Well, it’s an interesting proposition. Am I obsessed by thoughts of my husband’s betrayal? You might think so, especially if you have never been at the receiving end of infidelity, but I’m not so sure. Of course, I have moments when I ponder on ‘why’ I continue to have unwanted thoughts, three and half years post D-day, but I have never considered myself to be obsessional. Nevertheless, in my usual style, I decided to focus on the topic to see if I could enlighten myself on the possibility that I might be wrong and in so doing found a book written by the late Daniel M Wegner, an American social psychologist, entitled: ‘White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts; Suppression, obsession, and the psychology of mental control‘. His insight is based on a wide range of psychological research and I found his conclusions to be congruous with my experiences and helpful in understanding what might be obsessional. It would appear that I simply have what would be considered to be ‘normal’ obsessions.
The first thing to put on the proverbial table is my wish not to have these thoughts. Thoughts about the unbelievable attitude of my husband; thoughts about my naivety; thoughts about the deceit that shattered my reality; thoughts about never being able to trust again; thoughts about the sordid sexual antics that my husband got up to with Pig Shit; thoughts about the risks he took with my health; thoughts about Pig Shit and my desired unhappiness for her; thoughts about the ‘friends’ that encouraged and facilitated the adultery; thoughts about how I found out; and all the other myriad thoughts about his betrayal that arrive uninvited to attract my attention. This is not to mention the unfortunate moments when somehow, my brain becomes aware that I’m not thinking about the adultery, and hey presto there I go again…
Secondly, I need to explain that although I continue to get these unwanted thoughts, they have become somewhat easier to cope with over time. After reading Wegner’s book I am beginning to fully understand why this might be. And, thirdly, I believe that anyone who practices mindful awareness will find resonance with some of the main concepts that he presents.
It appears to be unequivocal in psychological circles – we cannot succeed in avoiding an unwanted thought. Actually, the research suggests that the actual desire to suppress thought is the cause of obsession! Any advice to ‘just not think about it’ is both futile and misleading. “The irony, then, is not only that people find it hard to suppress a thought in the first place, but that the attempt to do this made them especially inclined to become absorbed with the thought later on.” And as he so rightly states, if we cannot get over something that happened a while ago, we will probably have unwanted thoughts lurking about. Hello! How many betrayed spouses fit THIS bill?
“Suppression in a short while can settle us down. It puts the unwanted thoughts out of conscious awareness and so stops the normal tendency of such thoughts to charge us with anxiousness. But when the suppression is complete, we have then made ourselves into sitting ducks, oblivious to the very thoughts that will surely disturb us if we are reminded of them by any random idea or cues.”
Interestingly, what I might have, (should it turn out that I do obsess in some way), is ‘normal’ obsessions which parallel ‘abnormal’ obsessions in several ways. So not unreasonable to think about obsessions as such. Unwanted thoughts are a general symptom of mental distress and a painful intrusion for anyone but it’s not the thought that’s actually the problem. It is the emotional reaction attached to the unwanted thought that causes the mental turmoil.
However, an unwanted thought stops us in our tracks and it is natural to want to get on with our thinking – hence the desire to suppress the thought. But the very nature of consciousness works against suppression. Consciousness can grasp at once both the unwanted thought and the meta-thought (metacognition – the ability to think about our thinking) that wishes it away. We get caught in this cognitive paradox. So what we often do, after finding it impossible to suppress the thought, is to distract ourselves. Think about something else. As we cannot wish a thought away we look towards other things to capture our attention and draw ourselves away from the unwanted thought. This strategy would appear better than suppression but unfortunately it also does not offer any long term solution. “Although self-distraction can be used to escape unwanted thoughts in the short run, it is probably not the strategy of choice for reaching a satisfying and effective solution to the problem that created the unwanted thoughts in the first place. Reaching that solution will require, at least as a first step, a return to thinking about the unwanted thought. Such confrontation is rarely all that is needed, however, since just thinking the thought over and over is likely to produce nothing but distress.” Intuitively, I think I have known this. I had a sense that putting the thought of the adultery out of my mind was not the same as putting the adultery out of existence. Equally, I knew that just chewing on the thoughts themselves in isolation of doing anything else was a toxic exercise.
