Relationship OCD: The Impossible Quest of Finding the “Right” Partner

What is ROCD?

Relationship Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (ROCD) is characterized by obsessions about your relationship as well as compulsions, both physical and mental, to seek relief from uncomfortable emotions (i.e., anxiety, guilt, disgust) and to gain certainty around your relationship. These obsessions can be broken down into three categories:

Self-Focused: Obsessions your partner may leave or cheat on you, worries you are not good enough for your partner, or wondering if your partner loves you. Examples of compulsions include seeking reassurance from your partner, invading their privacy or boundaries (e.g., checking their phone), or analyzing how they act around you.

Relationship-Focused: Obsessions include wondering if you’re in the “right” relationship, questioning whether you’re happy, or deciding whether you should be single or in a different relationship. Examples of compulsions can include checking your feelings when thinking about the relationship, repeatedly listing reasons why you should leave or stay, or comparing your relationship to others.

Partner-Focused: Obsessions involve fixating on whether your partner is “the one” and if you’re attracted to your partner. Compulsions may present as checking if you’re attracted to your partner when with them or during intimacy, comparing your partner to others, and focusing on your partner’s flaws. Individuals may also fixate on feelings of disgust when noticing flaws and worry it’s a sign they are not attracted to their partner. You may also feel the need to control your partner’s behavior to what you think it “should” be.

Understanding how your ROCD presents is essential for treatment, and yes, you can have elements of all three. Navigating ROCD can be tricky, even if you are a seasoned OCD therapist. This is because relationships are NOT black and white; they are very much in the gray and can sometimes be messy. There are always going to be issues that come up in a relationship, and this leads to the ultimate question – what do I treat as ROCD, and what do I actually pay attention to? The answer – there is no “answer.” It’s your choice what you label as ROCD, which is the core element in Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) treatment.

Relationship Anxiety vs. ROCD

Relationships, especially marriage, are a huge commitment, which usually evokes some anxiety. I believe it is helpful to look at relationship anxiety and ROCD on a spectrum ranging from minor anxiety and doubt to intense emotional distress and irrational doubt. Relationship anxiety will typically present before big moments or changes in the relationship. The term “cold feet” may be ringing a bell when you think of wedding jitters or feeling anxious before moving in with your partner. Relationship anxiety will make sense for the situation and will likely be logical doubt. You may also feel anxious if you’re going through a challenging time with your partner, such as job loss, infidelity, adjusting to parenthood, or communication difficulties. Relationship anxiety can also stem from insecure attachment styles, which I will address later in the post. Overall, individuals with relationship anxiety can work through their doubts, reframe their thoughts, and tolerate uncertainty while moving forward in the relationship.

On the other side of the spectrum is ROCD, which will present differently from relationship anxiety in several ways. First, doubts tend to be more irrational and less logical, and you may obsess over small, specific details regarding the relationship or areas where you lack certainty and control (e.g., your partner’s behavior or future divorce).Second, the intensity level of emotional distress is typically higher in ROCD and will include many other emotions, such as anxiety, shame, guilt, or disgust. Your emotional distress will depend on which type of ROCD you’re presenting with. For example, you will feel more anxious if you obsess over whether your partner will leave you. On the other hand, if your obsessions focus on whether you are attracted to your partner and comparing them to different people, you may feel anxiety, guilt, or disgust.

Third, there is a strong sense of urgency in gaining certainty about your relationship. You feel your relationship and life cannot progress until you figure out your obsession. You need answers, and you need them now! As I said earlier in this post, relationships are challenging and imperfect. Therefore, ROCD will lead you to hyper-fixate on flaws and obsess over them until you have complete certainty the relationship is “right” or your partner won’t leave. Fourth and most important are the compulsions. Those with relationship anxiety may engage in some mental rumination, which is a crucial overlap to note. However, mental rumination in ROCD will be more pervasive, and the individual will also engage in other mental or behavioral compulsions. Remember, you cannot diagnose yourself, no matter how much material you read on relationship anxiety and ROCD. If you believe you have either, reach out to a trained OCD therapist for a diagnosis and proper treatment.

