In a previous post on mental checking, I talked briefly about ROCD (Relationship OCD), a form of OCD that involves pervasive doubt and uncertainty about interpersonal relationships.
This multi-part series of posts will focus primarily on ROCD in the context of romantic relationships. However, it will also discuss “Relationship-Focused OCD” more broadly in the context of other types of relationships, including friendships, parent-child relationships, and professional relationships.
Relationship OCD (ROCD) in Romantic Relationships
Many individuals with ROCD have symptoms that are most evident in their romantic relationships. They often experience significant doubt and distress about their chosen partners and may have a history of repeatedly breaking up or ending relationships due to recurrent doubts.
ROCD sufferers may worry that they’re with the wrong person, that they don’t feel as emotionally connected to their partner as they should, or that their partner has unacceptable flaws. Other individuals may worry that their relationship feels asymmetrical (i.e., that their boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse is more in love with them than vice versa). Some individuals with relationship OCD have generalized fears about committing to one person, such as being afraid of “missing out” or not “being on the right path” with “the right person.” Others have more specific worries, such as the fear of hurting their partner’s feelings or the fear of being unfaithful.
As illustrated in the examples above, relationship OCD symptoms can be incredibly diverse.
Relationship OCD symptoms sometimes intensify when relationships undergo transitions. For example, events that may be associated with an exacerbation of ROCD symptoms include committing to an exclusive dating relationship, having sex or being intimate, getting engaged, getting married, or having children.
Individuals with ROCD may worry excessively about:
- The ultimate compatibility of their partner (e.g., What if I’m dating or marrying the “wrong” person)?
- The health or stability of their relationship (often in comparison to previous relationships or idealized relationships). For example, “What if i never find “the one?” or “What if I should’ve stayed with my ex?”
- Their partner’s faithfulness (e.g., excessive concerns about their partner’s previous relationships, unreasonable suspicion that their partner is currently cheating or wants to cheat). For example, “What if my partner is cheating on me?” or “What if my partner wants to cheat on me? It’s only a matter of time…”
- Their partner’s perceived flaws (including doubts about their own ability to cope with their partner’s perceived flaws). For example, “My partner has the most horrible nose. I can’t imagine waking up and seeing that every day for the rest of my life.” Preoccupations may focus on physical flaws or character flaws (e.g., “What if my partner isn’t intelligent or witty enough?”)
- Their own capacity for cheating on their partner (including the fear that they may secretly want to cheat). For example, “What if I secretly want to cheat on my husband/wife? I think I’m a faithful person, but what if something deep inside me causes me to be unfaithful?”
These worries may lead individuals with ROCD to:
- Repeatedly analyze their feelings about their partner. (e.g., “Am I really, truly in love? How can I know for sure that this is what love is supposed to feel like?”)
- Repeatedly make comparisons to past relationships or ideal relationships.
- Have high expectations for their emotional experience, especially with regard to interpersonal relationships. (e.g., “If I’m with the right person, I should know it and feel it completely. There’s no room for doubt in marriage, since I will be committing the rest of my life to this person.”
- Use in-the-moment feelings or thoughts as evidence for predicting the long-term health of their relationships. (e.g., “Having doubts now must mean I’m with the ‘wrong’ person.”
- Become hyper-aware of their partner’s potential flaws.
- Repeatedly confess their doubts to their boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse or a trusted friend. (e.g., “I just saw an attractive guy and I thought I was attracted to him. Does that mean I could secretly want to cheat?”
Cognitive distortions, such as all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophizing, fortune-telling, overgeneralization, mental filtering, emotional reasoning, and excessive use of “should statements” may characterize relationship OCD. Just like other forms of OCD, ROCD is thought to be associated with hyper-responsibility, a tendency to view thoughts as being important, a need to control or escape unwanted thoughts, hypersensitivity to risk or threat in ambiguous situations, intolerance for uncertainty, and perfectionism. In my Palm Beach Gardens (South Florida) treatment center, relationship OCD beliefs that I commonly encounter include:
- If I’m in love, I should feel in love.
- If I’m with the right person, I shouldn’t have doubts.
- There is one right person out there for me, and that person will be able to meet my needs perfectly.
- If I’m already aware of flaws in this relationship now, it’s only going to get worse with the passage of time.
- If I’m truly in love with my partner, I shouldn’t have romantic or sexual feelings about other people.
- If I’m truly in love with my partner, I shouldn’t be thinking about my past relationships or partners.
- I shouldn’t have mixed feelings about my relationship.
- If I’m truly in love with my partner, I shouldn’t be thinking about my ex.
Like all forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, symptoms of relationship OCD include obsessions and compulsions.
ROCD Symptoms: Obsessions
Obsessions are unwanted thoughts, impulses, or images that “pop” into awareness many times each day. These experiences are associated with anxiety or other forms of emotional distress. In severe cases of relationship OCD, these experiences may take up many hours each day. As such, ROCD can cause significant distress in interpersonal relationships. People with relationship OCD may be frequently bombarded by such thoughts as:
Examples of ROCD Thoughts
- What if I don’t really love my partner?
- What if there is someone out there who is better for me than my current partner?
- What if I miss out on meeting my ideal partner because I’m currently in this relationship?
- What if I don’t love my boyfriend “enough”?
- What if I should have stayed in a previous relationship?
- What if I’m more in love with my previous boyfriend than my current boyfriend?
- What if I secretly want to cheat on my wife?
- What if my husband is secretly cheating on me?
- What if my spouse has a flaw that ultimately dooms this relationship?
- What if I have a flaw that ultimately dooms this relationship?
- What if I’m not as attracted to my boyfriend as I should be?
- What if I secretly hate my partner?
- What if I secretly want to break up with my girlfriend?
- Does the fact that I found that other person attractive or had that dream mean that I should end my current relationship?
- Do doubts about my current relationship mean that there’s somebody better out there for me?
- Should I break up with my partner or stay in my relationship?
As you can see, the thoughts associated with relationship OCD are intense and can wreak havoc on romantic relationships. Examples of ROCD intrusive impulses and images will be discussed in subsequent posts.
Questions? Comments? Do you experience symptoms of relationship OCD (ROCD)? What ROCD obsessions bother you the most? Sound off below…