experience with such forums, so I don't have anything more specific than that).
posted by obliterati at 7:49 AM on November 22, 2017

Seems like the affair, as they often are, was intensely good and intensely bad. Intensity is stimulating. Is there a way you can bring some (safe) intensity into your life to replace the rush?

Also, if you try a new therapist, maybe the thing to work on is specifically the intrusive/obsessive thoughts. If you frame it as affair recovery, they’re going to repeat all those unhelpful things.
posted by kapers at 7:50 AM on November 22, 2017

Hmm. Do you, or could you, meditate? I think you will not solve this by logic, but by maneuvering deep currents in your heart. Try this: early one morning, before dawn, alone– take yourself to a trance or flow state, hone all your focus until the world drops away. With your eyes closed and your body still, imagine the two sides of AP; good on the left, bad on the right; and merge them, shimmering, until the host is one and the same. Let your mind run where it wants. Keep breathing. The two identities may struggle to merge; may break apart again and again; gently, persuasively, let your mind keep trying to connect them. Wander where you will. You may see strange, dark visualizations and feel surprising, intense emotions. Even find yourself balling up your fists or weeping. Just keep your focus until the work feels done.
posted by fritillary at 8:21 AM on November 22, 2017

who is clearly a POS psychopath

In that she cheated on her spouse, I guess maybe. but you broke up with her via "a brief email" and never spoke to her again. some vaguely described vindictiveness is a natural response, if not an admirable one. I would ask myself: if I don't want to be with her anymore but still can't stop thinking about her and how bad she is, is it that I need to believe she is an irredeemable psychopath to keep myself from re-offending? Can I not focus on my spouse above all else without needing to "despise" the "evil" alternative? because this strikes me as indicative of not only an obsession but a lack of confidence in your power of choice.

I think you are focusing on these wicked qualities of hers because it seems necessary to demonize her to keep the addiction at bay. but the exaggerated terms in which you see her are part of what what sustain the addiction and make it so hard to let go. the kind of person who is an evil psychopath is the same kind of person who could magically fix a man's self-esteem all by herself: not real. when you say you know you're not obsessing over a human being, I'm not sure whether this is what you mean, because you seem to think that even if you know the happy memories are false, her pure evil is real. but they are both imaginary.

Others who have also been used by this person confirm this.

Seeking out third-party gossip about her is not in the spirit of no-contact and will not help you to relax the obsession.

From all indications my partner's spouse was unconcerned.

You've had no contact with her since breaking it off. How could you possibly know this? Why would you care? You sound aggrieved, like you think she got off easy, but if this is true it means you got off easy too: your only worry is your own spouse; you don't have to carry the guilt of having hurt a second innocent person.

Anyway: you can do the same standard CBT-style things people do to break other obsessive addictive bad habits, and not worry about the content of the thoughts, only about interrupting them. but if you are devoted to the idea that your thoughts have some truth to them, this will be harder. It might also help if you had some way to start daydreaming about a future where you have self-esteem and whatever else these memories do for you. the past is most compelling in this way, as a relief from despair, when there is no future vision to compete with it.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:27 AM on November 22, 2017 [7 favorites]

There are some recognized techniques. The thoughts have become a habit, so think of it as changing a habit. One way is to substitute another habit. It's certainly reasonable to feel bad about things you lost, and how someone hurt you. But you have a lot to be grateful for. Your marriage survived, you have your job. My brother wore a rubber band on his wrist. When he became aware of obsessive negative thinking, he snapped the rubber band enough to hurt a bit. And he went through his mental list of replacement things to think about. Even putting on music to drive out the obsessive thought and replace it with music, which is pretty much always good for you, unless you have a copy of Marilyn Manson and AC/DC's I Hate Myself and Everyone Hates Me because Life Is a Hellhole and Death Can't Come Soon Enough set to autoplay.

