Brandi Roberts, MS, AMFT, of the OCD Center of Los Angeles, shares her personal experience and recovery from relationship OCD (ROCD), as well as discusses the dynamics and treatment of this very common OCD subtype.
Three months into my first romantic relationship, I was on a date with my boyfriend, and suddenly I was hit with a tightness in my chest that felt unbearable, and a suffocating desire to end the relationship. I had no idea why I felt this sudden anxiety, because he was a sweet guy who treated me well. After a lot of tears and confusion I broke up with him. The only explanation I could give was that, “It just didn’t feel right.” My next few short relationships ended in the same way and I couldn’t figure out why dating caused me so much anxiety. It was so emotionally exhausting, I didn’t date for a long time. Many years later, I met someone I truly could see a future with, and although I was very emotionally vigilant and always waiting for the anxiety to show up, I didn’t feel it for a while. Shortly after a year of dating, I was experiencing many stressful events in my life, and my partner was my main source of comfort and security during that time.
Then it happened, seemingly out of nowhere: The tightness in my chest, the feeling of wanting to break up, and fear that he wasn’t the right one. I tried to quiet the thoughts, but my intrusive thoughts jumped to thinking my partner was cheating on me, but there was no reason to think so. Then my thoughts jumped again to thinking I might hurt my partner, my family, or myself, followed by feeling shame and guilt. I was scared and this anxiety was impeding my ability to function, so I began researching my symptoms and it turns out, my experience was common for Relationship Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (ROCD). This experience was the beginning of a challenging journey through healing from ROCD, and eventually led me to becoming an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) therapist.
What is ROCD?
ROCD is a type of OCD in which someone has obsessive thoughts about their relationship, and typically focuses on what is important to them in a relationship, causing them to have uncomfortable thoughts that question many aspects of the relationship (Greymond, 2015). Because ROCD is a symptom of OCD, let’s talk about the core aspects present in all OCD types. OCD is a disorder in which an individual experiences unwanted, recurring obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are thoughts, ideas, mental images, or impulses that someone experiences as unwanted, intrusive and/or inappropriate. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that an individual feels compelled to perform in an effort to decrease or cope with anxiety related to the obsession. These compulsions typically fall into these four categories: overt, avoidant, reassurance-seeking, and mental.
Many people perceive OCD generally as compulsive hand washing or checking behaviors. But, ROCD is considered a sub-type of OCD called Pure Obsessional OCD, or “Pure O”, because the compulsions are less obvious. But Pure O does involve compulsions and causes the individual mental distress. Within the category of Pure O, there are other types of OCD like Sexual Orientation OCD (SO-OCD), Harm OCD, Pedophile OCD (POCD), and Religious OCD, also called Scrupulosity. All of these obsessional themes differ in content, but are connected to the overarching symptoms of having obsessions and engaging in compulsions to cope with the distress caused by the obsessions.
ROCD Obsessions and Compulsions
Some of the most common ROCD obsessive thoughts are:
– What if my partner doesn’t love me?
– What if my partner leaves me?
– What if I’m not attracted to my partner?
– Maybe I’m attracted to somebody else?
– Thoughts focused on perceived flaws in your partner.
– What if my partner is cheating?
– What if I cheated?
– What if I hurt my partner physically?
– Having anxiety means my partner is not “The One.”
– If I don’t tell my partner my thoughts, I’m being dishonest.
These intrusive thoughts cause anxiety, and many times the sufferer feels like they HAVE to break up with their partner, almost as if their thoughts are bullying them to leave the relationship. Underlying this obsession is a natural human desire to know with certainty that this relationship won’t cause pain, discomfort, or heartbreak. There is so much uncertainty in relationships because it involves another person whom we cannot control nor be certain how they will handle our vulnerability and emotions. Those with OCD symptoms, assign much more meaning to these thoughts than those who do not suffer from OCD. But there is no way to be 100% certain if a person is “right or wrong” for us.
