Unpacking Intrusive Thoughts

Over the years, I’ve worked with many clients who have suffered from the intrusive thought, “What if my partner is gay?” (or “What if my partner is straight?” for those in a same-sex relationship), and while I’ve written several posts on the “What if I’m gay?” spike I haven’t written about what is, in some ways, a corollary thought. As my work largely centers around shedding the light of conversation and consciousness on taboo topics, it’s time to bring this thought out of the dark chests of the unspoken mind, where, in silence, all it can do is become grown over by the moss and dust of shame.

It’s extraordinary how much shame a single thought can grow. I’ve had clients tell me that they’ve been able to share many intrusive thoughts with friends but when they share the question, “What if my partner is gay?” they see panic flashing in their friends’ eyes and the immediate implication is to run. Of course, if we had a wider cultural understanding that intrusive thoughts are metaphors and that taking them at face value is what initiates the anxiety spin-cycle, we would be able to hear a thought like this from a friend and ponder, “I wonder what this thought is protecting you from feeling?” or “I wonder what the metaphor is inside this thought?” Hopefully one day the language of metaphor will penetrate the collective consciousness to the point where we will no longer have to hide these common, everyday thoughts from our loved ones. Understanding how thoughts work will eventually eradicate this type of shame.

How do we work with this thought and what are the messages? In essence, we apply the same principles to this intrusive thought as to any other. First, we name the thought for what it is: intrusive. Again, the moment we take the thought at face value we fall down the rabbit hole of anxiety and despair. But when we can name the thought as “intrusive” instead of hooking into it as “truth”, we take the first, and most essential, step toward being able to see the thought as a messenger from our unconscious designed to deliver essential information about our hurt places and inviting us into our next stage of healing and growth.

Let’s talk a bit about naming. An analogy came to me this morning as I was going back and forth between writing this article and homeschooling my boys. Just like I’m teaching my boys how to name the parts of speech – verb, noun, collective noun, predicate, etc. – so that they can begin to understand a sentence structure and, hopefully, become proficient writers, so when we learn to identify the parts of our minds we become more proficient in understanding how thoughts work. The more specific we are – the more we can break down something initially daunting (a sentence, a stream of thoughts) into manageable, bite-sized pieces – the less overwhelming the thing becomes. Naming is a skill that requires clarity and specificity, both qualities of our inner masculine. Like all skills, the more we practice it, the easier and more habitual it becomes.

As we’re naming, it’s important to identify with as much specificity as possible the common sub-thoughts that the ego collects and collates in the rolodex of the anxious mind as evidence that one’s partner is gay. Again, the more specific we are about the “parts of the thoughts” (like the parts of speech I’m teaching my boys), the more adeptly we’ll be able to expose the truth by calling it by its true name. Some of the common subset thoughts associated with “What if my partner is gay?” are as follows:

  • He’s not manly enough.
  • He has effeminate gestures.
  • He’s more loving and affection with his male friends than I’m used to seeing.
  • He has a higher voice.
  • He speaks in a theatrical way.
  • He’s very emotional.
  • He has a harder time maintaining an erection than my past partners did.

When discussing intrusive thoughts, it’s essential to remember that the conversation has nothing to do with the thought itself. In other words, the thoughts “What if my partner is gay?” has no more to do with sexuality than “What if I’m gay?” does. These are simply changeable hooks where anxiety hangs its hat, stories into which the ego gathers then pours evidence to try to avoid risk and gain traction against the ever-present awareness of the groundlessness that defines our human experience and becomes particularly acute around love and transitions.

Next, we recognize that the thought arises as a way to protect us from the risk of loving and the possibility of being hurt by love. At the core of all intrusive thoughts is the misguided attempt to find certainty. The ego mistakenly believes that if it can answer this one question, all be will solved and it will gain the ground that it so desperately craves. When it comes to love, if the ego decides that one’s partner is gay ( in a heterosexual relationship), then you would have to leave. Our fear-mind, terrified of love, looks for any escape hatch it can find to circumvent the risk of loving, and what better exit strategy that concluding that your partner’s sexual orientation isn’t conducive to the relationship that you’re in. We’re so scared  being hurt by love that a part of us would rather eliminate the risk all together and hedge our bets from the outset, which means walking away. If you conclude that your partner is gay, you’ve given yourself a full and justifiable reason to submit to ego’s fears and end the relationship.