Take up some additional new habits. Learn a new skill. Sing. Exercise. Bake. Take dancing lessons with your spouse. Push good new stuff in and leave no room for the crap.
posted by theora55 at 11:57 AM on November 22, 2017

Have you tried medication? If not, an SSRI can give you a chance for a nice 'reboot' from obsessive thoughts - to give the brain a break in order to start to learn new patterns. Something to think about with your MD if you haven't already.
posted by namesarehard at 12:35 PM on November 22, 2017

Response by poster: So much love and thoughtfulness here. I won't mark bests because everybody who took the time to post gave me things to think about. I'm indebted to you all.
posted by chonched out at 1:14 PM on November 22, 2017

I've been through a similar heartbreak and grief. It's an absolute mindfuck to be so angry at someone, and yet think about them constantly and still long for them. My heart goes out to you more than you can imagine.

On the recommendation of a good friend, I started going to a new therapist who specializes in EMDR. I'd spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on talk therapy and it wasn't getting me anywhere... all we were doing was rehashing things I already knew, and the pain I felt wasn't going away.

The premise behind EMDR is that we have hurtful feelings or thoughts that are associated with certain memories. These memories will continue to trigger traumatic feelings until they are properly processed. So the lateral eye movements or sensory stimulation performed by the therapist uses the brain's natural memory-processing mechanisms to reduce the traumatic effects triggered by those memories, hopefully until there is little to no physical and emotional reaction. Memories that once used to cause you to tear up and feel a deep ache in your chest may soon just pass through your mind with barely a "Huh, that was a long time ago."

There is very little talking, no revisiting what happened in detail, no analyzing and lamenting of "What could you have done differently." For me that is very helpful, because constantly reliving these painful memories in talk therapy was only serving to cement them in my mind. Instead, you are meant to watch these memories play through your mind as a spectator, almost like you're watching a TV screen, and not actively analyze or pass judgment on any of it.

I've only just started, so I can't say for sure, but it seems to be effective so far. My good friend who recommended it says that it was completely effective for her. Maybe worth looking into for you.
posted by keep it under cover at 12:06 PM on November 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

The real answer is that you have to heal yourself. Why is this person evil for what they did to you but you aren’t evil for what you did to your wife? Inside every person lurks some distortions of the truth that serve a self protective purpose. This one is yours. Whatever you wanted from this woman initially, you clearly still want. Despite your mention of adoring your wife I think a fuller version of this question would admit that you still prefer your affair partner. People are skirting that fact in replying to you. But you have to face that, difficult as it is to say in a socially acceptable way. I think the standard advice for a crush applies - meet your own needs more effectively and do not look for a fantasy relationship to give you what you need. You are having a hard time with being dumped and it happens to everyone. Think about if this isn’t simply an education experience to some degree. Is this pain you are feeling not very similar to the pain you caused others? Until you can recognize that equivalency, I think it will be hard to fix this problem in a way that is fair to yourself and others. Just think about it, what are your real values? If you don’t really care about your family as much as you care about this woman, then why? This is your life, your responsibility. So this is an opportunity, not a curse. Life has given you a chance to figure something important out.
posted by karmachameleon at 12:07 AM on November 24, 2017

By the way I am not saying the above in a spirit of blame. We all have things about us we might want to fix! But we can’t really start until we are honest about the problem and stop making ourselves out to be victims. To some extent, you are really still pining for this person and believe being with them would be worth hurting your family. If you let go of the pining, that suffering will go away too.
posted by karmachameleon at 12:21 AM on November 24, 2017

I have every reason to despise this person, who is clearly a POS psychopath. I get that my giant ego boost was based on lies and manipulation.

You and your therapists have been viewing this through a romantic relationship lens.

You'll probably have better luck viewing it through a lens of having been screwed over by a POS psychopath. It's very common for people who have been taken advantage of by psychopaths to have these sorts of feelings -- regardless of any sort of romantic involvement.

I don't have any specific resources handy right now, but look for books and web pages about healing after psychopath, life after psychopath, etc.
posted by yohko at 12:55 AM on November 27, 2017

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