Almost everyone has worried about a relationship at some point or another, but for some, relationship worries can be all-consuming.
For folks who are afraid of cheating in particular, a lot can be going on below the surface that’s important to unpack and address.
First, let’s investigate what exactly a fear of cheating is.
What is a fear of cheating?
What if my partner, whom I love dearly, is cheating on me? I would never want to jeopardize my relationship, but what if I cheat in the future? These are questions people who fear cheating might ask themselves.
Fear of cheating involves serious concern about cheating or being cheated on by a romantic partner either in the past, present, or future. Here are some common obsessions and triggers people who fear cheating may face.
Common obsessions related to a fear of cheating:
- What if I unintentionally cheat?
- What if I actually want to cheat?
- What if I cheat on my partner in the future?
- What if I cheated and can’t remember?
- What if my partner is cheating on me?
- What if my partner cheats on me someday?
- What if I lose control and do something I regret?
People with a fear of cheating may find that their obsessions are triggered by situations involving their partner, previous partners, their partner’s previous relationships, and any settings where they feel out of control.
Potential circumstances that may trigger obsessions about cheating:
- Interacting with someone they find attractive
- Experiences where they cannot remember details or events
- Watching or listening to shows/stories about cheating
- Seeing text messages on their phone or partner’s phone
- Someone smiling at them or making eye contact with them who isn’t their partner
- Seeing someone else with their partner
- Intrusive thoughts about someone else during intimacy with their partner
- Intrusive thoughts/images/urges/sensations about someone other than their partner
How can I tell if it’s cheating OCD, and not typical relationship concerns, anxiety, or cautiousness?
People with OCD who fear cheating may face repetitive, persistent doubts about relationships, even in the healthiest of partnerships with no identifiable threat of infidelity.
“The hallmark of OCD is recurrent doubt, over and over again. That doubt usually attaches itself to something that’s really meaningful to the individual, such as their relationships,” says Taylor Newendorp, LCPC, licensed therapist and NOCD’s Clinical Training Director.
Belonging to an OCD subtype referred to as Relationship OCD, people with OCD who are afraid of cheating often experience intrusive thoughts that cause anxiety, followed by a search for certainty through compulsive behaviors, such as repeatedly checking a partner’s phone, despite no cause for concern ever popping up.
How might one tell if it’s general relationship anxiety or if it’s a sign of OCD? Newendorp says discerning anxiety from OCD has to do with one’s level of distress, compulsive behaviors, and the time involved in their experiences.
“The fears of cheating become a sign of OCD when they are consuming at least an hour of the person’s day on average. Additionally, OCD may be at play when the person is actively trying to “solve” their fears, causing an ongoing level of distress that’s starting to impair their functioning, and even their relationship itself.”
People trying to “solve” their OCD-related fear of cheating may find themselves engaging in certain behaviors, known as compulsions, in a repeated attempt to feel safe or reassured.
Common compulsions performed mentally or physically include:
- Avoiding conversations or eye contact with people who aren’t their partner
- Over-analyzing conversations and interactions
- Frequent scanning for groinal response
- Mental checking for past memories they may have forgotten
- Avoiding drinking or using substances
- Asking for constant reassurance from others that they haven’t cheated
- Asking for constant reassurance from their partner that they haven’t cheated
- Checking photos and videos from past events to ensure they or their partner didn’t cheat
- Avoiding shows/movies about that involve cheating
- Frequent rumination and “trying to figure it out”
- Checking and rechecking windows and doors, drawers, and other settings
How can I tell if it’s OCD and not Pistanthrophobia?
Pistanthrophobia is the fear of trusting people in relationships. Building trust in intimate relationships is a personal, individual process that can take more time for some than others.
Pistanthrophobia is a Specific Phobia, which refers to anxiety related to a specific and excessive fear. People facing pistanthrophobia are generally afraid of getting close to an intimate partner, a fear that can be rooted in past experiences. Pistanthrophobia’s roots in previous experiences often differs from OCD-related fears, which can be entirely unrelated to any precedential experience and are accompanied by compulsions done in an attempt to feel secure.
Additionally, people with OCD who fear cheating may be very close with their partner, but become hyper-focused on this one fear, whereas pistanthrophobia often involves a web of intimacy-related fears, from difficulty opening up emotionally to questioning a partner’s motives.
Is it normal to have a fear of cheating?
Yes. Given how infidelity is a common theme in entertainment, news, and social media about cheating, it is common and normal for people to experience a fear of cheating, to a degree. However, when these fears interfere with the way one intends to conduct their lives and relationship, it can be a sign of an issue like OCD, a phobia, or relationship anxiety.
How to overcome the fear of cheating
Finding lasting relief for the debilitating fear of cheating is possible. One of the most effective ways to treat a persistent fear of cheating is by doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. NOCD has over 300 therapists who specialize in treating OCD, and we’ll work to match you with someone skilled and experienced in treating Relationship OCD. Soon enough, you can begin to enjoy your relationships again, with less distress and more time spent building bonds, rather than seeking reassurance for your fears.
ERP for Cheating OCD
By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with a specialty-trained, licensed therapist, people struggling with OCD can find more freedom and relief in their relationships.
ERP will expose you to triggering situations specific to your symptoms while guiding you in resisting your usual safety-seeking behaviors (compulsions). Over time, you will learn to better tolerate the uncertainty that comes with relationships and life in general, without engaging in compulsions that only make the cycle worse over time. In this way, ERP therapy can also help you avoid OCD relapses and new fears in the future.
In a nutshell, ERP is the opposite of avoidance. ERP will expose you to triggering situations specific to your symptoms. The idea is that you’ll gradually be guided in resisting your usual safety-seeking behaviors (compulsions). Over time, you will learn to better tolerate the uncertainty that comes with relationships—and life in general—without engaging in compulsions that only make the cycle worse over time.
Let’s take the compulsion of reassurance-seeking, for example. If you often ask your partner’s friends about their whereabouts or behavior, or monitor their interactions and activity on social media, an “exposure” you do in ERP therapy may be to resist doing so the next time you feel doubts and anxiety about your relationship. Instead, you’ll develop a tolerance for the uncertainty you feel.
Newendorp says, “With treatment, people see that distress associated with fear starts to come down. Over time, the more they do that, the more they’re not responding to it in a compulsive manner to get immediate relief, and gain a sense of certainty, the more they start to learn that these fears are just thoughts, and they’re not an actual threat.”
How to start feeling better today
If you’re struggling with OCD, please know that there’s hope for you to get better and return to enjoying your relationship, rather than being controlled by doubt and worry. Here at NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP.
I encourage you to learn more about NOCD’s evidence-based approach to treating relationship OCD—you can regain control of the relationships that mean the most to you.