Finally, we take time to dissect the thought and become curious about unearthing the metaphors and messages embedded inside it. This is where the archeological process of discovery comes in, and where, in my opinion, it gets fun! Guided by the headlight of curiosity, we ask, “What areas of growth is this thought pointing to? What pain, old scripts, or outdated decisions are asking for my attention through the brilliant, albeit seemingly circuitous, methods of my unconscious? If this were a dream and I understood that all dream images, on one level, are metaphors that point to some aspect of myself that is longing for integration, what is this thought inviting me to excavate?”

One common belief embedded in this intrusive thought centers around ideas of what is means to “be a man”, often stemming from the juxtaposition of growing up with a father who embodied the male archetype of emotionally unavailable, stern, and closed off versus the emotional available and loving partner you’ve chosen . When I ask my clients who struggle with this intrusive thoughts what their father was like, they often say something like, “He was completely emotionally unavailable – the opposite of my partner!” So even though she has consciously chosen someone very different from her dad, the template for “manhood” runs deep in her memory, and accepting a new image of manhood takes time and conscious attention. The upsurge of this thought, and it’s sister-thought, “He’s not manly enough” in the culture indicates that we’re being asked collectively to redefine masculinity and invited to take a quantum leap in terms of how we see men. The old, outdated messages and models of “what it means to be a man” no longer serve anyone (I’m not sure they ever did), and if we dig deep inside these projections we can begin a conscious conversation about what true masculinity is.

To offer a lifeline of reassurance to those suffering with this intrusive thought, it’s been almost six years since I worked with the first round of clients who presented this thought to me, and they’re all happily married with children. They look back on the thought now and clearly recognize it for what is was: a defense mechanism to protect them from the risk of loving and an invitation to address their outdated beliefs about men. Like all intrusive thoughts, when we see past the initial alarm-bell layer and take the time to dig into the roots, we’re rewarded in spades, not only with the ability to move forward in our healthy, loving relationships but also with the gift of growing into more compassionate, open-hearted version of ourselves. These are some of the gifts of being love-warriors.

37 comments to Unpacking Intrusive Thoughts

  • CT

    Sheryl, thanks again for this wisdom full of post.
    I know that you talk here more about the gay spike. But i do have question on something else…
    What have happened to me ia, now when rhe anxiety have been present i have had timea, where i would see a picture someone is getting married or having a baby, and the first thought what would pop in my head ia that,I can’t see myself having a baby with my partner or that o can’t see myself marrying my partner. Those thoughts have freaked me out before,lately they just sound like a fact like its coming from my LA. And it all just confuses me.
    Is that really my truth speaking or are they still counted as instrusive thoughts ?

  • Brooke

    CT when i was in the rut of my anxiety i couldn’t see past the next day with my husband. Our engagement was ROUGH and i still have some bad days. But i too had those thoughts of “i can’t see myself having children with him”. you aren’t alone. When i has those thoughts i would calm myself down, step back and truly sink into the reality of WHO my (then) fiancé really was. I knew his gentle manner, patience and consistency was everything i wanted for my children to have in a father. My anxiety just blocked my heart from feeling the joy in knowing he will be the man i venture through parenthood with.

    • CT

      Hey brooke,
      Thank you very much for your comment. I truly thought that its just me. I havent heard that anyone has dealt with that kinda thing and that kinda have made me worry that im the only one and that im the expectation.
      My anxiety have been around almost 2 y now,just month after my partner proposed. Before that I didn’t have those thoughts. And in the beginning when the anxiety started inhad more clarity moments,but bc my clarity moments haven’t been present so much any more it makes me worry. I know also that my partner is truly the most kind and loving person i have ever met. And of course i know that he would be amazing dad.
      I guess its just hard for me when those thoughts pop on my heas.

