Tainted Love: Living with Relationship OCD

For many people, a happily-ever-after is a perfectly normal and even admirable pursuit. Trying to find that storybook romance is all part of growing up and settling down. However, while most people understand that all healthy relationships will have their ups and downs, not everyone will find that picture-perfect relationship bliss. For those who struggle with a unique and wholly tragic form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, their seemingly endless pursuit of happiness will continuously culminate in a dead-end and loneliness.

It’s safe to say that almost everyone will, at some point, struggle with their interpersonal relationships. It’s also equally reasonable to suggest that most of us do sometimes experience lingering doubts about compatibility with our significant others. And, for the most part, the issues are completely realistic. Minor hiccups (such as leaving the toilet seat up), or more major mishaps (such as forgetting anniversaries), are all part and parcel for most relationships. It’s recognizing these differences, accurately understanding each other’s faults, and learning to compromise where it matters, that allows trust and happiness to grow.

For numerous others though, there exists a disorder that can ruin their relationships even when everything seems to be going perfectly well. This devastating disorder is known as relationship OCD, and for the scores of people who struggle with it, it can be arguably one of the most heartbreaking and destructive issues that they may face in their lives.

Many people are already familiar with obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD) as the inappropriately-identified “handwashing disorder,” but the fact is, it’s much more nuanced than that. OCD is an extremely common anxiety disorder that reportedly affects over 1.2% of the population, and causes irrational obsessions that then eventually grow into compulsions. While it is true that hygiene rituals and counting patterns do fall underneath the umbrella diagnostic criteria of this disorder, there are many more facets to it. While OCD can undoubtedly cause those strange habits, it can also lead to persistent worries and fears. It can even trigger highly uncomfortable and unwelcome disturbing thoughts that can leave sufferers feeling as though they’ve lost their minds.

When existing anxieties in a relationship meet with OCD, a horrible tempest of uncertainty and fear emerges. This juncture of relationship insecurity and obsessive-compulsive disorder converges into relationship OCD (ROCD), creating an extremely serious type of OCD which can be terribly destructive for everyone involved. Indeed, it can — and has — led to the sabotage of otherwise healthy relationships. This disorder is not just problematic for the sufferer, but can be catastrophic for everyone the ROCD victim tries to establish relationships with.

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What is Relationship OCD?

Unlike other types of OCD, which have their own manifestations of both obsessive thoughts and compulsive compensatory behaviors, ROCD stands apart in stark contrast in its presentation. This subtype of OCD is a variant that is primarily focused upon relationships (both intimate and familial), and can lead to irrational, obsessive behavior and actions within them. Unlike most types of OCD, this form of OCD can be much harder to detect, as it typically doesn’t have the same outward symptoms or visible patterns of behavior.

Despite the lack of clear warning signs, ROCD still can be determined by looking at the normal categories of OCD (also called “symptom dimensions”) and seeing if they apply. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Contamination fear (the fear of being unclean or diseased)
  • Fear of harm (the fear of harming or hurting others)
  • Intrusive thoughts (concern about breaking taboos or having immoral thoughts)
  • Ordering and symmetry (the need to have things organized and balanced)
  • Rumination (excessively overthinking or researching an obsession.)

In typical cases of OCD, this may manifest in handwashing, avoiding risky situations, an excessive need to confess or apologize, counting to sets, or developing overt fixations on particular topics. These are the “visible” forms of OCD that most people are already familiar with, but there is a hidden psychological component to each dimension as well. OCD individuals may fear being morally unclean and seek out penance as their ritual, or even have routines they do entirely inside of their heads.

In ROCD, it can be trickier to notice the underlying disorder, since all of the dimensions may directly influence the sufferer’s relationships. These “secret symptoms” gnaw away at the victim, even when they may outwardly appear to be fine. Worse, the line between having “healthy doubts” and “irrational fears” is a very blurry one to begin with in so-called normal relationships. Indeed, relationships are already complex enough before adding in consistent anxiety, obsessive fears, and compulsive rituals.

The clearest way to distinguish relationship OCD from regular bumps and hiccups in a relationship can be determined from the intensity, frequency, and rationality of these thoughts. If, for example, you worry once about your partner’s intentions when they hang out with a close friend they used to date, that’s probably just jealousy. If you worry every time that they leave the house without you, and ruminate endlessly that they’ll find someone new if you don’t closely monitor them, then that’s likely ROCD. Likewise, if you banter back and forth over who hangs up first on a call, that’s just a cute couple thing. If you absolutely refuse to hang up first because you know your partner will promptly fall out of love with you and break up with you the moment you do, then that’s more likely to be ROCD.

