You wake up next to your significant other with a feeling in the pit of your stomach. Your anxiety rises as you look over and notice the bed head, bare face and morning breath. You get in the shower to avoid looking at your partner, desperation rising. Your brain races about how you will escape the potentially horrible situation you are in. Are you attracted enough to your significant other? Do you both think the same stuff is funny? How do you know if you love them? Is there another person who is a better match? Should you be in this relationship at all or is it time to finally end it?
Relationship OCD (ROCD) is an OCD theme where you experience persistent fear and uncertainty about your relationship. The obsessions demand that something must be wrong and needs to be figured out before the relationship can develop any further. The OCD thoughts and feelings make ROCD sufferers feel as though they are living in denial of the true nature of the relationship.
Some people with ROCD are serial breaker-uppers. Others stay in the relationship but suffer for months or years trying desperately to figure out if they should continue on. Still others feel scared they will ‘have to’ break up with the person even though they desperately want to stay with them. The presence of relationship obsessions followed by compulsive behaviors that attempt to solve relationship uncertainties make up the structure of ROCD.
Relationship OCD Obsessions
Obsessions about potentially being in the wrong relationship
Obsessions about having the ‘right’ feelings about significant other
Obsessions about the attractiveness of significant other
Obsessions about your significant other’s sexual past
Obsessions about being attracted to other people
Obsessions about having to break up with significant other
Obsessions about your significant other being a bad person
As in all forms of OCD there is an extreme sense of urgency to resolve uncertainty and lower distress. The resulting panic, anxiety and guilt leads to compulsive behaviors that reinforce relationship obsessions and doubt.
Relationship OCD Compulsions
Mental analysis of quality of current relationship
Mental comparison of current and past relationships
Avoid saying “I love you” until certainty is achieved
Avoid attending weddings with or meeting family of significant other
Avoid cohabitating, getting engaged, married, or becoming otherwise more serious out of fear of ‘having’ to hurt the person
Avoid looking at, speaking to, or making eye contact with attractive people
Frequently breaking up and then resuming relationship
Confessing lack of feelings to significant other
Confessing attraction to other people
Testing for physical arousal or ‘love feelings’ for partner
Reassurance seeking from others about relationships
Avoid movies about cheating or loving couples
Is there a better match out there for you?
Is there a better match out there for you? Probably. There are people out there who are probably funnier and more attractive, and you may have better sexual chemistry with them. But do you plan to go to the ends of the earth and spend your life looking for that perfect person and perhaps never finding them? That is not a good idea if it is a value of yours to meet someone and spend your life with them.
In fact, that fantastical person will also have things that don’t perfectly match up with you. We all must select a decent match and decide to accept their downsides rather than picking someone else and accepting their downsides. There is a time where the searching needs to end if we are ever to have a life partner and begin spending our lives with them. While this may sound like selling out or living in denial to the ROCD sufferer, it is the normal process each person experiences when choosing a life partner.
What is love?
How will you know if you are in love? How you do know if your love is strong enough to continue on in the relationship? There is no blood test to find out. Love is a feeling and not a perpetual state; sometimes we feel it and sometimes we don’t. OCD tends to attach itself to immeasurable and unprovable things. When the distance to the answer is a long and confusing one, OCD has more material to complicate and force certainty-seeking compulsions that is its life force. Relationships will involve both pleasant and unpleasant feelings, and ROCD sufferers will mistake difficult internal experiences as evidence.
“That’s just a movie!”
OCD loves to use comparisons to make you doubt your relationship and do compulsions to resolve the doubt. You may see a romantic couple in public laughing, one snapshot in time, and believe your relationship is not as connected or exciting. In movies, we are constantly bombarded by the fantasy of true romantic love, relationships, and sexual attraction that don’t actually exist in real life. There is no musical score playing in the background when you walk in New York City holding the hand of your significant other.
Before getting engaged to my husband, we were watching a scene from a ridiculous movie, the title which is escaping me. During a proposal scene, the male character got down on one knee, opened his hand, and there was a butterfly. When it flew away the engagement ring was exposed. In the next scene the butterfly was in a cage, somehow captured as her pet and reminder of the engagement. Seeing my reaction to this proposal, my then boyfriend exclaimed, “That’s just a movie! I can’t hold a butterfly in my hand, it would be crushed!” Needless to say, I did not get my butterfly proposal, but I married him anyway.
OCD vs. wrong relationship
It’s not only one or the other. Many of you may think that if you can know for sure you have OCD then you will know for sure that your significant other is right for you. You may also fear that if you don’t have OCD and have been misdiagnosed, this means you are in denial of being in a relationship you really shouldn’t be in. You may fear extreme consequences such as a life that lacks the relationship you’ve always dreamed of.
You may imagine your true soul mate waiting for you to find them as you are all tied up with the wrong person. You wonder if the doubt you feel is a sign you should be paying attention to. You think, “Maybe this doubt means something.” This is why ROCD can be so confusing. You can have ROCD with a good match and ROCD with a not-so-good match. Figuring out if you have OCD is not a way to choose to stay in a relationship. In fact, if you are seeking certainty about the relationship or if you have OCD you are doing a ritual that is reinforcing uncertainty about your relationship.
All relationships involve some level of risk. The nature of relationships can be a huge trigger for intrusive OCD thoughts and desperate feelings of uncertainty. Nobody has 100% certainty that it will work out. For example, I have no idea if my husband is packing his bags right now as I type these words. This risk is inherent in everything we do. I am currently on an airplane and I don’t know for sure it won’t crash. I’m taking my chances. Individuals with OCD tend to be risk avoidant, especially when it comes to his or her OCD theme.