Attachment Styles & Perfectionism

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth paved the way for us to understand how relationships impact our functioning through what they coined as attachment styles. Our attachment style develops when we are young and is determined by whether our caregivers meet our emotional needs. There is secure attachment (i.e., parents consistently met our emotional needs) and insecure attachment: anxious (i.e., caregivers inconsistently met our emotional needs), avoidant (i.e., caregivers neglected our emotional needs), and disorganized (i.e., emotional needs were not met & trauma may have taken place). Attachment theory is critical when understanding how we relate to others in adult relationships. People with secure attachment will typically be able to have supportive and trusting relationships as adults. Those with insecure styles fear abandonment and have difficulty trusting others, but this fear will present differently depending on the type of insecure style.

Many individuals I work with who present with relationship anxiety or ROCD tend to have insecure attachment styles. This does NOT mean you have an insecure attachment style if you have ROCD, but I believe it is a pattern worth paying attention to. I am also a strong advocate of incorporating psychoeducation around attachment styles into treatment regardless of whether you are presenting with ROCD. Those with an anxious attachment style fear abandonment and will typically present with self-focused ROCD and seek reassurance that their partner will not leave or cheat on them. In contrast, individuals with an avoidant attachment style will present with relationship or partner-focused ROCD. These individuals also fear abandonment but cope by not getting close enough to people to let this happen and feel safer in their independence.

Throughout my clinical work thus far, I have also seen an overlap with avoidant attachment, perfectionism, and ROCD. Remember, if you have traits of perfectionism, this stems from wanting control while fixating on what is “right” or how things “should” be. This combination leads to unrealistic standards within relationships and criticism of your partner. Perfectionism allows you to keep your distance from others and reinforces the belief, “Why would I let someone close to me if they disappoint me anyway.” These individuals will also place many “should” statements within their relationship, which reinforce ROCD symptoms. Some examples are:

Thought: My partner shouldn’t act like that; it’s not “right.”

Compulsion: Obsessively analyze your partner’s behavior and internally or externally criticize.

Thought: I should feel happy in my relationship 24/7.

Compulsion: Repetitive internal checking of how you feel about your relationship and comparing it to other or past relationships.

Thought: My partner shouldn’t eat that.

Compulsion: Fixating on feelings of disgust and trying to control what your partner eats.

Again, these thought patterns involve placing perfectionistic expectations on someone else and setting your partner and relationship up for failure. Once it does fail, it continuously reinforces the belief that people will disappoint you and that you’re better off alone.

Lastly, those with disorganized attachment styles will present with both anxious and avoidant tendencies, which will also lead to a more complex form of ROCD. These individuals will pull back from relationships when anxious, but unlike avoidant attachers, they will feel uneasy about their independence and push closeness again. Therefore, individuals with this style will often have contradictory behaviors and emotions.

Identifying your attachment style and patterns of behavior related to it allows you to develop more insight into your obsessions and compulsions and how they are not serving you. I joke with my clients that ROCD is like attachment style on steroids. We know that OCD will cling to things we value, meaning things we fear losing. So, if we are already fearful of losing someone we love, ROCD will grab onto this fear and exacerbate it. However, understanding this connection can also help create more compassion for yourself and see how ROCD is trying to protect you from being hurt in an already vulnerable area of your life. For example, suppose you have an anxious attachment style and fear abandonment. In that case, ROCD will jump in and try to protect you from this fear and lead you to engage in compulsions of reassurance seeking or analyzing how your partner feels about you. Unfortunately, when we engage in these behaviors, it typically pushes our partner away and leads us to the thing we fear in the first place. So what do we do? The goal is to be able to recognize and label your attachment style and ROCD symptoms, be compassionate to yourself, and then do the hard work – ERP.

Relationship Myths

The first step in treating ROCD, like any OCD theme, is psychoeducation. I always tell my clients that I will only provide this at the beginning of treatment because it will become reassurance if we continue to engage in these conversations. However, I believe it is vital for my clients to have an understanding of ROCD and unrealistic societal expectations within relationships. So, let’s debunk relationship myths!

  1. The myth of “The One”

We hear this phrase in movies, TV shows, and from people in our everyday lives. It may sound like, “Oh, when you find “the one” or “your person” you’ll just feel it and KNOW – all the stars will align in the galaxy, and it will be magical and euphoric.” So let me say this directly: there is no such thing as “The One.” You may resist this statement, which is okay since it has been programmed into us since childhood fairy tales. However, when you think about it, you can have a healthy and happy relationship with many different people in life. Letting go of this myth allows you to let go of the pressure of finding the “right” person because you can embrace the fact that many “right” people may be out there for you. However, this is what OCD gets stuck on. The fact that there could be a more “right” person for you and you’re missing out on that is scary! There is no certainty that your partner is the best option for you. Therefore, we actively choose to be with our partner, knowing someone else may be out there for us.

