Understanding and Managing Intrusive Thoughts In Romantic Relationships

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Have you ever started getting ready for a date and thought, “Why bother making an effort? They probably won’t like me anyways.” Or maybe you’ve experienced your partner being quiet about a special event, and your thoughts started swirling with the idea that they don’t care or secretly want to break up.

These experiences, known as intrusive thoughts, can make dating or navigating a relationship feel more challenging or overwhelming than it is. The good news is there are ways to identify and cope with intrusive thoughts—here’s what you need to know. 

What Are Intrusive Thoughts? 

We have to dive into what intrusive thoughts are to understand how they can impact relationships.

“Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts that can enter your mind without warning. You can have these thoughts, and it doesn’t mean you have OCD or an anxiety disorder,” says Angela Ficken, a psychotherapist with a Boston-based private practice. “All it means is you had a thought that doesn’t feel good.” 

Intrusive thoughts are often associated with mental health conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but most people experience them from time to time even when they don't have a disorder, says Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT, ATR-BC, the owner and founder of Take Root Therapy.

A 2014 study from the Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders found almost 94% of people had at least one intrusive thought over the three months prior. Participants represented a global perspective, coming from 13 countries across six continents. The study emphasized intrusive thoughts’ existence outside of OCD, with doubt as the most common theme of intrusive thoughts. 

Distinguishing Between Intrusive Thoughts and OCD

It’s critical to differentiate OCD from intrusive thoughts as a whole. OCD is characterized by “persistent intrusive thoughts that provoke an intense feeling of distress or anxiety and a compulsive urge to perform a behavior,” says Roma Williams, LMFT-S, the founder and clinical director of Unload It Therapy. Williams adds these compulsions are habitual responses to the individual’s intrusive thoughts. She describes them as “ritualistic” and notes they may disrupt daily life.  

On their own, intrusive thoughts don’t create compulsive habits. As Williams explains: “Although OCD is associated with intrusive thoughts, not all intrusive thoughts are associated with OCD.” Unless interacted with, intrusive thoughts tend to last mere seconds, she says. 

How To Identify Intrusive Thoughts When Dating Or In A Relationship

Dating can be a scary experience. There is a lot of uncertainty around everything from if they’ll like you to how safe you’ll be. “The anxiety that can accompany meeting someone new and trying to make a good impression can trigger intrusive thoughts,” says Williams.

Your thoughts may become more specific, such as a fear of shouting something rude randomly. The uncomfortable nature of this can create anxiety and doubt, explains Ficken. These negative emotions can make it more challenging to focus on and enjoy your date. 

Unfortunately, intrusive thoughts won’t necessarily limit themselves to the beginning stages of a relationship. But their appearance doesn’t indicate something is wrong with your relationship.

“It’s completely normal for people to deal with intrusive or unwanted thoughts while in any relationship, especially a healthy one,” says Rachael Farina, ADS, a licensed marriage and family therapist. You may love and trust your partner completely, but intrusive thoughts can still appear. 

How To Cope With Intrusive Thoughts 

Intrusive thoughts can be frustrating, but they can be managed and overcome. The first step is identifying your intrusive thoughts and labeling them as such. 

A common intrusive thought when dating might be, “I’m not good enough for them.” Pay attention to when negative thoughts like this reoccur and how you feel when experiencing them. The sensation may be mental or physical, like chest tightening, says Farina. “Once you can identify the intrusive and unwanted thoughts and how they manifest in your body, you can also identify the ways to cope effectively.”

A crucial part of dealing with intrusive thoughts is having compassion for yourself. Part of this process might involve looking at your attachment style and the impact of previous relationships — romantic and otherwise. “This context can make it easier to accept your thoughts and have compassion for yourself when experiencing intrusive thoughts, without necessarily trying to change them or taking action because of them,” says Lurie. 

In some cases, you may choose to disprove an intrusive thought. According to Lurie, it can help to evaluate your experience and the other person’s behavior to see how they compare to the thoughts you’re experiencing. If they don’t line up, it can help reassure you that your intrusive thoughts have no merit. 

You can explore your thoughts and history deeper through meditation and therapy. “Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment without judgement and accepting one’s thoughts and feelings without reacting to them,” says Williams. This process allows you to notice an intrusive thought has occurred without engaging with or fueling it. 

Therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, can aid in “understanding how thoughts influence behavior and developing strategies to change unhelpful thought patterns,” adds Williams. “Both of these therapies can help to reduce stress and anxiety, which can, in turn, make intrusive thoughts less distressing.”

How To Talk To Your Partner About Intrusive Thoughts

The big difference between a relationship and the early stages of dating is having more of a foundation and comfort to communicate with the other person openly. When you’re in a good relationship, you have a person who supports and cares for you. They can also help you navigate intrusive thoughts, alongside other loved ones and mental health professionals. 

Lurie recommends determining your goal in sharing these thoughts with your partner before beginning the conversation. “While being vulnerable about one’s struggles is often difficult, this conversation may be more challenging as your partner may misunderstand what you’re sharing and think that you’re unhappy with them or are expressing criticism of them,” she says.

“Framing the conversation about a challenge you’re having instead of as a critique of the relationship will ideally allow you to have an open discussion and receive the support you’re seeking.” Do you want their support or reassurance? Are you looking to bond further? Having a clear goal can help you navigate the conversation, get the desired result you’re looking for, and even benefit your relationship.  

“Remember, you aren’t your thoughts,” Ficken emphasizes. “If I told you to think to yourself and then say aloud, ‘I am a banana,’ would you now be a banana? No. So why is your intrusive thought any different? The only difference is one feels silly, and the other is scary. Take the judgment out, and what are you left with?”