The OCD brain is more sensitive to uncertainty. This causes the sufferer to attempt to answer the questions about the relationship that others let fade naturally without much attention. In direct attempt to avoid risk and reduce uncertainty, sufferers perform compulsions to make sure bad things don’t happen in regards to the relationship. Just as a person with ‘checking OCD’ would check the stove to be sure the house won’t burn down, those with ROCD check their brains to be certain that they are not making a mistake in their love life.
Feelings come and go. We don’t decide when we feel things; feelings just happen. At some point today you may feel a loving feeling toward your significant other and at some point you may be annoyed by him or her. At some point you may feel like spending time together and at some point you will want to be alone. If we depended on feelings as a decision-maker about whether to be with our partners, we would be breaking up with them multiple times per day.
People without OCD are able to shock absorb these shifts in feelings. Those with ROCD feel every minor bump in the road. These normal shifts in feelings towards your partner can all of a sudden feel like your entire life may be on the wrong path. You will feel an urgent need to dissolve the uncertainty so you can take the proper action in the relationship and avoid ruining your entire life and/or your partners. This is just the way OCD feels before it’s treated properly. You are actually not in a different boat than all other people in relationships.
Mindfulness and ROCD
Mindfulness is having awareness of the current moment and having acceptance of all it offers including distressing ROCD thoughts and feelings. Developing mindfulness skills through formal and informal meditation can help you to observe the ROCD spikes and let them pass without reacting with compulsions. OCD spikes will always go away in time, you don’t have to do anything but watch and wait with openness.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a mindfulness-based therapy for OCD, we teach clients to ground their decisions on their values rather than fluctuating internal experiences. This can be very helpful with ROCD where the sufferer should always have skepticism about his or her intrusive relationship thoughts and feelings. If you value sharing your life with a significant other, focus your actions towards living out that value rather than focusing on the lack of connection you felt at Valentine’s Day dinner.
Choose don’t feel
Since you are not depending on passing feelings of love to decide whether your person is right for you, what do you use to decide? For one thing, only decide for right now, this exact moment. Unless you plan to have a sit down, at this very moment, to break up with your significant other, choose to be with them for now. Every moment is a choice. You don’t have to worry about what you will decide in 1 year, 3 months or 10 minutes. Right now you are choosing them and all their annoying habits. What day should you break up with them? On the day you break up with them. It will just happen, you won’t have to decide. You won’t be on the fence. Live it out, don’t figure it out.
6 month waiting period
How do you know if you have ROCD or if you are making a relationship mistake? You don’t get to have that certainty and if you keep trying to get it, you will reinforce your obsessions and feel even more confused. And none of the rest of us have it either, but your brain tells you to care about that lack of certainty. I often talk my ROCD clients into taking a 6 month hiatus from deciding about his or her relationship. I mean, 6 months won’t ruin your life, right? Every time a thought comes in that you might be making a huge mistake, reply by saying, “Oh well, I’ll figure it out in 6 months.” Decide to just possibly be in the wrong relationship for 6 months and waste just 6 months of your life with your true love waiting for you somewhere else. Six months isn’t too much of a sacrifice. If 6 months seems too long, try one month.
The reason why I encourage this moratorium on deciding about the relationship is that this decision involves ceasing mental rituals and reassurance seeking. When you stop doing compulsions you gain clarity and it will feel less important. We only spend time on things that are important and continuing to ruminate about the relationship deems it a problem. In time it will begin to feel less urgent to decide. Trust that the answer will come on its own. You can’t force a decision; the decision will come to you. Perhaps you will no longer feel a decision needs to be made when you stop performing certainty-seeking rituals. At least give yourself the chance and try it to see what happens.
Exposure and Response Prevention
In Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), clinicians work with clients to do exposures to intrusive thoughts about the relationship and guide them against performing certainty-seeking rituals that reinforce the obsessions. An example of an ERP assignment might be watching a movie about relationships with disastrous outcomes. I have assigned the movies “Match Point,” “Take this Waltz,” “Unfaithful,” “Closer,” and “The One I Love (currently on Netflix),” which all tend to bring out ROCD thoughts and uncertainty.
Imaginal exposure scripting is a process where the ROCD sufferer creates a script of his worst fears of the relationship coming true, with all its horrible consequences. The purpose of exposure work is to intentionally produce ROCD thoughts and feelings so that the client can practice experiencing uncertainty without performing compulsions. Over time, the same internal and environmental triggers no longer create the extreme anxiety levels once present because of the habituation process. The sense of urgency to decide can soften and the intrusive thoughts won’t seem to matter quite as much.
Wait, watch and experience
Since ROCD crosses over with real life more than say, harm or pedophile OCD, sufferers have a tendency to buy into their obsessions. They tend to believe the compulsions are productive and that an answer will be unburied that will end the suffering. Try not to focus on the content of the obsession. If you are excessively worried about any topic and do compulsions in attempts to gain certainty and relieve suffering, you are stuck in the OCD cycle.
The problem is not the relationship; the problem is that you are having intrusive and unwanted thoughts and feelings about the relationship. If you get good at experiencing these symptoms, you can more readily take the actions of being present in your relationship. So this article is ending now. And you still don’t know if your significant other is right for you. Good. This is not possible so stop trying. Just enjoy every nice moment and wait for not-so-nice moments to pass. They always will.