  • Notsure

    Hi, I’ve been a fan of this site for a while now and just recently signed up for the Break Free course. I’ve been struggling with anxiety for a while now. My partner and I have been together for 8 years. We have a non-traditional relationship and we both identify as “queer” – he transitioned from female to male (he’s transgender) a few years into our relationship. I am a cisgender female. This wasn’t a deal breaker for me as he was always very masculine and it’s the world we both live in. Anyway, a few years ago I was struck by relationship anxiety (this is wrong, we need to break up, I won’t be successful if I stay in this relationship) but I prevailed and last year we moved across the country together to start a new life on the west coast. A few months ago, he told me he didn’t want to have sex anymore because 1) he felt like I was pressuring him and there was a lack of general intimacy, which I admit there was and 2) that he is mostly attracted to men. I am so devastated. We both love each other and consider each other family and the idea of leaving him is heartbreaking but I am so grief stricken and feel out of alignment with my spirit. We have also been a nonmonogamous couple and both he and I have had different lovers throughout our relationship which has been fine. I would like to radically transform our relationship without breaking up but I don’t know how to do it. He feels lonely in our relationship, as do I, because we can’t really find our connection. I want sex to have connection and he needs emotional connection before he can even think about sex. I’m not sure his sexuality is set in stone (as in he’s gay for the rest of his life) but it’s where he is right now and for me, it’s hard to move forward because I feel unfulfilled in the rest of my life (career) and because I’m just afraid I’m settling and it’s time to let go. I’m trying to rebuild my life and start to date but again, I feel out of alignment and I’m not sure how to get that back unless I separate with him, which I don’t want to do. Any advice?

    • Thank you for your comment. Loneliness in relationships is extremely common, yet it’s also entirely possible to find your way back to each other. Have you considered couples therapy? As I’ve mentioned several times on my site before, the only model that I wholeheartedly endorse is Sue Johnson’s EFT. You can learn more and find a local therapist here:

      http://www.iceeft.com/index.php/find-a-therapist

      And her book is an essential read:

      https://www.amazon.com/Hold-Me-Tight-Conversations-Lifetime/dp/031611300X/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1512953022&sr=8-3&keywords=hold+me+tight

      • Notsure

        Thanks, Sheryl. I appreciate your comment. Yes, we have a great therapist. We’ve been taking a break from doing regular session because we seem to just be at a standstill. And I’ve read that book, too. I know I have a lot of inner work to do regarding filling up my own well and codependency and dealing with my black and white thinking but it just feels like I’m in a perpetual state of woundedness. He’s a supportive, loving, a good partner, and my all around favorite person, it’s just the relationship looks very different from what I thought I was getting into and the grief feels overwhelming. Thanks very much for the work that you do.

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl,
    I think I had the same intrusive thoughts , is my husband gay? Men marry but hide it really well and are in the closet because of what their family and friends will think of them, the thoughts kept coming. My brother is happily gay, he came out late in his life, he worried about us not accepting it, we are not religious catholics at all. The day he told us was a very emotional and shocking day, there were lots of tears of happiness, we accepted it pretty much straightaway. Do you think i had this intrusive thought of suspecting my husband is gay, because my brother is gay. (Born gay) ???

  • Nuris Martinez

    God bless you for you work. This is so perfectly timed. I don’t identify with that particular intrusive thought but I have been plagued with other scary intrusive suicidal thoughts that bring me my knees with anxiety. The thing is that these thoughts always (since I was little) when I’m in a great place in my life or when I’ve gone thru a big change in my life…shortly after that I get depressed and go down the rabbit hole and then the thoughts come and they spin me so far out of my body I just freeze in sheer terror. As a matter of fact this is how I found your mom’s work over 10 yrs ago when I was in a really dark place. It’s been a long time since I felt like this so to find this article today is just divine timing at it’s finest. Thank you thank you thank you!

