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The Real Reason We Over-Think Relationships

Thinking is a smokescreen for stuff we're trying to avoid.

Igor Mojzes / AdobeStock
Source: Igor Mojzes / AdobeStock

Jordan (not his real name) sits across from me over coffee. We're talking about his new girlfriend, Serena.

Both middle-aged and divorced, they’ve been together for just a few months. Jordan can’t stop thinking about how it’s going.

He analyzes every date, every text message, and every phone call. He tells me he never stops thinking about the relationship.

He’s trying to figure out if they’re right for each other. Even though things seem great, he's still not sure.

“I’ve always been an over-thinker,” he says. “I over-analyze everything, and relationships are no exception. I think about it all the time. It’s exhausting.”

Jordan’s exaggerating a bit. I happen to know that he’s more than capable of putting aside thoughts of his relationship when he’s working or enjoying his favorite activities. He doesn’t have obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Like many other people, he’s a garden-variety over-thinker. And with good reason. Check out what he’s probably trying to avoid by doing all that analyzing. Can you relate?

1. Making a mistake.

Jordan’s been married before, and he’s open to marrying again. But next time, he wants it to be forever. He can’t afford to make a mistake. Or at least that’s how he feels.

Jordan’s brain leaps to the rescue by trying to compute his chances of living happily ever after with Serena.

If he can just get a handle on how well-suited they are, he can avoid the incredibly painful experience of another divorce.

For that, he’s got to input every data point and run it through the process of “mulling.” Did she open the driver’s side door for him from the passenger side? Do his adult children like her? Did she seem put-off by the fact that he owns a drone? Etc., etc., etc.

All that processing is tiring, but a mistake would be too costly.

If you’re overthinking a relationship, ask yourself what’s at stake here. What would it cost you to make a mistake? If the cost would be great, no wonder you’re trying to avoid it.

2. Feeling vulnerable.

As long as Jordan is evaluating the relationship, he’s not 100% in it, but hovering above it, looking down. He’s still got one foot out the door, and if it doesn’t work out, he won’t have lost everything.

Analyzing the relationship makes Jordan feel more powerful and secure than if Serena held his whole heart in her hands. He isn’t ready to trust her yet. He’s not sure he’s ready to trust anyone with his heart again.

Analysis is like a way station between interest and commitment. It slows the relationship and keeps things from becoming too intense too quickly. As long as Jordan is still deciding, he’s not completely vulnerable.

If you were to give up the task of evaluating your relationship, how vulnerable would you feel?

3. Knowing your truth.

Only Jordan knows what’s true for him in his heart of hearts. By focusing outward, on Serena and the relationship, he can ignore any uncomfortable awareness about what’s going on inside his own heart.

Maybe Jordan, deep down, is not that into Serena. But she’s lovely and warm and makes him feel better about himself. He was pretty scuffed up by the divorce. Serena makes him feel attractive and confident. He needs her right now.

Or perhaps he finds Serena very appealing, yet his heart remains with his ex-wife. It was she, not Jordan, who initiated the divorce. But what good is it to notice that he still loves her? It won’t do him any good. And so, perhaps, he pushes that knowledge away in an effort to move on.

Thinking and analyzing — letting the brain do what it loves to do, which is to label and solve — is a wonderful way to avoid other problems. Isn’t it better to over-think than to make a horrible mistake, or to feel intolerably vulnerable, or to have to face an inconvenient truth in yourself?

There’s one final consideration for Jordan and everyone who over-thinks relationships.

4. Maybe you’re not over-thinking this.

It’s appropriate to think carefully about important life decisions. That’s what adults are supposed to do. It’s part of being an adult.

Why should we imagine we can decide on something as important as a mate in five minutes or even five days?

Keep thinking if you need to, and also pay attention to your heart. Are you feeling progressively more comfortable with the person? Or less and less comfortable as your brain processes the information you’re gathering?

As long as you value your heart as much as your head, and let your emotions help you decide, you’ll eventually come to a place of not needing to analyze quite so much.

You’ll either be all in or all out.