One of the most common and worst fears we have in relationships is infidelity. Just the thought of it can make our anxiety spike and cause us to do things we normally wouldn’t do.
In this article, I’ll explore the uncertainty we all face while being in relationships with others, how fear, worry, and overthinking impacts our relationships, and what we can do about it.
Worry and anxiety are there to protect us
Worry and anxiety about cheating is not always a bad thing. If there is clear evidence that it’s currently happening, worry and anxiety are serving an important purpose: protection.
When we are in harms way, we want worry and anxiety.
However, if we have no evidence that our partner is cheating and if we notice our worry and anxiety tend to emerge regardless of our partner’s behavior, then it’s likely our worry and anxiety is leading us in the wrong direction.
Ultimately, the goal shouldn’t be to get rid of our worry and anxiety about cheating. Because if we’re successful at that, we’re likely to get hurt or continue to get hurt.
Instead, the goal should be to allow the worry and anxiety to happen, and determine if it’s pointing us down a realistic and helpful path.
Regardless of what’s happening, we should aim to always be in the driver’s seat while keeping worry and anxiety in the back seat. We want to avoid kicking the two out of the car, because sometimes they give us the right directions. And we want to keep in them from jumping into the driver’s seat because often they’re illogical and extreme.
Defining anxiety and worry
Anxiety and worry often get used interchangeably. But, they’re different.
Worry is cognitive. Worry is when we mentally engage with thoughts about future, undesirable events occurring:
- “He’s not texting back. He must be with someone else.”
- “She’s probably flirting with her coworker all day.”
Anxiety is a feeling. It’s often what we feel when we get stuck on a certain worry. And we feel it in all sorts ways:
- Racing heart
- Heart palpitations
- Lump in the throat
Worry often leads and causes us to experience anxiety. It can be very helpful to reminder ourselves us this because often times we confuse our feelings for thoughts, and vice versa. When this happens, our feelings and thoughts merge and it’s easy for irrational thoughts and emotions to take over.
By understanding that our worry thoughts cause us to experience anxiety, the next time we experience anxiety, we can reminder ourselves of this fact. We can then pay more attention to our thoughts and
External events that cause worry about cheating
We all have things that trigger worry and anxiety. Some originate outside of us, while others from within. An external event is something that happens to us and originated outside of us. It could be the action (or inaction) of a person or it could be something that happens in our environment:
- Your partner doesn’t respond to a text, email, or phone call
- You notice a change in your partner’s demeanor
- You notice your partner guarding his/her cell phone or computer activity
- A friend discloses that they found out their own partner cheated on them
Internal events that cause worry about cheating
Internal events are events that originate within us.
- A random image of your partner cheating popping into your mind
- A worst-case scenario entering mind
- Replaying and analyzing a recent interaction (rumination)
- A “what if” thought
Why distinguish between external and internal events?
Identifying what is triggering your worry can be helpful in understanding it more and controlling it.
A trigger is often a mix between external and internal events. That is, they don’t always happen in isolation of one another: our partner does something and we have an internal reaction to it.
It’s not rare, however that triggers are exclusively internal. A random thought of your partner cheating enters your mind, you have an emotional response, and you continue to run with it.
If it’s exclusively internal, this is usually a sign that it has nothing to do with your partner. It’s your stuff, even though we may direct our focus at our partner.
Worry: what we don’t have control over
All day, everyday we have thoughts that randomly enter our minds. Some thoughts are helpful, but most often they’re just junk thoughts.
In psychology, we call these automatic thoughts.
It’s important to understand that we have zero control over these thoughts. We didn’t create them. We can’t control them. And there’s no way to stop them.
And since worries are considered thoughts, we can’t stop the creation of worry.
The study found that when people attempt to stop thoughts of the past or future, the thoughts came back more often.
This is crucial to remember.
Rumination and worry
So, we don’t have control over our automatic worry thoughts. But, do we have control after the automatic thoughts appear?
Yes, but not in a controlling/suppressing our thoughts kind of way.
When we use the word “worry,” I think, most often, what we’re actually referring to is what’s called rumination.
Dr. Michael Greenberg, a specialist in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder defines rumination as follows:
Rumination is making a choice to engage in mental problem solving, which includes analyzing, mental reviewing, mental checking, visualizing, monitoring, and directing our focus toward the problem.
There’s a key difference between rumination and actual problem solving though. Actual problem solving has a solution at the end. After that, it’s over and done with.
Rumination on the other hand is the illusion of problem solving. We’re replaying the problem in our head over and over again without resolution.
Rumination is just busy work that causes us a lot of pain.
When we worry about our partner cheating on us, when we have no actual evidence or no reason to suspect they’re cheating, we’re engaging in what seems like problem solving, but is really just busy work because it’s an issue that is impossible to resolve. There is no way to be 100% certain your partner isn’t cheating on you.
Being cautious with reassurance seeking
“But, I could ask my partner. I could ask to see their cell phone and email messages. These are ways I could be 100% certain.”
Maybe, but probably not.
Logically, seeking outside reassurance makes perfect sense. In reality though, reassurance is like a drug. We get it, we find short-term relief to our worry and anxiety, but then it comes back.
More importantly, if you tend to worry about your partner cheating with no reason to suspect it, the issue is not outside of you. The issue is your response to the the automatic worry that pops up. And that’s where the focus should be to resolve your worry and anxiety.
Observe and don’t engage
So, what can you do?
We’ve established that you can’t stop the worry thoughts. If you try it will just make it worse.
We’ve also established that seeking external reassurance will also make it worse.
The only other choice you have is to accept the junk that pops into your mind and make a conscious choice not to engage with it.
