The fear of commitment is not uncommon. It’s where the idiom “cold feet” comes from. It’s the backbone of numerous romantic comedies, a trope often attributed to a flaky bachelor. The nuance that idioms and media don’t include, though, is that this fear can be debilitating and can impact anyone.
In real life, it’s not often a simple character flaw, but a complicated affliction. You may have enormous love for your partner (or partners) but find that a wall goes up whenever you think about the future. You may want to commit, but when it comes time to actually do it, your alarm bells sound. It may consume a distracting amount of time as you try to answer the question: do I want to commit to this person? You may even find yourself questioning your own commitment out of fear that your partner isn’t committed.
If this sounds familiar so far, it’s possible you’re experiencing a subtype of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) known as Relationship OCD, or ROCD. In the words of Dr. Patrick McGrath, NOCD’s Chief Clinical Officer, “With ROCD, you can never be 100% sure that you’ve achieved the level of commitment that you desire.” Indeed, the condition is dubbed by many as the “doubting disorder,” as it tends to make us question the very things we value most, such as our relationships.
It’s estimated that OCD affects 1 in 40 people around the world, but since it remains widely misunderstood, you may have thought it was restricted to excessive hand washing and a fear of germs. In reality, it can encompass much more—let’s learn about why ROCD can focus on a fear of commitment, and how you can get help.
What is Relationship OCD?
Relationship OCD is a theme of OCD characterized by obsessive doubt or worry about close relationships. It most often latches onto romantic relationships, but it can attack familial and platonic relationships, too. While every subtype of OCD is agonizing, this one can cut especially deep, as it confuses a sufferer about someone they love. They may find themselves terrified of the possibility that they’re lying to their partner about their true feelings and, therefore, feel burdened by guilt.
All themes of OCD, as the name suggests, are characterized by obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions take the form of intrusive thoughts, images, urges, or feelings, often centered around specific themes or core fears. These obsessions are ego-dystonic, meaning that they do not align with one’s actual values or desires. While a person without OCD may experience intrusive thoughts from time to time, they are able to easily dismiss them as unimportant or unrelated to who they are. A person with OCD, on the other hand, is likely to interpret them as real and significant threats.
In the case of relationship OCD, one’s intrusive triggers will center on their relationship in some regard—it could involve a fear that they or their partner is unable to commit, fears related to fidelity and attraction, and doubts about their own sexuality, to name a few. They may take these thoughts as a sign that they’re not ready to commit, that they’re in the wrong relationship, or that they’re lying to themselves. In response, they then engage in the second primary component of OCD—compulsions—to relieve themselves of the anxiety caused by intrusive thoughts.
Compulsions can be mental or physical—any act that is done to relieve the distress that comes from obsessions. With relationship OCD, compulsions serve the purpose of reassuring you that you’re in the right relationship and/or that you can trust your feelings for your partner. Let’s look at some examples of these obsessions and compulsions.
What are the symptoms of Relationship OCD?
As stated above, the hallmark symptoms of all subtypes of OCD are intrusive triggers—thoughts, images, feelings, sensations, or urges—and compulsions—mental or physical behaviors done to feel better. Here are some concrete examples of what those may look like with relationship OCD:
Intrusive thoughts may sound like:
- Is my partner a good person?
- Do I really love my partner?
- Does my partner really love me?
- What if we break up?
- What if I’m not really in love?
- Do we really have a good relationship?
- Will I ever be able to truly commit?
- Am I attracted “enough” to my partner?
To expand on the last example, it’s common with relationship OCD for intrusive thoughts to arise during intimacy. It’s a time where you’re totally focused on your partner and, because of how intimacy is often portrayed, there’s a lot of pressure surrounding how you’re supposed to feel. As Dr. McGrath states, “If you go into intimacy hoping it’ll be a good experience and that OCD won’t interfere with it, that’s when OCD is going to interfere with it.”
This applies to any situation where you’re actively trying to shut out intrusive thoughts. The harder you try not to think certain things, the more they’re going to infiltrate your mind. It’s natural to wish that intimacy can be a time where doubts don’t show up, but that’s not realistic. What is realistic is to remember, as Dr. McGrath puts it, that “just because OCD shows up doesn’t mean you have to pay attention to it.”
