By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Maura, 47, and Kevin, 49, sit on opposite ends of the couch during their first couples counseling session. When I ask them about some of the challenges they’ve faced in their four-year marriage, Maura opens up about why she requested to meet with me.
Kevin’s been giving me the cold shoulder and I feel his anger. He just can’t seem to get over his resentment toward me since he found out that I charged over $5,000 on credit cards over the last year. At times, I told him about my purchases for my new business. Other times, I worried that he’d think I was being frivolous. I guess I never saw myself as being dishonest until Kevin saw my Visa bill and got very upset.
Like Maura and Kevin, many of the couples that I work with in my practice have feelings of mistrust when it comes to facing day-to-day challenges. In The Science of Trust, Dr. John Gottman explores the milestones that all relationships have, particularly in the early stages. He writes, “As we shall see, most of these issues have to do with trust.”
Trust is an essential aspect of intimacyMaura knows that her emotional sensitivities make it difficult for her to open up to Kevin and increase her fear of being hurt or left by him. She strives to be transparent with Kevin about finances but struggles to do so because she doesn’t feel secure in her relationship with him. After enduring a difficult divorce, Maura has trust issues and describes how she “walks on eggshells,” fearing she will lose Kevin.
In Hold Me Tight, Dr. Sue Johnson explains that by being vulnerable, you can create a level of emotional safety with your partner. It’s the primary way to strengthen a marital bond and keep love alive. Through vulnerability, you’ll be able to re-establish a secure emotional attachment and preserve intimacy in your marriage. Brené Brown also champions this idea in her popular TED talk, The power of vulnerability.
Even though Maura doesn’t believe she was overspending on her new business, she also realizes that withholding financial information is creating mistrust and damaging her marriage.
Johnson explains that you can tell when one of your “raw spots” has been hit because there is a sudden shift in the emotional tone of the conversation. She writes, “You and your love were joking just a moment ago, but now one of you is upset or enraged, or, conversely, aloof or chilly. You are thrown off balance. It is as if the game changed and no one told you. The hurt partner is sending out new signals and the other tries to make sense of the change.”
I don’t always like to talk things through, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love Maura. She’s insecure and wants me to reassure her all the time that I’m there for her and she needs to realize that I am not going to leave her like her ex did. When she gets mistrustful, her voice changes and she often threatens to leave me.
Maura responds thoughtfully.
Things don’t always go smoothly when we disagree. When we have conflict, Kevin doesn’t usually want to talk about it. And I have a problem because my ex also gave me the silent treatment and then left after sending me a text that he wanted a divorce. I feel rejected when Kevin goes into his shell, but I’m learning to let go of my old baggage and give him space.
So where do they go from here?
Learning to trust each otherOne of the hardest things about trusting someone is learning to have confidence in your own judgment. Trust is about much more than finding signs that your partner has been unfaithful. It’s about believing that they have your best interests at heart.
Every person is born with the propensity to trust others but through life experiences, you may have become less trusting as a form of self-protection. Falling in love and getting married can be invigorating and scary all at once. An inability to trust a new partner may take several forms, from feeling they’re dishonest or secretive, to doubting they’re going to keep their promises or be dependable.
Take a moment to consider this: Your partner is not solely responsible for creating mistrustful feelings. In most cases, you must take equal responsibility for creating an atmosphere of safety and security in your relationship. In order to begin the process of overcoming mistrust, ask yourself:
Here are seven ways to proactively build trust in your relationship.
Acknowledge your feelings and practice being vulnerablein small steps Build confidence in being more open with your partner. Discussing minor issues (schedules or meals) is a great place to start before tackling bigger matters like disciplining kids or finances.
Be honest and communicate about key issues in your relationship
Be sure to be forthcoming about finances, your past, and concerns with a family member, co-workers, or children. Don’t sweep important issues under the rug because this can lead to resentment.
Challenge mistrustful thoughts
Ask yourself: is my lack of trust due to my partner’s actions, my own insecurities, or both? Be aware of unresolved issues from your past relationships that may be triggering mistrust in the present.
Trust your intuition and instincts
Have confidence in your own perceptions and pay attention to red flags. Be vulnerable and ask for reassurance if you feel mistrustful.
Assume your partner has good intentions
If he or she lets you down, it may just be a failure in competence–sometimes people simply make a mistake.
Listen to your partner’s side of the story
Believe that there are honest people in the world. Unless you have a strong reason to mistrust him or her, have faith in your partner.
Practice having a recovery conversation after an argument
Take a short break if you feel overwhelmed or flooded and set a time to process what happened. This will give you both time to calm down and collect your thoughts so you can have a more meaningful dialogue with your partner.
According to Dan Wile, author of After the Fight, after a disagreement your focus needs to be on listening to your partner’s perspective, collaborating, building intimacy, and restoring safety and good will.
In The Science of Trust, John Gottman explains that practicing emotional attunement while relaxing together can help you stay connected in spite of your differences. This means turning toward one another by showing empathy, responding appropriately to bids for connection, and not being defensive.
Asking your partner open-ended questions is also a great way to increase emotional closeness and build trust. If you ask questions that require a yes or no answer, you’re closing the door to intimate dialogue. In other words, take your time and make love to your partner with words.
For a relationship to succeed in the long run, you must be able to trust each other. Building trust with a partner is really about the small moments of connection that allow you to feel safe and to truly believe that your partner will show up for you. It’s the bedrock of a happy, long term partnership.
How to rebuild trust when it’s been brokenIn their new book Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, John and Julie Gottman suggest that if you break any agreements about trust with your partner, there are steps to fix what’s been broken. These steps include setting a time to talk, naming the feelings you experienced due to the breach of trust without blame or criticism, listening to your partner without judgment, and each partner describing their perspective and discussing any feelings that were triggered by the incident.
