In 2014, I had just broken up with my boyfriend of five years. I was in distress, because this was a person I wondered about marrying. Little did I know I had ROCD, or relationship-themed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I was always doubting if he was the right one for me, leading me to compulsively check his social media to prove that he was being unfaithful—which he never was.
The complicated truth is that there is never one person who is totally right for anyone. However, after the breakup, this led me down a spiral of obsessions in the dating world. I was constantly wondering if I would be alone forever, dating multiple people just to try to understand if they were the right one, obsessing about if they liked me or not, and then compulsively checking their social media to see if they were seeing other people. It became so exhausting.
At the time, I went to a therapist who said she specialized in something known as love addiction, and was sent to 12-step meetings for love addiction. Although these were helpful for teaching me mindfulness and connected me to an amazing community, I was still plagued by the thoughts that maybe I would never find the right one and thus the doubt continued. Hearing people’s stories in 12-step meetings was sometimes helpful, and sometimes not—others were often engaging in compulsive rumination about love, as well as overchecking.
Now, as a therapist who frequently helps people struggling with ROCD, I understand that resisting these behaviors and sitting in discomfort and doubt is the key to my well-being. I am currently in a long term relationship again, and sometimes ROCD still spikes. The difference is that I now know how to avoid seeking reassurance, to stop compulsively ruminating about marriage, and definitely not monitor his social media pages. So far, so good.
How you can recognize ROCD
Everyone’s journey with OCD is unique, but people with ROCD often share some hallmark experiences. Here are some examples of common intrusive thoughts and fears in ROCD:
“Does my partner like me? Why am I thinking of sexual things all day? What is wrong with me? If I think that person is attractive, does that mean I don’t love my partner? If I’m bored, does that mean I’m boring and my partner thinks we are boring?”
Relationship-themed OCD loves to attack when you feel insecure about a relationship, often at the worst times. It will make you ask so many questions that will cause you to doubt if you’re in the right relationship or not. Don’t be surprised if it sneaks up on you when in the aisles of your local drugstore this month, perusing the red and pink decorations, chocolate boxes, and Valentine’s Day cards.
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The difference between relationship-themed OCD and love addiction is that in OCD, intrusive thoughts or worries cause a great amount of distress. Rather than receiving any pleasure or positive result from the thoughts, you may end up feeling ashamed and anxious, driven to engage in compulsions for quick relief. These might involve repeatedly checking on your ex partner and current partner, comparing your relationship to other relationships, punishing yourself and pushing people away by avoiding them, or constantly seeking reassurance by expressing doubts or asking your partner to confirm if they love you or not. It can be stressful for everyone involved, and cause serious relationship issues.
Love addiction, on the other hand, starts due to the euphoria caused by connecting with someone, and is driven by chasing the reward associated with that person: constantly wondering where the person is, communicating profusely with them, romanticizing future meetings, replaying dates. These may all sound similar to compulsions, but there are important distinctions. With ROCD, thoughts are distressing and anxiety-provoking, and compulsions are done in an attempt to find relief from negative feelings, rather than to chase positive ones.
Where ROCD and love addiction intersect
The intersection between love addiction and ROCD, or a compulsory longing, is known as limerence, according to noted psychologist Albert Wakin. “Young love” may often seem like love addiction, but when people try to secure or maintain emotional reciprocation from an object of affection, it becomes highly unhealthy. This is also known as the limerent object, or LO, a term coined by psychologist Dorothy Tennov in her book Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love. A fear of rejection or desire for attention can rule the obsessor’s mood, and they may rationalize that negative traits are actually good or desirable.
In limerence, compulsions are often done in an attempt to receive love, attention, or affection back from the LO, whereas with ROCD, compulsions are done to neutralize negative thoughts about the relationship. In either case, the obsessions and compulsions don’t lead to healthy attachment and can often cause relationship issues.
You can get better—for yourself and your relationship
ROCD is best treated by doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with a therapist who specializes in OCD. ERP exercises done to treat ROCD may include:
- Imagining your partner looking at another person’s social media profile without checking their profile yourself
- Imagining breaking up with a partner because they were unfaithful, then not checking on them or asking for reassurance
- Smiling at someone else in person who is not your partner
- Writing a script about breaking up and falling out of love and reading it out loud several times per day.
- Writing out all the qualities you do not like about your partner.
Support groups can also provide a great deal of help. There are support groups available for love addiction, known as SLAA. However, for people with ROCD, it may be hard to recognize compulsive and unhealthy behaviors within those groups. Check out some more info here in our guide to ROCD and find a support group here.
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Whether you are single or in a relationship, asking for reassurance, seeking validation compulsively, and questioning yourself and the relationship won’t help your anxiety. If you value your relationships, know that compulsions can affect the status of your relationships. Get help so you can thrive whether on your own or with your partner.