Relationship-themed obsessions (sometimes referred to by sufferers as relationship OCD (ROCD)) are not unusual in obsessive-compulsive disorder.
OCD is a walking paradox. Those who live with it often miss the forest for the trees. And they see trees everywhere. OCD sufferers notice details and nuances in the realm of human experience that most people overlook. This results in experiences of profound pain and disgust, but also a kind of deep and textured appreciation for the condition of love. However, this experience of love can be so intense that it becomes a target of the OCD itself. Loving someone, or even considering loving someone, becomes characterized by a hyperawareness of so many things that could be wrong with that person; so much so that experiencing love can hurt as much as it inspires. Love becomes a thing to analyze, to decontaminate, to justify and reconcile with all of its inconsistencies, each made more severe when looked at through an OCD lens.
Relationship-themed obsessions (sometimes referred to by sufferers as ROCD) are not unusual in obsessive-compulsive disorder, and share intellectual space with Harm OCD, Sexual Orientation obsessions, and religious scrupulosity. These obsessions involve a struggle to accept uncertainty about the people we bring close and a sense of urgency to eliminate this uncertainty for fear of causing harm, wasting life, or drowning in perpetual disappointment.
Common relationship OCD obsessive concerns:
- What if I don’t really love my partner?
- What if I am not really attracted to my partner?
- What if there is an aspect of my partner’s past that causes disgust or cannot be understood?
- What if this or that behavior is an indicator that my partner’s personality is a poor fit for mine?
- What if my confused feelings for my partner are evidence of a problem with my sexual orientation?
- What if I am leading this person on and thus committing an immoral or sinful act?
- What if thoughts about other people being interesting or attractive indicate that I am cheating on my partner, sinning, that I don’t really love them, that I would hurt them if I stayed, etc.?
- What if being with my partner is settling for second best and resigning to a life of unhappiness?
Common relationship OCD compulsive responses:
- Seeking reassurance, either directly with partner, with others, or through “research” of relationship books, blogs and articles
- Avoiding behaviors that suggest commitment to the relationship (e.g. meeting the parents, romantic getaways, co-signing a lease, etc.)
- Analyzing/scrutinizing your partner’s behavior for evidence that the relationship is healthy or not
- Checking for feelings or thoughts that indicate love or the lack thereof
- Mentally testing out scenarios about the future of the relationship
- Asking partner to behave or not behave in specific ways to avoid being triggered (e.g. trying to control how they wear their hair, clothes, words they use, etc.)
Relationship OCD, like any other presentation of OCD is partly fueled by distorted beliefs. In this case, it would be distorted beliefs about relationships, reasonable expectations thereof, and what level of urgency is appropriate for addressing concerns. Two core distorted beliefs seem to drive the bulk of relationship obsessions: the fear of “settling” for second best and the fear of not being able to accept unwanted traits in a partner, both imagined to lead to permanent and inescapable unhappiness for everyone.
Fear of Settling
The word “settling” is charged with a lot of negative imagery. It has become synonymous with giving up. Even though many people traditionally fantasize over one day “settling down” with a partner, we also seem to resist “settling” for anything less than perfection (whatever that is). Quite often, I hear from ROCD clients that they are concerned about how others might view them if they knew there was a chance they could have bagged a better partner. It’s as if they envision an obituary saying “wasn’t patient enough for Mr. Right, took what was available, survived by average children.” I am not suggesting that a person should ever settle for abuse, contempt, hostility, or the absence of any affection. Rather, I am suggesting that what the OCD calls “settling” may just be allowing yourself to be happy in this moment with this person without striving for certainty over the potential of a better moment or a better person. Bad “settling” is giving more of yourself over to a person than you receive in return. Good settling is not letting OCD decide who you love and for long.
For two people to get along and create a systemic flow of information that is a relationship, there needs to be some common ground. The old adage “opposites attract” may apply well to electrons, but they don’t marry for life. That being said, differences are not opposites and differences between two people can foster growth. The truth is that if you found someone exactly like you, then your worst traits would quickly become more severe. So, if we are partnering up, it should be with someone who challenges us to be better, not just better in the sense of being motivated to achieve more, but better in the sense of being healthier, more well-rounded. If he likes to wax intellectual over politics and she likes to watch romantic comedies, this doesn’t mean that he’s a nerd and she’s a ditz. Rather, it means that he might benefit from learning to relax and be more flexible and easy with the given moment and she may benefit by taking an interest in different ways to think about things and not be too avoidant of serious subjects that may be challenging.