Compulsions, performed in order to relieve the distress that comes from obsessions, may look like:
- Seeking reassurance from your partner: “We’re not going to break up, right?” or “Are you sure you love me?”
- Seeking reassurance from yourself, with thoughts like “Our relationship is perfect,” or “If I wasn’t extremely attracted to my partner, I wouldn’t have sex with them.”
- Seeking reassurance online from others by reading forum threads or repeatedly taking relationship quizzes
- Ruminating on physical or personality qualities of your partner that you don’t like
- Ruminating on your relationship and whether or not it’s “good” or “right”
- Avoiding intimacy with your partner
- Avoiding spending time with your partner altogether
- Looking at other people to “test” whether you would rather be with them
- Comparing your relationship to other relationships in order to decipher either what yours is lacking or how it’s thriving
It’s hard to be constantly faced with stimuli that trigger you, and it’s extremely difficult for those triggers to be attached to a person you love (or people you love, if you are polyamorous). Though it’s natural to want to relieve the anxiety you feel, engaging in compulsions will only make it worse in the long run. In fact, this is the foundation of Exposure and Response Prevention therapy (ERP).
How is Relationship OCD treated?
Every subtype, or theme, of OCD is treated the same way: with ERP therapy. This method of treatment has two essential components. The first part, exposure, involves directly facing triggers in order to practice the second part: response prevention, in which you resist the urge to engage in compulsions.
When working with an ERP therapist, you’ll “start with the easiest things to work on and build up to the more difficult things,” Dr. McGrath explains. Here are some examples of what exposures for relationship OCD might look like:
- Reading a story or watching a movie about a breakup
- Listening to a friend talk about their breakup
- Going on double dates with other couples
- Engaging in intimacy with your partner
- Saying “This may or may not be the right relationship” out loud
- Purposefully noticing strangers you find attractive
Before, during, and after your exposures, you will practice response prevention. This means resisting the urge to engage in compulsions. Though anxiety and distress will be present, especially in the beginning of your ERP journey, you will practice simply acknowledging these feelings and moving on. Over time, you will train your brain not to sound an alarm in the face of your intrusive thoughts and triggers.
The goal of ERP is not to never have intrusive thoughts or feel anxiety again, but rather to build your tolerance to that anxiety, allowing you to live with uncertainty and doubt. “We’re here to show people that they don’t need all that reassurance,” Dr. McGrath says, “and that they can live with doubt and uncertainty in their lives.”
Dr. McGrath also notes that OCD “will give you hundreds of reasons” not to get help. It will convince you that, in fact, the only reason your relationship is okay is because of OCD. To dispel this lie that OCD is telling you, Dr. McGrath puts it like this: “If OCD was actually helpful for relationships, we would suggest that everyone in relationships should develop OCD—in reality, it’s the last thing I’d ever wish on a couple.”
When exploring treatment options for OCD, it’s important to note that traditional talk therapy is ineffective in treating OCD. Talk therapists who aren’t trained in OCD are likely to “tell people to replace their thoughts, or find the meaning of every thought, which OCD loves,” Dr. McGrath says. Traditional therapy encourages you to talk through your intrusive thoughts rather than treat them as what they are: intrusive thoughts that don’t deserve your attention or analysis. If a therapist claims to specialize in OCD but does not practice ERP, it’s advisable to find a therapist who does.
If this article didn’t resonate with you…
And you’re wondering what else your fear of commitment could be a sign of, there are other possibilities:
- Relationship issues—If you don’t think you’re struggling with obsessions and compulsions from ROCD, some doubts or worries about a relationship may be constructive and important. Working with a couples’ counselor can be a useful way to work through what you or your partner is feeling.
- Abandonment trauma—If you’ve experienced significant abandonment in your life, your fear of commitment could be a side effect of this trauma.
- Generalized anxiety disorder—Anxiety differs from OCD in that it is not a cycle of intrusive, repetitive thoughts followed by compulsive internal or external behavior to rid yourself of the anxiety from those thoughts. Learn more about the differences between generalized anxiety disorder and OCD.
- Depression—Those with depression can have a difficult time imagining what lies ahead. If your fear of commitment is accompanied by an overall inability to envision your future, you could be experiencing depression.
As always, speak with a licensed mental health professional to help you understand where your fear of commitment is coming from. No matter the source, there is treatment that can help you. It is possible for you to live a life ruled by your values, not your fears.