Obsessing Over Your Relationship Status? Here's Your Action Plan

Photo: Briana Morrison

Do you obsess about not being in a relationship? If you’ve ever felt like you’re playing the emotional equivalent of that whack-a-mole arcade game where thoughts erupt and hijack your peace of mind, you’re not alone. This mental habit is called rumination—obsessively dwelling on certain thoughts and symptoms, and it is the worst. Unlike other behaviors, rumination can be so subtle that we often don’t notice we’re doing it, and it’s completely portable. So we can practically ruminate constantly, even in yoga classes.

Frankly, it’s hard enough to cope with romantic disappointments without replaying them in your head, as my client, Emma, tended to do. A passionate and petite 39-year-old who works in politics, Emma was an experienced ruminator and one of the smartest women I’ve met. When I asked her about her therapy goals, she said, "I want to stop being crazy in relationships, and move on more easily after a breakup." She went on to describe her experience with Nina, her most recent ex. They’d dated for eight months and had split up about a month earlier. But Nina was still almost constantly on Emma’s mind, a spiral I could see in my office: "If Nina meets someone, I’ll definitely feel jealous. But I find her pathetic in so many ways. Maybe that means I’m codependent?" As she spoke, going through countless possibilities and catastrophes, it was clear that Emma was obsessed with thinking about love. She couldn’t tolerate the uncertainty of not knowing when she’d find her next partner, which she thought was the only way to exit her stressful existence.

Rumination isn't uncommon.

Compassionately, I asked Emma to estimate how much time she spent ruminating. "Since the breakup, probably half my waking hours," she told me. She noticed that the obsessing was getting in the way of her productivity and that she had to work extra hours to compensate. Even when she walked down the street, she found herself imagining bumping into Nina, which prevented her from enjoying her beloved neighborhood.

Emma isn’t an outlier. Many of us are prone to overthinking. On the positive side, analyzing, anticipating, and predicting challenges can help us prepare for and solve future problems. One study found that 73 percent of young adults and 52 percent of middle-age adults describe themselves as overthinkers. The trouble comes when you start thinking compulsively about issues you can’t control in the moment or when your analyzing morphs into damaging and inaccurate assumptions you start to believe. That’s when rumination can leave you stressed and unhappy.

Why do we ruminate?

One cause is when we’re facing a goal (like finding a relationship) that can’t be readily achieved. Instead of moving on, we fall into dwelling on it, and the more importance we place on the goal, the likelier we are to ruminate. So many of us ruminate on the topic of relationships that psychologists have even developed the Relational Rumination Scale, which includes items like, "Thoughts about how to find a partner plague my mind," and "I think about how I should have prevented the breakup with an ex."

Unfortunately, just as it’s impossible to solve certain problems instantaneously, like finding someone to love right this minute, we also can’t choose our emotions. And when we’re in a negative mood, we’re that much more likely to get sucked into thoughts that maintain how we feel.

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What to do if you want to break the cycle.

To help break the cycle, it can be helpful to appreciate this idea:

Feelings ↔ Thoughts

When we feel intensely or notice that we’re in emotion mind, it’s much harder to access our ability to think reasonably. And again, anticipated aloneness and facing the feelings that come with that gloomy prediction renders us less able to perform tasks we’re capable of, like solving math equations. Yet ironically, people prone to ruminating (and the intense emotions that result), assume that they’re working to understand and solve their problems. But we need to remember that overthinking ruins our mood and drains our energy, making it that much more difficult to actually fix anything.

With this in mind, Emma and I worked on noticing the intensity of her emotions (e.g., "My anger is a 9," on a 1-to-10 scale) and reminding herself that she needed to postpone thinking about a hot topic and instead do something to take a small break until she felt more clear. "This is like taking an exam and realizing that the more you reread a tough question, the less clear you feel. If you can step out to get a drink of water, you’ll not only feel refreshed, you’ll also think better," I explained. Again, when you’re in emotion mind, overthinking only leads to more intense emotions.

Adapted from How to Be Single and Happy: Science-Based Strategies for Keeping Your Sanity While Looking for a Soul Mate by Jennifer Taitz with the permission of Tarcher Perigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Jennifer Taitz.

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