Quite often, OCD sufferers gets stuck attending to a detail and the details of one’s appearance is no exception. The detail may not even be what it appears to be. For example, a person may notice a physical attribute about someone they are in a relationship with and have a thought about the attribute being unattractive. This doesn’t actually mean, from the thinker’s standpoint, that they always believe that attribute to be unattractive. The issue is simply that they had a thought called “that’s unattractive” and it led to some kind of storyline like, “I can’t be happy if I’m stuck with a person who has an unattractive feature.” We get nowhere trying to prove that the feature is indeed attractive (just as we get nowhere trying to prove our hands are clean or whatever else the OCD might throw our way). Instead we have to challenge the notion that any one detail warrants much attention in the context of our values and simultaneously engage in exposure to the fear of being stuck, settling, or whatever other storyline the OCD might be spinning.
The Problem with Checking your Feelings
If you really want to know how you feel about something (or someone), you have to be willing to not-know first. This is an important general lesson for all forms of OCD. To know and have confidence in knowing is to have knowledge itself be optional. If knowledge is mandatory, the insistence on finding the answer will always result in biases and distortions – not the truth. To find the truth, if there is one, you have to let go of the belief that there is one certain answer and allow for the fact that there may not be or that there may be an answer you don’t like. If you truly embrace uncertainty, you start to get clarity, and it is clarity that helps us make decisions, especially about relationships. One of the most common compulsions in ROCD is the checking of feelings. Your partner walks by, you attempt to mentally record the walk in slow motion, add your favorite romantic music, and then ask yourself – is he/she attractive to me? Or, do I love this person? From there you generate a synthetic and artificial holographic interpretation of a feeling. In its worst form, it is numb, dead, the absence of feeling and proof that your fears are true. At its best, it is almost, sort of, but not quite as good as the butterflies you were hoping for… and to your OCD, it becomes proof that your worst fears are true. It is the king of all OCD traps. If you want to know what your real feelings are, you can only do it in the present moment without judgment. That takes mindfulness, which means rejecting any information you may have collected from compulsively checking your feelings. Some people check locks, some people check love.
Being a Sociopath in Love
One of the biggest concerns I hear from ROCD sufferers is the idea that without perfect knowledge of the value of the relationship, any continuation of that relationship in denial is an act of cruelty knows as “leading someone on.” The interesting thing about this form of moral scrupulosity is that it is, in and of itself, rather cold-hearted. On the surface it looks like you really care about not hurting this person. But at the same time, it implies that your partner is not an independent, sentient being, capable of coping with adversity. Rather, the fear of leading someone on suggests that the other person is little more than a function of the relationship. It posits that they have no responsibility for accepting your advances and that if things don’t work out, they won’t be able to cope with the devastating disappointment that you don’t love them enough. You’re probably not that interesting for this to be true. Sorry. To love someone in real life (as opposed to OCD life) is to be willing to ruin another’s life, willing to devastate them, willing to leave them to their own coping mechanisms if things don’t work out. To love someone is to respect them and their ability to persevere.
There are plenty of traditional exposures that can be done to treat this form of OCD, including scripting about being with the wrong person, exposing to pictures of your partner in an unflattering light (or having you partner intentionally do triggering things and resisting compulsions in response), and telling yourself that you may be doomed forever in a loveless, sexless sham of a relationship. But the most effective ERP is what I call doubling down on the relationship gamble. The last thing the OCD wants is for you to accept uncertainty and to continue willingly into an unknown universe of a more and more serious relationship. ROCD sufferers may confuse avoidance of the relationship triggers with a fear of commitment. But more commonly the fear of commitment is an avoidance compulsion connected to the fear of being with the wrong person. So, putting up those pictures of the two of you in happier times, writing a love poem, planning romantic getaways, meeting everyone’s parents, getting that pet, and doing other things that make it more likely to be together forever – all fair game in exposure.
Now, it’s probably worth pointing out that not all relationships being obsessed over are healthy relationships. Obvious deal breakers for most, such as physical abuse, may identify clear-cut problems in a relationship. Further, some people just don’t have enough shared values and just can’t seem to make each other happy. And OCD can drive compulsively staying to avoid uncertainty as much as leaving to avoid uncertainty. Still, whether a relationship is perfectly fine and just a victim of OCD’s meddling or truly irreconcilable, but still obsessed over, clarity on the relationship can only come in the absence of compulsions. In the end it is clarity, not more thinking, that reveals the quality of a relationship.
Three’s a crowd. Take a hike, OCD.
Jon Hershfield, MFTDirector, The Center for OCD and AnxietySpecialties:Anxiety Disorders, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)