“Relationship-Centered ROCD”

Just like the parent disorder of OCD has many different forms that range from unusual actions to deep fears, ROCD itself has several forms that it can come in. One such subset of ROCD is known as relationship-centered ROCD. This type of ROCD is distinguishable because it doesn’t actually hinge on a partner’s flaws — real or imagined — but on the “wrongness” of the relationship itself.

The main dimensions of this form are the ones most typically known for severely internalized symptoms: fear of harm, intrusive thoughts, and especially rumination. People who suffer from the relationship-centered variant tend to have many doubts based around being judged harshly for their relationship, the unfounded fear of the risk of accidentally harming their loved one (or being harmed in return), and overthinking the nature of relationships in general.

Some of the types of intrusive thoughts that they may have in relationship-centered ROCD can include:

  • “Did we rush into this relationship too quickly for it to be true love?”
  • “Are we going to sabotage this relationship later on?”
  • “What if everyone starts disapproving of us being together?”
  • “Don’t most marriages end in divorce? Why should we risk ever getting married?”

And similar fears that might manifest can include the unfounded notion that something is actually inherently wrong with having, or even developing, the relationship itself. In essence, it is not a belief that something is wrong with the relationship itself, but the fear that the relationship is — or will eventually become — wrong.

Even if the relationship is going great with both parties completely happy, OCD victims who are relationship-centered will still obsess over things that could be wrong, which would eventually ruin even a perfect relationship. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, as the irrational expectations color the reality of the relationship and lead to the sort of distrust and fear that will end it.

Partner-Focused ROCD

Unlike the previous form, partner-focused ROCD concerns itself heavily with the individuals themselves that are involved in a relationship. Whereas relationship-centered ROCD is focused on issues that could come up in the relationship, partner-focused ROCD is almost exclusively about whether the members in the relationship are inappropriate for each other. While this sometimes means jealousy or doubts about the partner may arise with some frequency, partner-focused ROCD could also show up as believing you don’t deserve your partner, or fearing that some circumstance unique to your partner being with you will destroy the relationship. In fact, some studies have suggested that low self-esteem is a cornerstone of this type of ROCD.

While this form of ROCD is the one that often includes most of the traditionally externalized dimensions of OCD (such as contamination fear, fear of harm, and symmetry needs), it is still difficult to detect. Some of the more blatant examples of the obsessive thoughts associated with partner-focused ROCD may include:

  • “That’s the second time today they didn’t answer my text. Are they already getting tired of me?”
  • “I made dinner at the usual time, but they were kept late at work and it got cold. They must hate me now for messing that up.”
  • “I caught strep throat once when I kissed my high school sweetheart. Once my spouse finds out how promiscuous and diseased that I am, they’ll divorce me.”
  • “I offered to take them to a restaurant of their choice, but they just said, ‘Anywhere’s fine when I’m with you.’ If I don’t guess right, they’ll hate me.”

These symptom dimensions are slightly more obvious when they present themselves in a traditional OCD setting. However, for relationship OCD sufferers, even the normally blatant and overt symptoms are still mostly hidden away. Their rituals are often kept secret, happen entirely inside their minds, or get mistaken for other more normal aspects of the relationship. Sadly, those who struggle with partner-centered ROCD often suffer in silence with their disorder.

That is to say, people who feel “unclean” while remaining involved in a relationship with their partner rarely have physical cleansing patterns they engage in. The pressing OCD need for relationship symmetry and balance might be easily overlooked as just nagging or demanding behavior. If your partner asks you to dry the dishes as they wash them, and then get mad when you don’t run in immediately to do your part, are they just chiding you for not properly splitting the chores? Or did you just break one of their compulsive rituals and leave them in a state of extreme anxiety and panic? It can be difficult to tell the difference.

The symptoms may often appear to be completely innocent and perfectly normal. For example, many couples plan out their wedding day many years in advance, and may also have an agreement of when to have kids and how many children they may produce in total. In healthy relationships, there’s an implicit understanding that your partner is entitled to know if you have any communicable diseases or hereditary disorders. Unreasonable fears of cheating, the belief that your partner is keeping secrets, or the constant expectation of a sudden betrayal are all recognizable signs of underlying issues with the relationship…but most people never deduce that the root of the problem could very well just be OCD.

