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Toss Your Unfaithful Thoughts in the Garbage

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Woman Throwing Paper Away

I just read about an interesting study (Brinol, Gasco, Petty, and Horcajo) that will be published in the journal Psychological Science. Subjects in their study were directed to write down what they liked or didn’t like about their bodies. By throwing out a list (either one), people were less influenced by the thoughts on that list. And, by placing a list in their pocket, people were more influenced by that list. So, for instance, you might write “big nose” on a paper and throw it out, leaving you to think less about this physical characteristic. Then you might write “beautiful eyes” to encourage you to think more, and positively, about them.  When I read this, my mind was clearly preoccupied with the topic of relationships because it immediately occurred to me that this might help people who struggle with unwanted thoughts of infidelity.

Many affairs begin with unwanted and guilty thoughts of desiring someone other than your partner. At this stage, you haven’t done anything and don’t think you will. Yet, the thoughts keep returning. Of course, one good way to handle this is to stay away from the person who is occupying your thoughts (assuming there is one person you are focused on). But this may not be possible (e.g. a coworker) or it may not help. So, what then?

Next, I would strongly suggest working on your current relationship. Your urge to stray is a clear sign that it is failing in some way. Think about what is missing. Look for ways to build in more time together, more fun, or to address unresolved issues. Talk with your partner about wanting to strengthen your connection and how the two of you might go about this.

And, finally, it might be worth giving the above exercise a try. Write down your unfaithful thoughts (not in too much vivid detail, since you don’t want to build a stronger fantasy). And then carefully construct a detailed list of your thoughts related to staying faithful. You might want to include specific ways that your partner makes you happy and the ways in which you respect your partner. List various times when you were happy together and what you would look forward to doing together in the future. (I suggest you label it something positive like The Many Ways Cindy Makes Me Happy, just in case she comes across it). Then shred the first list into small pieces and throw it in the garbage. Carefully fold the second list and place it in your pocket. Read it each day as you place it in your pocket for that day.

I suspect that physically throwing away unwanted thoughts and physically keeping wanted thoughts close is no miracle fix. However, it might be an effective tool in helping you to remain faithful and build a happier marriage.

If you would like to join a general discussion about this topic on the Relationships and Coping Community, click here.

Photo: Comstock
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