  • rochelle

    wow I had this thought with my ex a lot, my father is also unavailable emotionally. and I think thats why I find it anxiety provoking being with a man that is emotionally available, even though I know being with a man like my father would be torturous!
    On a separate note, do you have any tools for translating dreams? Ive read your blog posts on dreams that helped, and the Jeremy Taylor book however he doesn’t say much about how to actually translate them.
    Thank you x

  • Joanna

    Hi Sheryl,
    Are the intrusive thoughts or feelings of doubt about the relationship always due to the risk of loving? I feel from my
    Conversations with you in the past and current therapists that mine are due to not wanting to grow up and fill my well of self and grow my inner child so it’s easier to doubt and blame the relationship. But now I’m doubting if because I don’t have a risk of loving if I have it all wrong?

  • H

    Thank you for this article sheryl. I must say, I’m getting better at naming and diffusing my intrusive thoughts. I am struggling, however to move beyond that. I still FEEL, almost constantly that something (my relationship) is wrong. I try drop down into my body and just feel the feelings bit nothing ever comes up. Sometimes I try dialogue and explore the areas you noted; the ways in which I’m growing, in she’d grief etc but again I feel nothing is coming up. A lot of the time I settle on an explanation that seems fitting, but not necessarily true. Is there anything you can suggest for working with that? These feelings are difficult and I just don’t seem to be making progress.

    • Have you tried approaching feeling your feelings and dropping into your body from a different angle, like through yoga or dance? And have you ever done any trauma work, like EMDR or Somatic Experiencing?

  • litchick

    Thank you so much for your post, Sheryl. I struggled with this particular spike for years in my most recent relationship—so much so that I ended breaking things off two months ago. My main triggers were my boyfriend’s occasional hand gestures and voice pitch, which I sometimes found effeminate and off-putting, as well as the fact that he was very sensitive. I had an extremely close bond with my father growing up so I can’t say he was emotionally unavailable, but he never shared his “weaknesses” with me. I understand that, while this lack of disclosure makes sense in a parent-child relationship, it precludes intimacy in a romantic one; and yet, I still cling to the idea of a partner who is only occasionally vulnerable and is mostly there to protect me—a loving but also somehow “dark and broody” type (I had a major thing for byronic heroes in 19th Century literature, think Mr. Rochester).

    Anyway, while these specific triggers eventually stopped having as much power as they’d once had, they led to more general intrusive doubts about my level of attraction to my ex; I broke things off because I wasn’t sure there was any “chemistry” between us. My doubts were compounded by the fact that I never experienced the so-called “infatuation phase” with him. This may have had to do with the fact that he said he loved me on our second date (!), at which point my anxiety kicked in (it was then that I started noticing his “effeminate” mannerisms and freaking out about the whole thing). I’ve always been a chaser, I’m afraid…

    Further, while the sex between us was always amazing, I convinced myself that it wasn’t the product of chemistry/attraction/passion because I always fantasized in order to climax—not every second, mind you, and not with other men, but rather with scenarios in which I was an onlooker rather than a participant, kind of like porn in my brain. I’ve done this since I started masturbating as a kid and with every partner I’ve had, so I guess it’s not about my ex, but I keep telling myself that my doing it means I was either not attracted to him and there’s someone out there with whom I won’t need to fantasize, AND/OR that I’m somehow sexually broken for fantasizing in order to climax. I’ve spend hours compulsively seeking reassurance on the topic online and found that many women consistently fantasize during sex; I also found studies showing a positive correlation between frequency of fantasies and frequency of orgasms (which seems to be true in my case, since I climaxed pretty much every time I had sex with him). Still, the thoughts often come back to haunt me. Seeking reassurance, I’m aware, only makes them worse…

    I should add that I’ve had two other major bouts of OCD around sexuality in the past. First, from the age of thirteen to the age of fifteen, I had intrusive thoughts about being gay because I still hadn’t even kissed a boy; later, about five years ago, I convinced myself I was broken because I hadn’t yet been able to come solely from penetrative sex (I still needed clitoral stimulation). My ex “fixed” that and the thoughts went away, but now that we broke up and I’m not having penetrative sex consistently (just masturbating), it’s sort of coming back…

    Back to my ex: I miss him terribly and a huge part of me wants him back, but I feel like I need to see other people in order to figure out whether I can have infatuation/true chemistry with them or if this is really RA/rOCD… I just can’t be sure if it is, which I know is par for the course, but my certainty-seeking brain is going crazy!

