What is Relationship OCD?

By: Suzanne Feinstein, PhD

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What is ROCD?

Navigating a new relationship with all its uncertainties can trigger anxiety in some people. The more you like someone, the more anxious you may feel about it not working out. This is a common occurrence and is not cause for much concern. However, if you find yourself obsessing about the relationship to an extent in which you can no longer enjoy it, or it interferes with daily functioning, you may have relationship OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder).

Relationship OCD is a subgroup of obsessive compulsive disorder, an anxiety disorder in which a person has recurrent and intrusive thoughts, images, or preoccupations and performs compulsions in order to ward off the anxiety or tension caused by the obsessions.  

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), in order to meet criteria for OCD, a person must spend at least one hour per day consumed by some type of obsession and/or compulsion. OCD causes anxiety and distress and significantly interferes with one’s daily functioning. 

If you struggle with relationship ocd, you will experience a significant level of discomfort with the concept of ambiguity as it relates to the quality of your relationship. You will experience obsessive doubting about whether or not you should commit to the relationship’s continuation. You may ask yourself the following questions:  

  • Is this person the “right” one for me?
  • Are we compatible enough?
  • Does this person like me?
  • Is there someone better for me?
  • Am I attracted enough to them?
  • Should we stay together?

A person who has ROCD may engage in a variety of compulsions in an attempt to gain certainty about the relationship or reduce the distress of being in the relationship. Examples of compulsions include:

  • Reassurance seeking from friends, family or mental health professionals about whether you made the “right” choice
  • Comparing the relationship to see if it “measures up” to your prior relationships or other people’s relationships
  • Comparing the way the relationship feels now versus when you first met
  • Comparing your partner to other people you find attractive
  • Examining your partner’s physical traits, personality characteristics, intelligence, etc. 
  • Checking in repeatedly to see whether your new partner loves you
  • Withdrawing from your partner due to an intolerance of uncertainty 
  • Researching the internet for answers about your relationship
  • Monitoring feelings of sexual arousal
  • Flirting with others to test your “true” feelings
  • Avoiding people you find attractive so as to not put your attraction to your partner in question
  • Researching online for information that might clarify whether or not you feel love for your partner

How does ROCD impact the relationship?

When you spend significant amounts of time worrying about the value of a relationship or its future, you are not going to be present for this relationship. Overthinking can lead to a lack of connection and ultimately hurt the health of the relationship you are obsessing about. The constant doubting can create an interpersonal struggle that may not have otherwise existed. The incessant questioning results in decision-making paralysis and leads people away from experiencing their natural “gut” instincts. 

What is the treatment for ROCD?

Seeking help from a mental health professional who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for OCD and other related anxiety disorders can be beneficial in treating ROCD. By challenging distorted thinking and reframing the thought process, you can learn to prevent the doubting spirals that accompany your relationship ruminations. 

Through repeated exposure therapy, you will face the fear of staying in the “wrong” relationship. And you will face the fear of regret if you leave the “right” relationship. You will practice accepting all possibility and will train your body and mind to let go.  Resisting the need for perfection and restructuring the all-or-nothing thought process can help you gather more perspective and temper your expectations in a relationship. 

Both exposure therapy and response prevention (ERP) as well as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are highly effective CBT treatments to reduce anxiety in your relationship and stop the ROCD spiral. These techniques help you to tolerate the imperfections of your relationship, become more cognitively flexible, disarm the negative thought patterns and focus on personal values. 

Learn more about the supportive treatment we offer. Contact us today at Advanced Behavioral Health to schedule an initial consultation. Dr. Suzanne Feinstein is an Instructor in Medical Psychology at the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry/ NYSPI.

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