EVER WORRY WHETHER your partner truly loves you—or if you truly love them? Are you overly focused on how happy you both are and constantly thinking that maybe you could find someone better?
Feeling insecure, doubtful, and vulnerable is normal in relationships sometimes. But when you keep returning to the same issues over and over, and the thoughts become so intrusive that they cause anxiety and other problems, you could be experiencing relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder (ROCD).
“Someone struggling with relationship OCD may have obsessive thoughts about making their partner happy, their partner cheating on them, obsessing if they’re pleasing their partner sexually,” explains Nicole Erkfitz, L.C.S.W., executive director at AMFM Healthcare.
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At the same time, you might experience compulsions like seeking assurance, checking up on your partner, comparing yourself to others or other couples, or changing your behavior around your partner to be more attentive or avoidant, she adds.
ROCD is a newer subtype of OCD, which is a mental health condition that causes obsessive unwanted thoughts. Erkfitz says these negative thoughts cause people to engage in behavior, referred to as compulsions, in an attempt to relieve the cyclical thinking.
“Relationship OCD is when our primary obsessive thoughts revolve around our relationships with others,” she says. “Usually, this occurs in romantic relationships but can also occur in familial or other relationships such as colleagues.”
Insecurities and concerns about your relationship come and go, and might be triggered by certain behaviors or events, but ROCD is persistent, Erkfitz says. “It causes distress in your life due to the extent of your obsession and impulsiveness to engage in the compulsion that provides temporary relief.”
What Is Relationship OCD?
OCD is defined by two aspects: obsessions and compulsions, says Patrick McGrath, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer at NOCD.
Obsessions are intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that create discomfort, he explains. To neutralize those thoughts or help themselves better, someone engages in repetitive thoughts or behaviors, referred to as compulsions.
Compulsions offer temporary relief from intrusive thoughts, McGrath says. “When the obsession happens again, which it always does, the compulsion is repeated, and over time, this pattern of obsession and compulsion can take up more and more hours of a person’s day, and really get in the way of their life.”
People with ROCD center their fears and doubts on their relationships. For instance, they may focus on whether they’re attracted to their partner or if their partner is attracted to them.
Relationship OCD is a subtype of OCD, but isn’t listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
How It Differs from Relationship Stress or Insecurity
Doubt and vulnerability happen in many relationships, and it’s even a good sign, showing that you’re being thoughtful about your relationship, says Kevin Mimms, LMFT, a therapist at Choosing Therapy.
But, that’s not the same as ROCD.
“If you experience fear about these thoughts and are unable to accept reassurance from your partner or anyone else that your relationship is secure, you may be experiencing the obsession component,” Mimms says. “If you find yourself constantly asking for assurance, or making comparisons, or doing anything else just to ‘make sure’ that everything is OK in the relationship, that is another important sign.”
What Are the Signs of Relationship OCD?
ROCD is relationship- or partner-focused, or both, according to the International OCD Foundation. As with other types of OCD, someone experiences obsessions and compulsions.
Obsessions usually revolve around thoughts and feelings about a partner or the relationship as a whole, such as:
- Do I really love my partner?
- Do they really love me?
- Are we meant to be together?
- Am I good enough for my partner?
- Could I find someone better?
- Is the spark between us gone?
Common compulsions that come up with ROCD include:
- Asking for reassurance that your partner loves you
- Avoiding deepening a relationship to avoid getting hurt
- Testing your partner’s feelings by flirting with others
- Ending the relationship over fears that it’s not meant to be
- Monitoring your feelings about your partner
- Comparing your partner to others
What Causes ROCD?
A 2016 study found that people experiencing ROCD often have a fear of abandonment or place their self-worth on their relationship or partner, which might lead to OCD symptoms.
Other factors that increase someone’s risk for ROCD, include:
- History of abuse
- Sudden life changes
- Loss of a loved one
- Struggles in relationships
- Changes in the brain
Symptoms often appear in early adulthood, according to the International OCD Foundation. Sometimes, people can trace their symptoms back to when they made their first major romantic decisions.
How ROCD Affects Relationships
Being in a relationship with someone with ROCD can feel smothering, Erkfitz says. Partners might become more distant depending on the severity of symptoms, or more anxious with each other because of the constant OCD-related self-doubt.
When someone has ROCD, satisfying the doubts and fears feels like the most important thing to them—even at the expense of the relationship, McGrath says. “People with relationship OCD end up watching their relationship deteriorate while they try harder and harder to fix it.”
How Is Relationship OCD Treated?
Cognitive behavioral therapy or exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) can help treat ROCD.
“Helping people understand the value and validity of concerns related to their obsessions can help free them from the compulsions,” Mimms says.
With ERP, people are exposed to their obsessions, fears, and doubts, which helps them learn to “sit in doubt and uncertainty,” McGrath says. “You want them to learn that they can handle these uncomfortable feelings and that doing compulsions will not actually fix them.”
There’s no right or wrong time to seek treatment, Erkfitz says. It should be when you’re ready. But, you should consider it if the ROCD is affecting your day-to-day.
“OCD tells you the lie that there is a way to get to your goal, to truly feel 100 percent secure and certain in your relationship, but you are not told that it’s actually not possible,” McGrath says. “We have to learn to accept uncertainty, because it exists everywhere in our lives.”
Erica Sweeney is a writer who mostly covers health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.
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