Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

"Why Do I Need Constant Reassurance In My Relationship?"

Relationships come with near-constant uncertainty. The “do-they, don't-they” questions about how much your partner cares about you can surface at any time—even on a first date. After all, relationships require a degree of vulnerability. But what can you do when these uncertainties feel unbearable?

Dr. Patrick McGrath

By Dr. Patrick McGrath

January 16 2024

In my experience as a therapist…

I've been a therapist for decades, and I've seen first-hand how often people wrangle with emotions like these in their romantic lives. Some can accept these feelings as an inevitable part of their union, knowing that they can't control their partner, or the outcome of every detail that unfolds in their relationship. Others, however, may respond to this uncertainty with an excessive amount of reassurance-seeking from their partner.

If you often wonder why you need constant reassurance in your relationship—asking your partner if they love you, whether they truly want to be with you, or making sure they won't cheat on you one day—then you may be familiar with this phenomenon. You may also look for reassurance within yourself: Am I really attracted to them? Are they “The One”?

Despite your best efforts to get the certainty you need—and your partner's earnest attempt to show care or commitment—you may find that it doesn't work. No matter how hard you both try, the reassurance never puts you at ease.

I hear this a lot, and there's a scientific explanation for it: Many people who engage in excessive reassurance-seeking in their relationships don't like their behavior and want to stop it. But doing so can be difficult if you don't understand the underlying issue driving your behavior.

So what's at the root of your constant need for reassurance? And what can you do about it—so you feel better, and are able to enjoy your relationship, rather than worry about it?

Let's explore answers to those questions. Because if there's one thing you can be certain of, it's that others have successfully recovered from this very issue.

What is reassurance in relationships?

Everyone wants to hear that they're loved and valued. Maybe a lot! It's an essential part of any partnership. Reassurance is the need for validation or affirmation from your partner—that they have real feelings for you, that they see you in their life long term, or that they're attracted to you.

Some common reassurance-seeking behaviors in relationships are:

Reassurance-seeking behaviors

  • Being hypervigilant about your partner's moods and behaviors
  • Frequently asking your partner if they find you attractive
  • Wondering if your partner is mad or annoyed at you
  • Repeatedly inquiring about your partner's whereabouts
  • Checking your partner's phone to make sure they aren't having a romantic connection with someone else
  • “Testing” your partner's interest in you
  • Asking others what they think about your relationship

There's nothing wrong with engaging in certain reassurance-seeking behaviors once in a while. It's normal to want to feel secure in your relationship. But if you find yourself constantly needing this type of validation—to the point that it may be harming your relationship, and getting in the way of your daily life—then it could signal a deeper issue that's worth examining.

Any of these sound familiar?

You might be seeking reassurance from your partner

Text reading 'We're okay, right?' and other common questions those who require reassurance ask frequently

Why do I always need reassurance?

As with most things in life, there's not one explanation that fits every person—or every relationship. But some common reasons for excessive reassurance-seeking from a partner may include:

  • Low self esteem. If you lack confidence in yourself, you might look to others for emotional support.
  • A previous traumatic relationship. It may be from a romantic relationship or caused by another important person in your life. But either way the anxiety or fear you feel can cause you to seek constant reassurance.
  • A breach of trust, like infidelity. Significant negative events like these can create an impact for years to come, from one relationship to another.
  • A life event that causes depression or anxiety—and, as a result, a greater need for more support from your partner.
  • Having an anxious attachment style. What does this mean, exactly? It's based on research showing that different people engage in relationships based on how they were raised. If you have an anxious attachment style, you might have a fear of being abandoned, and need reassurance in your relationship to feel safe.
  • A type of obsessive-compulsive disorder called relationship OCD (or ROCD).

A good therapist can help pinpoint your particular issue. But I'd like to spend a little time looking specifically at ROCD.

Reassurance-seeking in a relationship: A tell-tale sign of ROCD

When needing reassurance in your relationship reaches a certain level, it could be a sign of OCD. If you've only ever associated OCD with things like excessive hand-washing and counting rituals, this may come as a surprise.

So what is OCD? It's a chronic mental health disorder that revolves around a cycle of obsessions, distress, and then compulsions. Obsessions are recurring thoughts, images, sensations and/or urges that create a lot of anxiety or distress. In order to alleviate your distress, you perform compulsions, which are physical or mental actions that are typically done to prevent something you fear from happening or to escape the discomfort that's triggered by the obsession.

Here's an important thing to know about OCD: It latches on to the things you care most about—and research backs this up. If relationships are something you highly value, that's how the disease might show up for you. Research has linked ROCD with high levels of perfectionism, catastrophic beliefs about partnerships, and even with more depression compared to those with other forms of OCD. In other words, if you hold your relationship to impossible standards or are constantly worrying about “what if” then it makes sense that you'd want constant reassurance that everything is OK.

And OCD can go undiagnosed for a long time. Research has shown that people with OCD spend an average of 14-17 years before they access effective treatment. I mention this because it can be hard to know what's “normal” with relationships, and everyone may have a different opinion about it. It's really hard to know the line between wanting to know that you're loved and when you might be struggling with a more serious mental health condition.