And engaging with your thoughts can look a number of different ways:
- Trying to answer the question of your partner cheating or not
- Trying to stop the thoughts
- Judging the thoughts “I shouldn’t be worrying about this”
- Trying to inject other thoughts into your head, but it keeps popping back
Instead of these things, try just watch your thoughts like a passing weather system.
When it’s mostly sunny, this is easy. When there’s a hurricane, it will be harder to avoid engaging with the thoughts as there will be more urgency to relieve the discomfort.
The more we just notice, without engaging with our the thoughts, the easier it becomes. We teach ourselves to be a passive observer, rather than an active participant in our worry thoughts.
Go to the worst place on purpose
Another, uncomfortable, and scary exercise to do is to follow your worry to the worst case scenario.
What if my partner is cheating? Then what?
Well, then it’s going to hurt really bad. And if that happens, then what?
Well, I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay with this person. And if that happens, then what?
Keep asking yourself the “Then what?” question until you’ve arrived at the very thing you’re trying to avoid. What we usually find is that sure, it’s something we don’t want to happen. But, it’s also something we can survive.
Identify your core belief
After we’ve gotten used to just watching our thoughts, we can start to be more curious about where they might be coming from.
All of us hold certain beliefs about ourselves. In psychology we call these “Core Beliefs.” Core beliefs are narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Core beliefs are important because they drive our automatic thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
Take this example situation of two different people going through the same event:
Event: John texts his girlfriend on a Friday night. He usually gets a response back instantly. It’s been over an hour and he still hasn’t gotten reply back:
|A||“I’m unlovable”||Thought: “She’s probably with another guy” Feeling: Anxiety, panic Behavior: Text more, call several times|
|B||“I’m lovable”||Thought: “I hope John’s ok” Feeling: Slightly disappointed Behavior: Makes plans with another friend|
And most of the time, all of this is happening under our awareness. In a sense, we’re completely out of control and at mercy to these invisible drivers.
However, we can make them visible and take back control.
One technique you can do on yourself is called the downward arrow technique.
You first start with a situation and notice what the automatic thought is. Let’s take for example texting a friend and them never replying. The thought, “They’re mad at me” pops in your head.
Next you ask yourself, “What does that mean to me if that’s true?”
“Well it means that he doesn’t like me.” So, you ask yourself again. “What does that mean if that’s true?”
“Well it means that I’m not good enough.”
You have arrived at a core belief: “I’m not good enough.”
Again, I think it’s important that we address our reaction to the worry first. Instead of trying to analyze our past and figure out the root cause of worries. That’s the same as arriving to the scene of a car wreck and instead of jumping to care of the victims, you instead investigate to figure out what exactly happened and whos fault it is. I like attachment theory though as it gives us some context to our relational patterns. Attachment theory in psychology says that our early relationships with our caregivers mold how we relate to others throughout the rest of our adult lives. That is, we develop internal working models or templates of how relationships work. There are three styles of attachment:
- Secure attachment
- Anxious attachment
- Avoidant attachment
A person with a secure attachment style, generally believes people will be there for them. Their relationships are generally consistent and balanced. A person with an anxious attachment style worries that others in their lives will leave them. They often seek reassurance that others love them and will be there for them. A person with avoidant attachment believes others will not be there in times of need. There is distrust and therefore a high motivation to be independent, and a general avoidance of placing themselves in situations where they rely on others. How is this relevant? It can be helpful to think about which attachment style you might fall into. If anxious attachment sounds like you, this is great information to carry with you going forward. It can be a helpful reminder that reassurance is not the answer, but instead, working on your attachment style and core belief is. Just like core beliefs, attachment styles aren’t set in stone.
Building your tolerance for uncertainty
Uncertainty is tough. And unfortunately, we can’t be in a relationship without some level of uncertainty.
If you’re noticing frequent worry about your partner cheating without any facts to support it, another way to lens to view it from is that perhaps you have an intolerance for uncertainty. Almost like an allergy to uncertainty.
Instead of trying to find more certainty, which is never ending and just reinforces the worry, try working on building your tolerance for uncertainty.
Building our tolerance for uncertainty is like building muscles. It takes time and consistency. It also takes practicing awareness and intention.
Be aware of your urge to seek reassurance. And try hard to not give in. Instead, label your urge: “I’m having an urge to get reassurance. I know where this is going to lead.”
By simply labeling your self talk and urges you move out of the emotional part of your brain (where you have little control over impulses) and into the logical parts of you brain (where you have control over impulses.
I hope this helps a little.
If you think you may benefit from gaining more control over racing thoughts, worry, and anxiety, therapy might be something to consider. Here is how I might be able to help:
Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 28(5), 759-775. Clark, G. I., Rock, A. J., Clark, L. H., & Murray‐lyon, K. (2020). Adult attachment, worry and reassurance seeking: Investigating the role of intolerance of uncertainty. Clinical Psychologist, 24(3), 294-305. doi:10.1111/cp.12218
Del Palacio-Gonzalez, A., & Berntsen, D. (2018). The tendency for experiencing involuntary future and past mental time travel is robustly related to thought suppression: An exploratory study. Psychological Research, 83(4), 788-804. doi:10.1007/s00426-018-1132-2
Greenberg, M. (2020, October 20). Defining rumination. Retrieved March 27, 2021, from https://drmichaeljgreenberg.com/defining-rumination/
Riaz, A., & Jamil, K. (2020, July). Love Can Only Make Things Work Out: CBT And Interpersonal Therapy Case Study. In Technium Conference (Vol. 5, pp. 18-07). Sally Planalp, James M. Honeycutt, Events that Increase Uncertainty in Personal Relationships, Human Communication Research, Volume 11, Issue 4, June 1985, Pages 593–604, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2958.1985.tb00062.x