    • Thank you for your comment. As I’m sure you realize from following my work, everything you’re struggling with and have struggled with is textbook for those prone to anxiety. Once you start to accept yourself with compassion instead of seeking reassurance and learn how to attend to your underlying feelings and thoughts, things will shift. By the way, my teenage heartthrob was Mr. Rochester as well, so I understand firsthand what is required in order to break free from the “man-as-strong-protector-never-vulnerable” fantasy, and I also know firsthand how much love and grace arrives when you do the work that allows you to shatter an outdated model and fantasy.

      • litchick

        Thanks so much for your reply! Glad to hear you got over Rochester, gives me hope : ) I know I have a lot of work ahead, but your website has proven incredibly helpful so far.

      • litchick

        Hi again, Sheryl. I have a very specific question re. this topic that I hope you can comment on: when I first identified some of my ex’s hand gestures and voice inflections, I FIRST felt sexually turned off by them (and by extension, him) and only THEN (granted, very quickly after) came the thought “he’s so effeminate” and the subsequent anxious feeling. Doesn’t the fact that my body responded to his mannerisms before all else prove that I wasn’t attracted to him in an animal/sexual way? I can question the truth of “maybe I’m not in love with him” and hold room for the possibility that I am, but I can’t question “I just felt physically turned off by him”; after all, I know what “turned off” feels like on a physical level because I’ve experienced it before. It is an irreducible sensation, not a judgment that could be true or false…

        • Our bodies register our unconscious beliefs first, and then our conscious minds follow. It’s a dangerous trap to say, “My body rejected him, therefore I must not really be attracted,” without taking the time to dissect the unconscious beliefs that led to the body’s response. Our culture puts a lot of stock in “my body was turned off” without realizing how much we’re taking in and processing unconsciously in the first millisecond of meeting someone.

  • Yachal

    Sheryl,

    I thank you so, so much for this post. And thank you for your dedicated work to normalizing and redefining anxious thoughts as taboo as these. I’ve struggled with this thought a lot – mostly due to the last sub-thought you listed – but I think even more so, this is due to unrealistic expectations about sex (we waited until marriage to have sex due to our beliefs, and I came into it with crazyyyy high expectations). Although sex is mostly incredible, any time it’s lacking, this thought or “What if I’m gay” attacks. It’s such a golden opportunity for me to practice detaching from the thought and asking what’s underneath – which is always my deep well of grief that first showed up during engagement – grief that this person I married is never going to fix or compensate for all the heartache from the past (falling in love with him uprooted all this grief from parental divorce and years of burying feelings) – no matter HOW incredible he is… and he’s pretty incredible 🙂

  • LABride

    I had fear was so strong for me before I got married! Luckily, my husband was so comfortable with his sexuality and so understanding of my fear that when I grilled him for two hours to “prove” that he was straight, he was patient with me and didn’t get angry 🙂

    I also had to laugh when you listed the subset thoughts because that is exactly what I thought as well!

    I realized that it came down to-once again- a fear of loss. If he really was gay and married me, then it would only be a matter of time before he abandoned me with our children and ran off with another guy.

    I also realized that it’s also because while my father is really emotionally available and loving and emotional just like my husband, my cousins and brothers have toxically masculine tendencies, and they were poking fun at him.

    But now, I am so, so thankful for my husband’s kind, loving self! Now, I truly appreciate him for the kind of man he is, and I can’t believe there was ever a time where this part of his personality scared me rather than comforted me 🙂

  • LABride

    *This fear was so strong for me before I got married! Luckily, my husband was so comfortable with his sexuality and so understanding of my fear that when I grilled him for two hours to “prove” that he was straight, he was patient with me and didn’t get angry 🙂

    I also had to laugh when you listed the subset thoughts because that is exactly what I thought as well!

