Relationship OCD? Someone call Dr. Phil…

By Christine Cooke

So, do you have Relationship Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

I don’t know. I’ll let a therapist diagnose you.

But if you feel like you can never conjure up the “right” feelings about a relationship, or if you feel like you have a long list of “musts” or “shoulds” about your romantic experience, or if you often feel yourself sabotaging a good opportunity with uncontrollable worries and panicky fears...hear me out. There may be something you should know. It’s information I wish I had known about a decade ago.

It’s the truth about obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

The short explanation is that OCD comes down two main things: obsessions (intrusive thoughts) and compulsions (actions or thoughts you use to counter the intrusive thoughts). These become a disorder when they afflict your daily life and choices.

OCD manifests itself in a variety of topics: contamination (thinking you have germs), scrupulosity (worrying about doing the right thing), harm (fear of violent images and what it means about you for having them in your brain), and any number of things (But seriously did you turn off your curling iron? Your apartment may burn down and you’d be a careless person not to check a fourth time.). It’s a tricky thing.

Sadly, OCD can even latch onto relationships.

Some people refer to this as Relationship Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (ROCD). When it comes to relationships, here’s what an OCD cycle could look like: An intrusive thought comes into your mind like, “How do I know I really love my boyfriend?” This is important to figure out because you may want to marry him and you need to know. Your need to know hits a fever pitch of fear, anxiety and panic.

The compulsion to fix the anxiety could be listing -- and relisting -- all the reasons why you do in fact love your boyfriend until you feel right about the situation.

But you notice, the thought intrudes later in the day. And in your anxiety to figure out with absolute certainty whether you do actually love him, you relist the reasons that prove your love until you feel right about it once more.

If you’re religious, perhaps there’s another layer. Does God want you to move forward or not? Is all this angst a bad sign? Is the angst just keeping you from a good thing? These are also valid questions.
But there’s a place when your questions becomes less about reflection and more about the need to be certain over all else. When cyclical emotions become your guide posts, and your decisions are steered mostly by spikes of fear and reoccuring efforts to neutralize that fear, it might be more (perhaps scrupulosity) OCD than anything else.

This whole ordeal is exhausting on its own, but it can also be painful when you know you’re dating a great catch, but simply can’t feel right about it. Worse, if you recognize that you’re sabotaging it and don’t know how to stop it.

So here’s the deal. Much of OCD boils down to certainty and trying to obtain it. The remedy? Uncertainty.

The most common form of therapy for OCD is something called Exposure Response Therapy. Basically, with the help of a therapist, you expose yourself to your fear (your uncertainty) and avoid using a compulsion.

Perhaps the exposure is saying to yourself the most uncertain thing, “Maybe I do not love my boyfriend as much as I could...or maybe I do. There’s no way to be certain.”

And then sit with it.

And let your anxiety spike.

And refuse to use a compulsion.

The idea behind Exposure Response Prevention Therapy (ERP) is that over time, anxiety will naturally dissipate without a compulsion, which can retrain your brain to see the fear for what it is: A thought. A thought that may be true but may not be. But that’s it alright that uncertainty exists and will continue to exist. A painful realization for those who demand just the opposite.

Which brings me to thoughts. Millions of thoughts and images flit around our mind in a day. Many of them we never choose. Some we do. But regardless of whether we originally chose the thoughts, we can always decide to inspect, discard, replay, chase or develop them. When someone has OCD they often hyperfocus on certain thoughts -- trying to be certain it isn’t true, that it is true, that it’s right, that it feels a certain way, or that it doesn’t mean they’re a bad person.

Another helpful tool for stressful thoughts and OCD is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a concept that allows us to view our thoughts dispassionately, like watching cars go by on the street, without judging them or figuring them out. It allows us to detach the pain and angst from thoughts because we aren’t doing anything with them other than acknowledging their existence. Having this skill is the springboard for a lot of good, including the power to choose our thoughts more soundly later. (Google the term mindfulness, download a related meditation phone app, buy this book on mindfulness specific to OCD or check out this godsend of a place. You’ll thank me later.)

The OCD struggle I’ve described may seem subtle to some. People who haven’t experienced it, often say, “just let it go” to someone who is experiencing OCD. However, OCD can be an excruciating experience. Sufferers are in fight or flight mode more often than is healthy. It’s especially difficult when the signs are not obvious enough that someone else offers to get you the help you need (as opposed to more obvious signs like who feel they must repeatedly wash their hands to be certain they are clean). This often means that people suffer quietly for years because it’s just that they “worry too much.” In fact, those who suffer with OCD but don’t know it yet, will likely say that they’re a worrier or experience anxiety, but know deep down that there’s something unique about it.

What I’ve learned is, many people experience some degree of obsession or even compulsions, but not everyone has the disorder. Which means that many of these tools can be helpful to them as well.

But what I’ve also learned is that more people struggle with OCD than I ever realized. Every time I muster up the courage to talk with somebody about my experience with OCD, positive results come from it, directly or indirectly.

And there is good news. Great news, actually. There are tools and information and books and experts that can help you. Lots of it. Perhaps, you just needed to understand OCD first.

So do you have relationship obsessive compulsive disorder? Maybe. But if so, good things are still to come.

Christine Cooke