Infidelity can be one of the most devastating experiences for a relationship. The betrayal, loss of trust, and intense emotions that follow can feel overwhelming for the hurt partner. Intrusive thoughts and rumination about the affair are common psychological responses that can make it difficult to move forward. However, research has shown that certain thought stopping techniques can be effective tools for coping and healing.

The psychology of intrusive thoughts after infidelity

Studies estimate that over 50% of married couples will experience infidelity at some point, with even higher rates among unmarried couples.1 For the partner who has been betrayed, discovering an affair often leads to a state of heightened vigilance and preoccupation with the infidelity. The mind becomes flooded with unwanted thoughts, questions, and mental images related to the affair. This pattern of thinking is sometimes referred to as “intrusive thoughts” or “rumination.”

Rumination involves repetitively and passively focusing on the symptoms of distress and on its possible causes and consequences, rather than taking action to address the problem.2 While it’s a normal response to a distressing event like infidelity, getting stuck in a loop of negative thoughts can worsen depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress symptoms.3

Evolutionary psychologists theorize that rumination arose as an adaptive mechanism to help us focus on and solve complex problems related to our social relationships and environment.4 However, in the case of infidelity, rumination often becomes unhelpful and counterproductive if it persists for too long. The hurt partner may find themselves obsessing over details of the affair, replaying suspicious moments in the relationship, and worrying it will happen again.

How thought stopping can help

Thought stopping is a simple but powerful technique often used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to halt the cycle of rumination. The basic steps involve:5

  1. Identifying ruminative thoughts when they occur
  2. Visualizing a stop sign and thinking or saying “Stop!”
  3. Immediately replacing the unwanted thought with a more positive or productive one

With practice, thought stopping can help individuals gain more control over intrusive thoughts. One study found that participants who used thought stopping techniques showed significant reductions in both frequency and believability of unwanted thoughts compared to a control group.6

For hurt partners dealing with affair-related rumination, thought stopping might look like this in practice:

  • Noticing when your mind starts drifting to thoughts like “I can’t believe they would do this to me” or “I keep picturing them together”
  • Mentally saying “Stop!” and visualizing a big red stop sign
  • Redirecting your attention to a self-compassionate thought (“I am strong and I will get through this”), an activity you enjoy, or even just your breath

It’s important to remember that thought stopping is meant to be a “first aid” technique to disrupt the rumination cycle in the moment. It doesn’t address the content of the thoughts or resolve the underlying issues. Fully processing and recovering from infidelity usually requires additional coping strategies and professional support.

Working with a therapist

For many couples, navigating the aftermath of an affair will involve working with a qualified couple’s therapist who specializes in infidelity recovery. Therapists can provide a safe space to process difficult emotions, rebuild trust and intimacy, and develop personalized coping strategies.

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is one approach that has been found to be particularly effective for couples healing from infidelity. EFT focuses on identifying and changing problematic patterns of interaction between partners and fostering more secure attachment bonds.7

In addition to couple’s work, individual therapy can be invaluable for the hurt partner to process their own experience and develop additional skills for managing intrusive thoughts and other psychological distress. Cognitive behavioral therapies like Trauma-Focused CBT (TF-CBT) have a strong evidence base for treating symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress that can arise after a betrayal.8

Mindfulness and self-compassion

Research consistently shows that higher levels of mindfulness and self-compassion are linked to better mental health outcomes and more satisfying relationships.9 For hurt partners, a mindful approach can help in observing intrusive thoughts with less reactivity and judgment.

Some tips for practicing mindfulness in daily life include:

  • Notice when your mind is dwelling on affair-related thoughts and gently redirect your attention back to the present moment
  • Take slow, deep breaths and tune into physical sensations when you feel overwhelmed
  • Try to observe your thoughts as mental events rather than facts

Self-compassion involves extending the same kindness, concern, and support to yourself that you would offer a good friend.10 It’s especially important when coping with the difficult emotions that follow infidelity. Some ways to practice self-compassion:

  • Acknowledge that the pain you’re experiencing is part of being human; you’re not alone
  • Speak to yourself with patience and understanding rather than harsh self-criticism
  • Prioritize self-care activities that soothe and recharge you


Thought stopping techniques can be a powerful tool for hurt partners to disrupt the cycle of rumination and intrusive thoughts after infidelity. When combined with professional support, mindfulness, and self-compassion, these strategies can aid the process of affair recovery. While the psychological impact of betrayal is deep, research shows that many couples are able to rebuild their relationship and even experience post-traumatic growth. With time, patience, and a commitment to the healing process, it is possible to not just move on from infidelity but move forward together.


  1. Fincham, F. D., & May, R. W. (2017). Infidelity in romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 70-74.
  2. Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Wisco, B. E., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). Rethinking rumination. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(5), 400-424.
  3. Ibid
  4. Andrews, P. W., & Thomson Jr, J. A. (2009). The bright side of being blue: depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems. Psychological Review, 116(3), 620-654.
  5. Bakker, G. M. (2009). In defence of thought stopping. Clinical Psychologist, 13(2), 59-68.
  6. Rosenthal, M. Z., & Follette, V. M. (2007). The effects of sexual assault-related intrusion suppression in the laboratory and natural environment. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45(1), 73-87.
  7. Makinen, J. A., & Johnson, S. M. (2006). Resolving attachment injuries in couples using emotionally focused therapy: Steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(6), 1055-1064.
  8. Cloitre, M., Koenen, K. C., Cohen, L. R., & Han, H. (2002). Skills training in affective and interpersonal regulation followed by exposure: a phase-based treatment for PTSD related to childhood abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 70(5), 1067-1074.
  9. Barnes, S., Brown, K. W., Krusemark, E., Campbell, W. K., & Rogge, R. D. (2007). The role of mindfulness in romantic relationship satisfaction and responses to relationship stress. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 33(4), 482-500.
  10. Neff, K. D., & Beretvas, S. N. (2013). The role of self-compassion in romantic relationships. Self and Identity, 12(1), 78-98.