    I realized that it came down to-once again- a fear of loss. If he really was gay and married me, then it would only be a matter of time before he abandoned me with our children and ran off with another guy.

    I also realized that it’s also because while my father is really emotionally available and loving and emotional just like my husband, my cousins and brothers have toxically masculine tendencies, and they were poking fun at him.

    But now, I am so, so thankful for my husband’s kind, loving self! Now, I truly appreciate him for the kind of man he is, and I can’t believe there was ever a time where this part of his personality scared me rather than comforted me 🙂

  • Heather

    Sheryl,
    I’m not really sure why I decided to read this article as I have never wondered even once if my partner is gay – but I am really glad I read it. My intrusive thought has been, “What if he has asbergers?” I’m realizing as I read this letter that my fears of my partner having asbergers is similar to this fear of a partner being gay – I’m afraid that he isn’t capable of having deep enough or good enough relationships with my community and with me, and a whole host of other things that hang for me on that possible asbergers diagnosis. Thanks for helping reach deeper into this fear. Maybe you should write an article on fears of one’s partner having some mental deficiency or something 🙂

  • Nikki

    Hi Sheryl,

    Long time reader, thank you for your efforts. Curious to hear your thoughts on people questioning the decision to have children or not. I understand your feelings on learning to trust your ability to make good choices, but this particular decision Is one that you can’t take back, and only really know the full impact once you do it.

  • Bee

    I have the course and I have to admit I have only read through it once, I had about 4 months of no thoughts, not necessarily having the in love feelings towards my partner but I was happy and just felt content and warm.. now thoughts have come back andive had them everyday for a while now. But I don’t seem to be getting upset over them, I don’t know how I feel about the thoughts, so because I’m not getting upset it’s making me think that maybe the thoughts true and maybe I don’t love him? I can’t feel love. I’m scared. I want to love him. I don’t want to lose him but I’m scared that maybe I love him as a friend and not in love with him? We are looking to buy a house together and a few months ago I was so excited and couldn’t wait and now I’m scared. I’m worried that what if I don’t love him, and I’m wasting and ruining his life 😞 I don’t want anyone else though. I just wanna go back to feeling how I was a few months ago and be happy again. Life is hard.

    • Bee

      Also, my partner is always like “I really love you darling” or “aw I love you so much” and inside I’m screaming like “how do you know??? How are you so sure” how is he so sure of how he feels for me and I am struggling. Makes me feel so sad because he’s amazing. I literally couldn’t fault him. Everyone says we are made for one another. & here I am struggling on if I feel love for him etc. I want to though. So bad.

  • MB

    I don’t identify with this particular intrusive thought but when I have intrusive thoughts about my partner and our compatibility, my mind instantly begins to wonder if it’s intuition driving my anxiety. In the past I’ve had few thoughts about “is he the ‘right’ one for me” but I’ve not spent too much time on them and I guess I was able to logically answer them but now these past thoughts make me question if they were intuition and now that’s where my anxiety is coming from. How do I decipher between intrusive thoughts and intuition?

  • J

    beautiful, thanks for this

  • Brooke

    Thank you for this. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one suffering from this thought. Despite my boyfriend telling me he dated women, flirted with them, etc. I still feared. It wasn’t because of masculinity or his voice, it was his facial features! In the midst of this fear, i looked up how to tell someone was gay. They mentioned facial features that typical gay men have. I noticed my partner having some. Needless to say i freaked out. I couldn’t be around him, his dad is so stern, i was afraid he was hiding it from me, that he was covering it up, when there was nothing to cover up, as he mentioned how insanely attracted he was to me. He mentioned how many crushes he had. I opened up to him about this, he said, “Well, seeing the amount of erections i get when i see your body..” I bust out laughing. How funny are intrusive thoughts?