ROCD involves some of these common compulsions:
– Compulsive online researching about love and relationships.
– Confessing repeatedly to your partner that you are experiencing doubts about the relationship.
– Showing physical affection or having sex with your partner to check for arousal or emotional connection.
– Breaking up with your partner.
– Calling or texting too many times a day
– Avoiding intimacy with your partner.
– Avoiding verbal or physical affection.
– Avoiding watching romantic movies or TV shows.
– Asking your partner if they really love you.
– Asking family members and friends to confirm your partner and you are compatible and/or if they are attractive.
– Mentally checking your arousal or feelings during intimate moments.
– Mentally comparing your relationship to romantic movies, books, songs, etc.
– Mentally reviewing past relationships and comparing them with your current relationship.
ROCD compulsions are an attempt to find relief from the anxiety caused by obsessional thoughts about our relationship. We might find relief momentarily, but the relational obsession returns shortly and starts the Obsessive Compulsive Cycle all over again.
Societal and Cultural Messages about Romantic Relationships
Our society has given us expectations about romantic relationships which don’t allow any room for doubt, uncertainty, or an ROCD diagnosis. The way romance is portrayed in Disney movies, romantic comedies, or novels is setting a very high expectation for what a romantic relationship “should” look like. We are taught that there is “The One” for us and when we find them, we will just “know” it’s right. This is why, when we confide with our loved ones and share our obsessional thoughts about relationships, their advice may trigger more anxiety instead of helping us deal with the disorder. In reality, relationships take some hard work, and there are probably many people in the world with whom we might be compatible
In relationships, there is uncertainty for everyone involved, but those with ROCD struggle to sit with this uncertainty; at times it feels unbearable and we just want to feel like we’re in control again. These thoughts and feelings can cause individuals to feel disappointed that their romantic relationship isn’t the fantasy they were told about their entire life. If you are suffering with ROCD symptoms, you don’t need to be stuck in this cycle and you won’t have to run from relationships forever in order to find peace; there is hope.
Treatment for OCD is similar for all of these types, because it always comes back to obsessions which cause anxiety, and compulsions to cope and quiet the anxiety. As an OCD therapist, I utilize Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help guide my clients out of the OCD cycle. CBT has shown to be highly effective in treating ROCD. To treat ROCD, I begin with psycho-education, teaching my clients how the disorder works in the mind, and showing them the ways their obsessions and compulsions team up to keep them trapped in the doubting cycle. After the education session, we transition into Cognitive Therapy, helping the client become aware how their thoughts about relationships are unhelpful, and I teach them how to challenge these thoughts. Next, I guide clients towards more acceptance of their obsessive thoughts and emotions related to ROCD, by utilizing Mindfulness. Lastly, I slowly expose my clients to situations that cause anxiety, by using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP).
Accepting Uncertainty in Relationships
Uncertainty and anxiety are normal in relationships, because our emotions are in someone else’s hands. There’s risk involved in everyday life and in every romantic relationship, due to the possibility of life not working out the way we hoped. But individuals struggling with ROCD, in their attempt to escape the uneasiness of uncertainty, are not only escaping this discomfort, but they are also missing out on the parts of relationships that bring love, comfort, and connection. Learning to sit in that uncertainty, can allow for true vulnerability, partnership, and romance. The key to healing from ROCD, or any form of OCD, is to accept the uncertainty in life, and begin a deeper journey within yourself, which can lead to more intimacy with your romantic partner. If you are struggling with ROCD, just know that with support, and treatment, there is a way out of this cycle.
• Brandi Roberts, MS, AMFT, is a psychotherapist at the OCD Center of Los Angeles, a private, outpatient clinic specializing in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for the treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and related anxiety based conditions. In addition to in-person individual therapy, the center offers eight weekly therapy groups, as well as online therapy, telephone therapy, and intensive outpatient treatment. To contact the OCD Center of Los Angeles, click here.