To beat ROCD, work with an OCD specialist

ROCD can keep you stuck in an endless cycle of doubt. An experienced, specialty-trained therapist can help you find a path forward, with a virtual evaluation and personalized treatment plan.

Find available OCD specialists

But back to compulsions: It's true that they do usually offer relief, but only temporarily. And then the cycle of obsessions, anxiety and compulsions repeats. This cycle can make ROCD symptoms worse over time, by teaching your brain that the reassurance helped you avoid a feared outcome. And that can reinforce your fears and make them more intense.

That's because the more you seek reassurance, the less confidence you have in your ability to cope with uncertainty or discomfort, and the more reassurance you need. So as soon as the obsessive thoughts resurface again, you feel a need to engage in the compulsion once more.

The cycle of triggers, obsessions, and compulsions in ROCD

If you're not sure whether you're struggling with ROCD or not, that's perfectly okay—at the end of the day, the best way to determine if you have ROCD is to speak to an OCD specialist for a proper evaluation.

But if you're wondering whether your habits might be tied to OCD or not, there are signs to look for. Kimberly Quinlan, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) who works with people living with OCD, anxiety, and other mental health conditions, sums up the difference nicely: “Sometimes we do want to go to our loved one and say, 'I'm having a hard time.' But there's a really big difference between going to a loved one and saying, 'I'm having a hard time. Will this bad thing happen? Or do you think it will happen?'; and saying to your partner, ‘I'm going through some stuff right now, would you sit with me?' One is very compulsive and one is not.”

There's a really big difference between going to a loved one and saying, "I'm having a hard time. Will this bad thing happen? Or do you think it will happen?"; and saying to your partner, "I'm going through some stuff right now, would you sit with me?" One is very compulsive and one is not.

Kimberley Quinlan, LMFT

Kimberly Quilan

What Triggers Reassurance-Seeking in ROCD?

Now let's look at some of the things that could trigger your reassurance-seeking behavior with ROCD. Your triggers may be very different from someone else's, but here are some common ones:

  • Arguing with your partner and ending the conversation without coming to a resolution
  • Needing absolute certainty from your partner about your relationship—and not feeling like they can guarantee it
  • Worrying that you may have turned off or alienated your partner by something you've done
  • Feeling like something in your relationship is “a little off” and needing reassurance that everything is OK

Seeking Reassurance: A Sign of OCD?

Many people with reassurance-seeking behaviors also struggle with undiagnosed OCD. NOCD can provide a comprehensive assessment of your symptoms and help you find treatment and support. Read about what to expect on your recovery journey.

Learn more

How Excessive Reassurance-Seeking Impacts Your Relationships

I totally understand your desire to have security and connection in your relationship—and wanting reassurance for your doubts and worries. What I have also seen in my experience working with patients is that the partners of people with ROCD can also suffer as a result.

They might not understand why you need constant validation, or why their reassurance never seems to be enough—no matter how many times they genuinely tell you they love you, or that they would never cheat on you.

Thumbnail for video that reads "ERP techniques for reassurance"

How reassurance-seeking impacts others - and how you can learn to stop

It can feel overwhelming and confusing to partners. And they may be hurt or angry by your doubts about the relationship and their commitment to you. That's an important thing to know about ROCD: Although your behaviors are usually an attempt to try to strengthen your relationship and feel more secure with your bond, ROCD can cause those intentions to backfire.

How can I stop seeking constant reassurance from my partner?

This is a question I hear a lot. And the answer is that it depends on the specific issue you're dealing with. If you have anxiety or trauma, for example, seeking therapy from a qualified professional could help you work through it. But if what you're going through is ROCD, it may require a specific type of treatment called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. This is different from traditional talk therapy and even other behavioral therapies. While it could come as a shock to hear this, sometimes traditional talk therapy contributes to worsening OCD symptoms. Think about it: you may end up using your therapist to provide reassurance on your relationship, which—once again—only serves to reinforce the OCD rather than free you from the need for reassurance.

Illustration of how ERP therapy stops the cycle of triggers, obsessions, and compulsions.

So how is ERP different? Well, here's how it works: A trained therapist who specializes in OCD gets to know your specific symptoms. Then they'll create a custom therapy plan which involves, to begin with, working together with your therapist to rank your relationship fears or triggers based on how stressful they seem. To begin with, your therapist will typically prompt you to face a fear that's not too scary—like just saying the word “cheating” out loud. The fear thoughts will likely come up, but instead of responding with a compulsion, you'll learn to tolerate the discomfort. By making this conscious choice and seeing that nothing bad happens, or realizing that you handled the discomfort better than you thought you could, your brain gets the message that there was nothing to fear in the first place.

As your therapy progresses, you'll tackle triggers that elicit a bit more distress, to conquer bigger fears. With an ERP therapist guiding you, you'll practice confronting your fears in your everyday life, too, instead of just the controlled setting of therapy.

As an OCD specialist with decades of experience treating ROCD, I know from personal experience that ERP can allow you to feel more secure in your relationship—and your life in general. Eventually, you won't be riddled with distress from intrusive thoughts, images, or urges about your relationship. Your need to engage in compulsions goes away. In essence, you'll get to live a life that's free from the grip of ROCD.