The final three steps essential for rebuilding trust, according to the Gottmans in Eight Dates, are both partners assessing how they contributed to the incident and holding themselves accountable, each person apologizing and accepting an apology, and developing a plan to prevent further breaches of trust from occurring.
An important part of my work with Maura and Kevin focused on facilitating conversations between them that helped to rebuild trust and affirm their commitment to one another over time. Specifically, they worked through the steps in Eight Dates and were eventually able to apologize to each other for their part in the issues they were struggling with.
For instance, Kevin was able to be vulnerable and apologize for giving Maura the silent treatment, which triggered her feelings of mistrust and insecurity. Instead of telling her she was “too needy,” he began responding to her bids for connection more often. Fortunately, Maura gave Kevin a sincere apology for her financial infidelity related to expenditures for her new business, and she promised to practice full disclosure in the future.
Maura put it like this.
It was unexpected when Kevin was willing to listen to my side of the story and not dish out blame. I made a mistake and was willing to accept responsibility for my actions but he didn’t rub it in or make me feel worse than I already did. It feels like we can start fresh now that I’ve apologized and made a promise to be more open with Kevin. I know that I’m lucky he forgave me.
You have the power to break free from the hold that mistrust has on your relationship and create the kind of intimacy you deserve.
Most of us have had experiences where we can't stop thinking about something, no matter how hard we try. We pick apart the situation to see what we could have done differently or try to analyze the minutiae of the incident to figure out what it all means. Clinical psychologist Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema referred to this process as rumination and defined it as "a method of coping with negative mood that involves self-focused attention" and "repetitive and passive focus on one’s negative emotions."
Though most of us ruminate from time to time, some people ruminate frequently, and people who do this are at higher risk for depression, disordered eating, and other mental health issues. Below are nine strategies that Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema and others have recommended for coping with overthinking.
1. Recognize that rumination is different than problem-solving or planning. Problem-solving and planning are active coping strategies, while rumination involves rethinking situations, analyzing them, and replaying them without forming an action plan or feeling a sense of resolution. Sometimes simply recognizing that you're ruminating can be a helpful step toward decreasing it and getting on a different track.
2. Research suggests that distraction may help. Because the pull of rumination can be strong, Dr. Edward Selby suggests specifically selecting activities that are highly engaging and positive, so that they effectively shift your attention from overthinking. Examples may include vigorous exercise, taking a hot shower, doing a crossword puzzle, holding an ice cube in your hand (a suggestion from dialectical behavior therapy), watching an engrossing movie, playing a game, or any other type of healthy activity that you find helpful.
3. Stop fighting with your thoughts. This might seem counterintuitive, but acceptance and commitment therapy suggests that efforts to stop certain thoughts can have a paradoxical effect. If you observe your thoughts in non-judgmental wonder (e.g., thinking it’s interesting your mind is repeating something, rather than getting frustrated with yourself for not being able to stop it), they might decrease in frequency or intensity. The example that is often used is trying not think about a white bear and being unable to think of anything else. If you instead allow yourself to think of the white bear, you may actually think of it less or at least not feel as distressed by it. More details about this approach, including useful metaphors, are available here.
4. Challenge perfectionistic standards with cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques. Are you judging your behavior against an unrealistic vision of how a person would ideally act in a situation? Are you overly focused on any minor missteps or negative aspects while discounting the positive aspects? One strategy that might help is thinking about what you would tell a friend who felt the way that you do.
5. Plan dedicated daily rumination time. Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema recommended scheduling a dedicated time (e.g., 30 minutes) in the day when you plan to ruminate, an exercise similar to one developed by Dr. Thomas Borkovec for worry. This might sound strange, but the idea is that if you start ruminating or worrying at any other time during the day, it is easier to change course if you think to yourself, "I don't need to think about this now. I will save it for my designated time later." In my experience, when people devote time to ruminating in a focused way, they often find that they can't fill the full time, or they find some resolution at the end of it. This is in contrast to a common pattern of ruminating, which involves going in and out of it in a shallow way of thinking throughout the day while completing other tasks.
6. Try relating to your thoughts differently via mindfulness or prayer. Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema conducted community interviews and reported that some people turn their concerns over to a higher power when ruminating, and that this seems to help them gain acceptance and peace about a situation. In particular, some clients that I have worked with find the serenity prayer to be helpful. For people who are not religious or who are just looking for an additional healthy coping strategy, she suggested trying meditation and/or mindfulness exercises.
7. Write thoughts out instead of letting them circle around in your head. The key is to make sure that the writing is leading to a sense of resolve and relief rather than adding a new place for ruminating. If you find that it makes things worse, then it is best to try some of the other strategies.
8. Talk to someone about the problem and gain a new perspective. Just beware of co-rumination ("extensively discussing and revisiting problems, speculating about problems, and focusing on negative feelings"), which can exacerbate the problem.
9. Create positive emotions. It might seem like this is particularly hard to do when stuck in a rumination cycle. However, if you can find a way to add some positive emotions (reading or watching something funny, listening to an upbeat song), even briefly, it might help you to look at your problem differently or in a more lighthearted way.
I hope that you find these recommendations helpful for reducing overthinking. However, if you feel that you are stuck or that your rumination is leading to significant distress or impairment in your life (e.g., negatively affecting relationships, work, or school), please seek help from a mental health professional. In addition, sometimes thoughts and memories can keep returning to people's minds because of the experience of a traumatic event. This can be quite different than rumination, and you should seek professional help specifically for trauma if that is what you are experiencing.
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.