     2. You should always feel attraction and love towards your partner

A big thing to understand within OCD treatment and life, in general, is that we experience many different feelings in a single day. So, holding a should statement to any feeling is flawed and sets us up to feel disappointed or worried that something is wrong. I understand it is fantastic to feel love, lust, admiration, and attraction toward our partner, BUT we will not always feel that within our relationships, which is entirely normal. However, ROCD doesn’t like it when our emotions shift away from what they “should” be. Once you become frustrated, annoyed, or disgusted with your partner, ROCD will grab onto this and run with it. Then, you reinforce and exacerbate these feelings instead of allowing them to come and go as they please. Remember, love is more profound than lust or attraction; love is an active behavioral choice we make daily within our relationships, with an understanding that we will feel many different emotions towards our partner.

     3. My relationship should be easy

Again, we have another should statement and expectation on the relationship. We may hear things like, “If it’s right, then it’s easy.” However, this statement is inaccurate because relationships take work, no matter how great it is. A healthy relationship is getting through the hard things and growing together through self-awareness, respect, communication, and commitment. This is not to say that, at times, we may be forcing something to work that isn’t. We never want to stay in a relationship where we are emotionally or physically abused, and we want to ensure that we can communicate effectively with our partner and that we feel safe to be our authentic selves.

     4. Divorce means we failed and made a mistake

I understand no one wants to get divorced; it is heartbreaking and so challenging to navigate. However, one of the most considerable uncertainties we face within a relationship is this might happen. Of course, we will try our best to continue to work on the relationship because, like I just said earlier – relationships aren’t easy. Divorce is not a failure; it is a choice two people make when they recognize that they have grown apart and it’s the best option for them and, in some situations, their children. Remember, forcing yourself to stay with a partner when it isn’t working can be more harmful to a family than being able to have a civil divorce and healthy co-parenting. Again, ROCD will grab on to this fear and NEED certainty that you will not get divorced or break up. Unfortunately, this is an uncertainty we all have to tolerate; we all take a leap of faith when committing to our partner.

     5. I should have zero doubts about my relationship

Yes, I know another should statement – are you starting to see the pattern? You may hear from others and the media that you shouldn’t doubt your relationship; “When you know, you know.” Sure, not everyone experiences doubt, but it is much more common than you think, especially if you have an insecure attachment style or family/relationship trauma. Even if you are securely attached, doubts before a big commitment like marriage are, again, normal! However, what happens is that ROCD will attach to even the slightest feelings or thoughts connected to doubt and catastrophize it. ROCD will want ZERO doubts when it comes to your relationship, which is an impossible ask because, in general, individuals with OCD will often experience more doubt than the average person.

Embracing Relationship Uncertainty: ERP

If you have ROCD, all of that psychoeducation might be relieving to read right now, but we know that ROCD will not be satisfied for too long. Your ROCD will then begin to say, “Well, my situation is different; I NEED to know for sure.” Or “What if this isn’t ROCD, and I’m making a huge mistake.” Remember, the goal of psychoeducation is for YOU to let go of the perfectionistic standards you may hold around relationships and, at the same time, know the ROCD part of your brain will never believe these things. If you have read my other blog posts or work with me, you know the content of OCD is irrelevant. I understand that is a bold statement regarding a relationship because it is a massive part of your life and involves someone else. However, if you are diagnosed with ROCD, it is crucial to commit to treatment FULLY and give irrelevance to the content of your obsessions while embracing uncertainty.

At the start of sessions, many individuals have one foot in ROCD and the other in treatment because they are scared to take the leap and take the risk of labeling this as ROCD. This is scary, but therapy will only work if we’re all in. I always tell my clients that the best way to approach ROCD is day by day because it is always trying to pull us into the future to prevent something catastrophic from happening in our relationships. The goal is to wake up each day and say, “Today, I am treating these thoughts and doubts as ROCD. I don’t know what tomorrow brings, but I am all into my ERP today.”