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Other Forms of ROCD

While the above categories are helpful in identifying the various subsets of ROCD, they aren’t meant to be definitive or exclusive in the least. Some people suffer both main types of ROCD simultaneously, giving them additional challenges when trying to maintain a healthy and stable intimate relationship. They can fluctuate from fears that the relationship is somehow improper or wrong, to seeking justification from their partner to prove that the relationship is doomed. Then they might circle back around to reasoning that the shared happiness and lack of issues of their relationship is proof that being together is wrong, and continue to look for evidence from their partner.

Furthermore, while most of the research and focus is on intimate partner relationships, it can affect more than just those. Some sufferers of ROCD have crippling doubts of their own closest friends, coworkers, and even trusted family members. Fearing that your boss celebrating your accomplishments is merely proof that the other shoe will fall, and that you’ll inevitably get fired, may be ROCD. Deeply unsettling fears about how your parents and siblings really feel about you after all these years, or wondering if your best friend secretly hates your guts, may also be ROCD, as well.

One form of ROCD that has gained new interest in recent years is parent-child relationship OCD. It may be that some of the common woes and fears of parenthood may be linked to this disorder, which often manifests later in an adult’s life. In particular, it may deal with fears that a parent is negatively impacting a child’s growth through their relationship. Alternatively, it may manifest as a parent fearing that they may be raising a “flawed” child, or otherwise harming their child through its upbringing. Questions like:

  • “Am I a bad parent if my child doesn’t develop as fast as other kids?”
  • “Is my kid going to inherit my flaws and negative traits?”
  • “Does having a rowdy kid mean I didn’t do a proper job raising them?”
  • “Whenever my child acts out in class, does that mean I somehow encouraged them to misbehave?”

Are all indicative of potential parent-child ROCD. All in all, this disorder in all of its forms are indicative of the need for greater research and comprehension of relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Insecurity or ROCD?

Relationship OCD is not just an extreme version of the routine issues and insecurities that often come up in romantic or platonic relationships. Instead, it’s recognized as a distinct and separate disorder entirely. Some of the hallmarks of having ROCD are constant relationship anxiety, irrational fears, over-analysis, and inappropriate thoughts. People with ROCD will often:

  • Look for signs or proof that the relationship is wrong, and not accept contrary evidence. “He told me he’d take out the trash today because I looked tired. He must think I’m too lazy to ever be proper spouse material.”
  • Be wary of differences in their relationship to other relationships they’re also familiar with. “Why doesn’t she laugh at my jokes? My mother laughs at my father’s jokes. I must be boring her.”
  • Overanalyze their past relationships and internalize prior issues that came up. “My ex told me I’d never amount to anything, so surely my current partner feels the same way.”
  • Constantly consider the depth of the relationship and try to quantify the exact limit of their feelings. “Today we talked for two hours about video games before I yawned and changed the subject. That means I can only love them for two hours a day, maximum.”
  • Constantly seek external validation of their relationship, especially harmful or detrimental views. “You’re their friend, do you think they’re really happy with me, or are they just pretending? What about you, you’ve known them for a while, are they really happy? You don’t think so? I knew it!”

ROCD is insidious and toxic to otherwise healthy relationships, and it’s made even worse because of how difficult it can be to properly diagnose. People will always have some insecurity or doubt, even in the most fairy-tale perfect relationships. One important tool you can use to tell the two concepts apart is to try to determine whether your fears are in any way helping the relationship. Yes, healthy relationships will always have disagreements, unanticipated problems, and issues that need to be compromised on. Conversely, ROCD’s impact on a relationship is exclusively to sabotage and end it.

Despite ROCD definitely being impactful on relationships, it is never helpful, only harmful. If your thoughts and behaviors are preventing you from developing trust and happiness with others, there may be a very high likelihood that relationship OCD is to blame for it. Like most mental disorders, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, nor is it a reason to feel like a lesser human being for having it. It is, however, vitally important for your own – as well as your loved one’s — emotional and psychological wellbeing to confirm the diagnosis with a professional and, if applicable, seek any necessary treatment.

