It can be scary to have close, vulnerable relationships. When we have a romantic partnership, that person might come to know us better than anyone. The stronger the emotional bond, the more you may fear getting hurt. We are all bound to have an occasional intrusive worry, such as: what if they don’t really love me, and it’s all been a lie?
That’s natural—intrusive thoughts are a universal phenomenon. We all experience them. However, for some people, a thought like this is perceived as a serious threat. If you are spending a significant amount of time trying to “solve” your worry or doubt about whether your partner truly loves you, with 100% certainty, you could be experiencing an issue that requires some additional care and attention.
With the guidance of Dr. Nicholas Farrell, licensed psychologist and a clinical advisor at NOCD, this article will explore why you might be so worried about whether or not your partner—or partners—truly love you and, if it’s negatively impacting your life, how you can get help.
Why are you worried about whether your partner loves you?
First of all, it should be acknowledged that there are unhealthy, or abusive, relationships in which one partner withholds or never expresses affection. This article is addressing people whose worries are intruding into an otherwise healthy, loving relationship.
In the latter case, excessive, continuous worries over whether one’s partner loves them, with little to no evidence to suggest that they don’t, is characteristic of relationship-themed obsessive-compulsive disorder, or Relationship OCD. Like all themes of the disorder, this can be a debilitating, highly distressing condition.
What is relationship OCD?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterized by repetitive, unwanted intrusive thoughts, images, urges, sensations, or feelings (obsessions), intense discomfort that results from them, and mental or physical actions (compulsions) taken to relieve this distress or prevent something “bad” from happening.
In relationship OCD, the intrusive thoughts fixate on one’s relationships, typically romantic or intimate ones. Dr. Farrell says the root of the fear is often “leading a life that is completely opposite to what the sufferer always expected or hoped for.” Thus, if your relationship is important to you, your fear might stem from the idea of feeling alone or being betrayed.
Intrusive thoughts (or images, urges, sensations, or feelings) vary widely between individuals. You might notice they are triggered by certain situations, experiences, or other stimuli. For example, maybe you feel triggered if your partner hangs up the phone without saying “I love you.” Maybe you feel triggered when you see another relationship that appears perfect, and you can’t help but compare your own to it. Or perhaps you feel triggered when you and your partner are intimate, and you wonder if they’re feeling as loving as you are. Other times, you might feel like your intrusive thoughts simply strike out of the blue, and consume your mind with worry.
Here are some examples of intrusive thoughts, images, and urges that someone with relationship OCD might experience:
- Does my partner love me?
- Am I good enough for my partner?
- What if I’m not “the one” for them?
- What if I can never commit?
- What if we break up?
- Am I attracted enough to them?
- If we don’t have sex this week, does that mean they’re out of love with me?
- What if my partner is cheating on me and has been lying about their feelings this whole time?
Intrusive thoughts bring all sorts of uncomfortable emotions, and with relationship OCD, you may be more likely to experience guilt and shame. If your partner is, in fact, generally loving toward you, you may feel guilty about your doubts. You may think that if they could ever see inside your head, they would be so hurt.
All these uncomfortable emotions—distress, anxiety, guilt, shame—lead to the “C” in OCD: compulsions. A compulsion can be anything done to relieve distress or prevent an unwanted event from occurring. Here are a few examples:
- Rumination. You may spend hours asking yourself the same questions and turning over the same pieces of “evidence” that your partner does or does not love you.
- Reassurance-seeking. You might, for example, ask your partner repeatedly if they love you, or ask them if you did anything to upset them. To reassure yourself, you may repeat certain phrases to yourself like, I know he loves me. He’s such a good partner.
- Mental tracking/mental review. You may review past interactions in your relationship to look for “evidence,” combing through your memories to look for proof that your partner indeed loves you.
- Excessive online research. You may spend hours online looking for quizzes about whether your partner loves you, scrolling through Reddit, or reading articles about how to know your relationship is “the one.”
When it comes to another person’s feelings, we can never truly have 100% certainty. Our brains, especially if we have OCD, can always find one more what if? question to ask. What if they’re lying to me? What if they’re lying to themselves? What if they’re unhappy?
We can be reasonably confident of our partner’s feelings for us, and we can trust what they say to us about their own feelings, but this can never provide the 100% certainty that OCD demands. For that reason, the most effective form of treatment for OCD is one that helps you learn to accept and tolerate uncertainty.
When are my worries over whether my partner loves me a problem?
You may wonder if the doubts you have are reasonable and nothing to seek treatment for. The signs that it’s time to get help are that 1) it’s causing any impairment to your life, such as a hindered ability to feel comfortable in your relationship and 2) it’s causing significant distress to you. Ask yourself how much time you’re spending on these doubts, how they’re making you feel, and what effects they’re having on your life.
If you are constantly seeking reassurance from your partner, or if you’re pulling back from them out of fear, that may start to put a strain on the two of you. If you really value your relationship, this is an example of how OCD is causing you to live in fear, rather than your values, desires, and intentions. If that’s the case, you will likely find therapy beneficial.
How is relationship OCD treated?
Though this can be an incredibly frustrating, terrifying experience, the good news is that OCD has a highly effective, evidence-based treatment. It’s called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. You may have heard of “exposure therapy” before, but the response prevention piece is key. It teaches you to resist compulsions, which is what breaks the obsessive-compulsive cycle for long-term relief.
It is also beneficial to make sure your partner is aware and on board with your treatment plan. Since they are likely so involved with your experience of OCD, such as being someone you go to for reassurance, they need to understand how to support you in recovery without accommodating or enabling your condition.
In the initial sessions of ERP, you and your therapist will identify what your intrusive thoughts sound like and what their triggers are. Once you know that, you’ll develop an exposure plan. These therapy exercises are tailored to each individual’s triggers, but Dr. Farrell gives a couple examples. He says he might have someone “make note of any observations that are ambiguous about whether or not your partner is in love. For example, maybe they didn’t hug or kiss you goodbye one morning. We would then think about that event, and that feeling, as a way of learning to accept uncertainty.”
Another example would be to “recognize the specific tendencies a partner has.” For example, maybe they tend to fall asleep on the couch and not sleep with you. He would work with the client to “accept uncertainty over what these things ‘really mean.’” In time, you can learn that uncertainty isn’t your enemy—it just is. Your relationship can survive and thrive despite the occasional doubt or worry.
You can regain confidence in your relationship
The idea of “accepting uncertainty” might sound impossible right now, but that’s what ERP-trained therapists are there for. You won’t have to learn this skill alone.
Tolerating uncertainty, and the discomfort it brings, is possible. You can live a life that holds tight, as best you can, to your values more than your fears. If you think that your doubts about whether your partner loves you might be a result of OCD, I encourage you to learn more about NOCD’s accessible approach to ERP therapy. You can learn to accept your uncertainties, for your sake and your partner’s.