It happens to everybody from time to time. You’re dating somebody and you’re suddenly struck with the thought that they’re cheating on you. Maybe you find yourself questioning whether or not you really found “the one.” Or perhaps you realized that your partner’s laugh is, well … a bit grating. They’re uncomfortable thoughts, but they pass. You go on about your day.
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People living with relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder (ROCD) live in those uncomfortable moments, magnifying and replaying them over and over. Those doubts, insecurities and criticisms are enough to shake even the firmest partnership at its foundation.
It’s important to note that ROCD is not, itself, a diagnosable mental health disorder. It’s easier to think of it as a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). “I have seen the term appear a lot in social media and the news. It’s now gaining attention in research,” says psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD. “It is a helpful term to use. Giving it a name — particularly for partners and for individuals who are struggling with it — makes it easier to understand.”
The good news is, it’s treatable. And getting help could make your relationship better than it’s ever been. We talked to Dr. Albers about what ROCD is, why it happens and how to cope with the symptoms.
ROCD is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People living with OCD experience frequent unwanted and intrusive thoughts (that’s the obsessive part) that compel them to perform repetitive behaviors. For example, if somebody can’t shake the thought that they’re unsafe in their own home, they may repeatedly lock and unlock the door, just to be sure.
For many people with OCD, these repetitive thoughts and actions can become debilitating.
In ROCD, the thoughts — and resulting repetitive actions — are specific to their romantic relationship. For example, somebody struggling with an intrusive thought like “X doesn’t really love me,” may ask their partner to reaffirm their feelings multiple times a day. “It’s normal to have some questions about a relationship — to sometimes have some fears or anxieties,” Dr. Albers notes. “But this really crosses over into being unable to work through it. You get very stuck in your thoughts.”
“ROCD can be really toxic and damaging to relationships, particularly when you’re with someone that you really care about,” she adds. “It really does impact a person’s day-to-day functioning. They can become paralyzed by these intrusive thoughts, which can be very overwhelming and distressing.”
Dr. Albers continues, “At the baseline of the relationship, that safety and security doesn’t feel like it’s there — there’s this constant questioning. It means you can’t relax, enjoy and sink into the relationship. It’s difficult to live with and it’s difficult on the partner, too.”
Relationship OCD isn’t usually the first sign of a mental health concern and almost never happens in isolation. In other words: This isn’t something that can happen to anybody for any reason.
“There’s usually a predisposition to a mental health disorder, maybe a different form of OCD,” Dr. Albers explains. She also notes that ROCD can emerge in response to trauma.
“That’s the hard part. We’re often taught to listen to our gut. And your gut is telling you these confusing and questioning thoughts 24/7. It’s hard to know whether these are real concerns or if it’s the OCD talking.”
We all experience doubts, anxieties and “wobbles” in our relationships from time to time. For people with relationship OCD, these experiences are magnified. So magnified that they impact the way they live their life and conduct their relationship. Here are some signs of ROCD to be on the lookout for:
Below are a few examples of the sorts of thoughts a person with ROCD can get stuck on:
People with ROCD may also find themselves fixated on something that’s “wrong” with their partner or their relationship. The flaw could be superficial — something that, outside of the context of ROCD, wouldn’t merit a second thought.
These obsessive thoughts and questions then lead to obsessive behaviors.
A person struggling with ROCD will seek reassurance that their anxieties are unfounded. For example, if you’re concerned that you aren’t “good enough” to be with your partner, you may repeatedly ask them — potentially, several times a day — if they feel like they “deserve better,” or request that they tell you that you are in, fact, good enough to be with them. You may also feel an urge to get your friends’ and family’s perspectives on the subject as well.
An individual experiencing ROCD may also seek other forms of validation, from taking online quizzes and reading self-help books to setting up scenarios that “test” their partner’s affection. “They are looking for certainty about how they feel. It can be helpful to focus on the facts and values you share vs. feelings, which may rapidly change from moment to moment,” Dr. Albers states.
These behaviors — when they get the intended result — will give a person with ROCD temporary relief from doubt and confusion. The key word there is, of course, “temporary.”
It’s common for people living with ROCD to try and measure themselves, their partners, their feelings and their relationship against others. The impulse to draw comparisons will look different from person to person, but common examples of this thought pattern include:
If you have doubts or anxieties running on a loop in your head — or you can’t help but fixate on the things you don’t like about your partner — your sex life probably isn’t as fulfilling as it could be. If you find it hard to enjoy or be present during sex, it could be a sign that relationship OCD is impacting you.
As you might imagine, social media can exacerbate symptoms of relationship OCD. In fact, obsessive use of social media is the behavior Dr. Albers sees most frequently in people living with ROCD. Many of us feel compelled to check social media throughout the day. The behavior Dr. Albers is talking about is more serious.
“Far and away, it’s the easiest way for me to tell that it’s happening,” Dr. Albers says. “If someone is repeatedly spending hours on their social media and dissecting why their partner liked this or didn’t like this — why they’re friends with this person and what on their profile they liked — it might be ROCD.”
ROCD isn’t a diagnosable medical condition, but obsessive-compulsive disorder is. If what you’ve been reading is resonating, it’s a good idea to see a psychologist to determine whether or not you have OCD — or any other diagnosable mental health condition. These are some of the common treatments for relationship OCD:
According to Dr. Albers, being in a relationship with and supporting a person who has ROCD can be difficult for several reasons:
But take heart! ROCD is treatable and — as Dr. Albers reminds us — “if the person with ROCD can contain and treat the obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors, then it can really do wonders for your relationship.”
Here are some ways to help both you and your partner navigate ROCD:
You can have a healthy relationship with somebody who has ROCD. In fact, supporting them through the difficult process of getting help may even strengthen your bond.
It’s a fact of life: Many of the romantic relationships we have don’t last a lifetime. So, what happens to a person living with ROCD when a relationship ends?
Some find it hard to let the relationship go.
“It may be an extensive process to be able to stop thinking about the relationship,” Dr. Albers notes.
But it’s often the case that the obsessive thoughts will move on to something else. “The fixation transfers on to either another relationship or something completely different,” she says.
Relationship OCD is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. In ROCD, the repetitive thoughts center around a romantic partner or relationship. These anxieties compel the person with ROCD to seek reassurance that their partner or relationship is stable and “right.”
Untreated, ROCD can be debilitating, not to mention damaging to the relationship around which it’s focused. Luckily, there are many treatment options available — and the process of getting help can actually deepen the relationship.