Treatment and Solutions

Fortunately, there are many treatment options available, many of which address the root of the issue — the OCD itself. The most common and successful treatment for both “regular” and relationship OCD is called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and it deals with changing the way you think about your topic of obsession. In particular, the main goal of CBT is to address “cognitive distortions,” which are deeply-seated unrealistic beliefs. CBT tries to encourage sufferers of OCD to realize that their internalized behaviors and irrational obsessions are not actually helpful mechanisms. It then seeks to replace those fixations with healthier approaches that will allow normal, undistorted approaches.

In the case of ROCD victims, a CBT approach to treatment might take the form of realizing that their compulsive rituals (such as never hanging up first) do not actually have any impact on their obsessive trigger (that if they hang up first, the partner will feel betrayed and leave them).

Discussing and observing their thoughts and behaviors in a safe, controlled setting with a professional may help them to realize that the two ideas aren’t actually linked. This can allow them to overcome the need for that irrational act in order to feel secure in the relationship.

Another option available that is frequently paired with CBT is called exposure and response prevention (ERP). This approach requires that the OCD sufferer directly face and address their irrational fears by constant exposure to the trigger. It helps with the phobias and unrealistic expectations of OCD by breaking that underlying fear of “repercussions” for not doing their ritual.

In ROCD in particular, a person who fears that certain rituals or actions are necessary to stay in a relationship will be repeatedly encouraged to avoid those compulsions while in their partner’s presence. Importantly, they will then observe that despite not fulfilling the compulsion, the partner still loves them and wants to be with them. This builds a more stable and mutually trust-based foundation to the relationship, rather than one built on irrational fear and superstition.

Relationship counseling may also be an opportunity for people with less severe symptoms of OCD. The value of a neutral mediator in any relationship cannot be overstated — even healthy relationships can benefit from having a third-party observer inform them of issues they see, point out unreasonable expectations, and take note of harmful behaviors. For ROCD, even just sitting down with a friendly face and discussing your secret fears openly (rather than hide them away and let them gnaw at you) can be of great help. They can also help you determine the best way to discuss the impact of your disorder with your partner so that mutual understanding and empathy can be reached.

Pharmaceutical options also do exist, and therapists often recommend them for more extreme forms of ROCD. As it stands, OCD itself is rarely a standalone disorder, but rather one that is fueled by other underlying mental health concerns. Fortunately, there are many medications available that can help those who struggle with treatment-resistant ROCD to help them cope with and diminish the symptoms of anxiety, depression, paranoia, and various other triggers that can cause ROCD to manifest.

In all cases, it is important to seek some form of professional help if you believe that you are struggling with relationship OCD. It’s important to acknowledge that it’s not just your own wellbeing that is affected by the disorder, but the people you care most intimately who also suffer from the disorder alongside you. ROCD is a particularly vile and insidious disorder, and it can be cyclical if left untreated, using its own sabotage of your past relationships as “evidence” you don’t deserve to be happy in future relationships. But please: always remember that ROCD can be tamed, and — in many cases — the worst symptoms alleviated.

Getting the Final Word In

Relationship OCD is a nefarious form of a very common mental illness. It causes otherwise perfect relationships to self-destruct, and can stand in the way of happiness and lasting trust. It frequently causes unwanted fears and terrible doubts to pollute your happiness with your partner. ROCD is not the same as insecurity or dissatisfaction, and it shouldn’t be labeled as such, although it frequently manifests as both. This evasive nature of ROCD makes it difficult to even know if you have ROCD, since so many of the symptoms superficially resemble the normal bumps and snags that all relationships go through.

One fundamental difference between healthy concerns and ROCD is that ROCD is never beneficial. If your fears and rituals exclusively cause harm whenever you try to form or maintain a relationship, it may be ROCD. Knowing that your thoughts and fears are due to a disorder can be liberating, allowing you to finally recognize that you are not to blame for your thoughts. Instead, a chemical imbalance in your brain is the guilty culprit. And, most importantly, having ROCD doesn’t mean that you’re a “bad” person or somehow flawed or inferior to unaffected individuals.

Discovering that you have ROCD does not mean there is anything wrong with your relationship, with you, or with your relationship partner. Even the mild symptoms can be very disturbing and unwelcome, and can leave you with low self-esteem and an inability to trust others. Please remember though that having ROCD merely means that you have a treatable disorder. The sooner you seek help, the sooner you (and your partner!) can enjoy normal, healthy relationships again.

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