Like any OCD treatment, I use a combination of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and ERP with my clients. To learn more about my approach to OCD treatment in general, read my post titled “Living WITH OCD.” Once we get through psychoeducation and ACT skills, and my client is committed to treating their symptoms as ROCD, we then begin to build a hierarchy. Understanding how your ROCD presents (i.e., self, relationship, partner) is crucial because your exposures must be tailored to your symptoms. Exposures can range from reading a relationship article to looking at unflattering pictures of your partner. Like any OCD theme, the goal of exposures is to demonstrate irrelevance to the intrusive thoughts while habituating to the uncomfortable emotions we are trying to reduce through compulsions. You are actively saying, “Okay, ROCD, these thoughts and doubts about my relationship are so irrelevant to me that I am willing to bring on these feared triggers through ERP.” Lastly, remember, it is always important to engage in ERP with a trained OCD therapist!

Navigating ROCD and Relationship Issues

The number one concern I hear from clients is, “Well since I have this diagnosis, am I supposed to ignore every concern in my relationship and label it all as ROCD?” The answer – absolutely not! However, there is NEVER a clear-cut answer on what is ROCD or a real relationship concern. No one, including me, can give you certainty. This is why it is important to work with a skilled OCD therapist, especially when you have issues (i.e., communication difficulties, unmet needs) in your relationship. It is up to you and your OCD therapist to navigate what to pay attention to and what to label as ROCD. You do this together while saying, “Maybe we’re ignoring something important here, but today, we are treating it as ROCD.” This, of course, takes a lot of trust between you and your therapist!

At the end of the day, ROCD treatment is not black and white. There are many sessions where I engage in ERP with a client, discuss an argument they had with their partner, and provide communication skills. Or maybe you need to explore family or relationship trauma and how this relates to your ROCD. I have also referred many ROCD clients to couples therapy with their partners to work on relationship issues. You are a whole human and will be coming into treatment with other concerns besides OCD. I believe it is always important to make room for other issues while at the same time being mindful of not providing any reassurance or allowing you to engage in compulsions during sessions.

Partner Support

If you have OCD, you know how isolating it can feel at times. Many clients want to seek support from their partners but find it challenging to do so without seeking reassurance. When I work with clients who have ROCD, I typically will do a partner session and provide psychoeducation as well as ways to support their partner without giving reassurance. I also encourage clients to resist sharing the content of their OCD intrusive thoughts with their partner, especially when it comes to ROCD. However, if you and your partner are at a place where you can joke about the intrusive thoughts and give them irrelevance, I will always say – go for it!

Treatment is hard work, and you have every right to get support. You can get support from your partner in a skillful way that aligns with ERP. Here are some examples of things that you can say:

  • I was triggered today, so I’m feeling anxious. I won’t tell you the content of my thoughts because I know that’s not helpful. I just need your support until this feeling passes.
  • I am feeling an urge to avoid spending time together. I know this is my ROCD. Let’s plan an activity to help us connect.
  • I am having a hard time engaging in my exposures. I know this is my responsibility, but can you help cheer me on today?
  • I am noticing the urge to seek reassurance today. I will try my best not to ask, but if I do, can you just sit with me instead of answering my question?
  • I am having a tough time resisting compulsions today. Can we do something together to help me redirect?
  • I know I have been quiet and distant. I want to let you know that I am struggling with my ROCD today. I need your help staying present.

Ending Thoughts

You may not walk away from this article with certainty about your relationship, which is OK! However, I hope you have a better understanding of ROCD and how many factors come into play. The overall goal in ROCD treatment is to be able to say, “I chose my partner based on our shared values and goals with the uncertainty that they may leave me, or I might not be with the “right” person. I am willing to label this doubt as OCD and will continue to connect, grow, and love my partner. I can have ROCD AND be in a loving and fulfilled relationship.”

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© 2023 Dr. Melissa Jermann Psychology Services LLC - All Rights Reserved - Disclaimer: This site should not be construed as therapeutic recommendations or personalized advice. Interaction with this blog does not constitute a therapeutic relationship. This blog aims to provide general information for educational purposes only. It is not intended or implied to supplement or replace the advice of your mental health professional. This information should not be used to self-diagnose mental health conditions. Consult with your mental health provider before implementing anything read here.