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Don’t Ride the Runaway-Thought Train

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It is lucky my husband and I have been married a long time, because if it were still the early days of our relationship, we would have had a fight this weekend. Instead I shared what was bugging me…he acknowledged it…and we moved ahead.

What was “so bad”? Well, I had hopped onto my martyr box of feeling inadequately acknowledged and underappreciated, even though he regularly expresses both his love and gratitude to me. But that didn’t stop the runaway-thought train from pulling into the station.

I will tell you what happened:  Sunday afternoon, he and I had both returned from trips away from home—he had been in London for 10 days attending a class on data science, and I had gone to a family wedding in Michigan for the weekend. My plane landed first, and knowing that he would be tired and hungry after his flight, I stopped at the grocery store on my way home from the airport and then went straight to the kitchen without even going upstairs or taking off my snow boots.

Two hours later, I had made his favorite dinner and prepped dinner for the next night. When he got home, everything was ready. Lovely dinner…lovely catch up. He cleared the plates, washed a few dishes…and then vanished.

I knew that he was exhausted and was trying to unpack and reacclimate so that he would be ready for work the next day. Yet off went the drama train in my head…

He was away for 10 days, while I worked and tended to the dog and the house and provided whatever support our children needed. During the months of planning for this trip, he has thanked me multiple times for supporting him, but man…he should be thanking me again. I don’t ever leave him for 10 days. And what about this kitchen? I was so thoughtful to do all this for him. I was away this weekend, too, and now I have work to do tonight, but here I am cooking and cleaning…” On and on I went, stewing as I finished the cleanup. Totally irrational.

It’s really quite fascinating what an idle mind can conjure…and it can be incredibly dangerous to any relationship.

There is a fabulous thought-train story that has circled the Internet about a husband and wife. While they are out to dinner, she keeps trying to make conversation, but he is quiet and distant all evening. By the end of the night, she has decided that their entire marriage is in ruins. In the end, we learn that he is distracted trying to figure out why his motorcycle won’t start. Her own insecurities came marching out to fill the void of uncertainty. Of course, his lack of communication—and lack of explanation—threw gasoline on that smoldering fire. If only he had shared his problem with her rather than just saying, “I’m fine.”

Sometimes the runaway-thought train doesn’t even need another person’s involvement. You know the phrase, “The best defense is a good offense”? I have my own version of that saying, which I have shared with my daughters—“We get angry when we get caught,” meaning that when you know deep inside that you are wrong or are afraid of being “caught being inadequate,” the tendency is to get defensive when challenged…or simply create an argument in our heads before the other person has even opened his/her mouth.

Example: I recently spent time with someone who I won’t name. We were supposed to leave for the airport for our flight home at a certain time, per her request. I happily agreed to the earlier time even though it wasn’t necessary for me. Her flight was earlier than mine. I was on time…she was late. When she arrived at the car, I expressed my frustration at the lateness. Rather than being apologetic and humble, she was indignant that I would blame her and be so angry. Her indignation only made me angrier. Had she simply said up front, “Gee, I’m sorry to have been late, especially when I asked you to switch your schedule,” all would have been fine. But instead, this lack of communication and the fight that she had in her head before she even got to the car turned into several weeks of tension until we talked through the situation and our individual thought trains. Frankly, I was on my own little locomotive, since this person is often late. So she was ready to have a fight with me, and I was already having a fight with her.

We all fall victim to these thought trains. They are created with our preconceived notions and assumptions. They’re how we fill the void when we don’t have enough or accurate information. And they’re dangerous and can bring down any relationship.

So how do you get off the thought train?

  1. First and foremost…don’t get on. Don’t have a fight in your head before the interaction takes place. You know that saying about the dangers of assuming? It’s true. Go into each interaction fresh and clean. If you hear the chatter starting in your head, either stop it or say something up front to the person causing your frustration so that there are no mysteries.
  2. Set your expectations. If you know someone always behaves a certain way, then set your expectations for that. My husband is deeply loving but a man of relatively few words. If he thanks me once, he doesn’t feel the need to thank me repeatedly for the same action. I know that—so why would I expect effusiveness for my homecoming efforts when he already had expressed his gratitude? This doesn’t mean you should ignore a real communication problem in a relationship. It just means that you should keep the big picture in mind before having an emotional outburst in your head.
  3. See the train coming. Be aware that it’s your mind going and not the relationship or the interaction. As I said above, if there is a serious issue in the relationship, deal with it. But if this is just normal annoyances between siblings, friends, spouses, parents-children and the like, then don’t blindly step on the train when it arrives at your mental station. Change the messaging to either remind yourself that you are being dramatic or to something entirely different, like the movie you want to watch over the weekend.
  4. Say something. Don’t leave your train running. Share your concerns without blame, acknowledging that your mind is kind of playing games with you. If you’re on a runaway-thought train, it’s about your fears, not about the other person’s mistakes. The goal is to clear the air and get back to living your real life.
  5. Get over It. Once you see the train you’ve been on, let it go. Same thing once you voice your concern. No need to hold on to the mad or the hurt when you created the drama. And no need to be mad at yourself either. It’s OK. We’re all human, and sometimes we ride that train.

As for my husband and me…we know each other well enough to accept and respect our “unique-isms.” We had a two-minute conversation. I got to say what was going on in my head. He gave me the love I was looking for. And we resumed normal activities. This is one train that I am far better off missing.

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