Equally, we mustn’t forget about the triggers we experience, the cues that prompt our unwanted thoughts. Wegner suggests that we try to organise these outside influences wherever and whenever we can. He calls this a form of remote control thinking. If possible, being in a position to make them closer when we want to be reminded of them and further away when we want to suppress them. Husband and I have thrown away a lot of items that were triggers, including replacing both our cars. We avoid certain places still. But, I have placed all my stuff/records of the time in one certain place in a type of quarantine. It means that I can go to them if I want to but they aren’t easily accessible or visible on a day to day basis. Of course, for us handling adultery we mustn’t forget the major cue that we live with – our betraying husbands! This is where I believe that leaving betraying partners might assist in the process of moving on. However, changing the external world is extreme and is so final and we risk losing so much. There are some triggers that I have chosen to keep because they are too beautiful and I treasure them too much to let the adultery allow me to trash them.
What I would prefer to think about is where are we now, how far we have come, what we have achieved and our future together. In essence I want to convert my unwanted thoughts into wanted thoughts and this can be done with a form of remote control. Converting my unwanted thinking about adultery into thoughts about our current situation and our future together has been helped by the accompaniment of significant changes in our marital situation that have promoted continued thinking in this direction. “The reformed smoker cannot continue to carry tobacco, keep ashtrays around, sit in the smoking section, or even spend time with people who smoke without risking a return to the old ways” In desiring us to be different we have arranged our social and physical circumstances to aid our efforts. “The provision of an environment for change is the cornerstone of any new life we are attempting to construct”. So, exercising a little remote control (changing the world that our minds think about) can aid us in getting rid of unwanted thoughts.
Another key aspect to dealing with unwanted thoughts is the recognition that we believe them. In fact, the desire to believe something could create the belief. Initially I had unwanted thoughts about myself in all this. There was something wrong with me that made him stray. There must have been problems in our marriage. Pig Shit was better than me. Once a cheater, always a cheater. I should not stay in the marriage. Divorce is the sensible option. But that was because initially I had an impoverished store of information on the topic of adultery. I wanted to disbelieve my thoughts but that will was not sufficient to clear my mind of my thoughts or their implications. However, finding out more knowledge of what is true seems to be doing the trick. “We cannot ignore information that is available to us, no matter how strong our wills. The key to disbelieving is having something to believe. If we wish to deny one idea, we must have another that we can put in its place.”
All of this work, all of this thinking about our experiences of adultery and attempting to make sense for ourselves of our marriages, of our decision to stay, of what adultery is, seems to work in our favour in the long term. It seems to be a universal psychological rule that we can get used to negative emotions by a process of habituation. We get used to emotion-producing ideas and eventually find that less and less emotion is produced by them. W experience something and although we think it’s over, we discover that we must live with mental replays of the experience. This is because trauma etches a deep psychological scar in us. However, it is possible for the trauma itself to start in motion a natural process of self-healing or self-correction “in which the individual repeatedly reviews the trauma as a way of coming to terms with it and getting used to it.”
“Rethinking the trauma might help us by allowing the time to see that the trauma is NOT related to everything else in our lives”
So why does reversing suppression work?
Let Wegner speak for himself here…
“Some theorists say that when we look at our unwanted thoughts closely and turn them all around, we will finally be able to fit meaning into our lives. This was Frankl’s view and is shared by many. The idea is that understanding our problems, thinking them through and finding out how they are linked to all our other thoughts is our common and natural approach to most of life’s challenges. The tendency to suppress a thought gets in the way of this and so blocks us from achieving a meaningful life. There is some part of us that we don’t understand, or refuse to understand, and until this is fully resolved, we will have no peace.”
“Unwanted thoughts, in many cases, arise from unwanted realities. When we cannot change our realities, we turn to our minds and hope that we can control what goes on there from the inside. But this control process is a swindler, a charlatan that runs off with our minds and gives us nothing in return. The suppression we crave does not save us, and instead can energise the obsessions we wish to avoid. All too soon, we realise that the unwanted thoughts won’t go away so easily. We try again. And it comes back again. If only we could realise that it will go away only when we welcome it back. It is only then, that like any child with a toy, we will soon tire of dragging it around with us and lose track of it quite naturally”.
Interestingly, I have blogged earlier from a philosophical perspective about the concept of keeping my mind in hell but not despairing. For Gillian Rose, denial and unexamined suffering are the two main reasons for unhappiness. “It is the unhappiness of one who refuses to dwell in hell and who lives, therefore, in the most static despair”.
Me obsessed? No. Just working my way through the mess.
Image Credits: Lady With Disconnecting Computer; Balance; by debspoons: Ashamed And Frustrated Man by Master isolated images: Street Sweeper Machine/car by franky242: Internet Library by jscreationzs: Closeup Of Many Wooden Wishing Cards by Tuomas_Lehtinen all via freedigitalphotos.net