The time is 10 pm, and you are glued to your phone. With each ding of a text notification, you frantically look at your phone to find out: Did they finally reply? Why did it take so long?
Sometimes the text notifications don’t come, and you start to drum up every worst-case scenario that could explain why someone is not messaging you. Or, when they finally do respond, you start to question the meaning of their texts. Yesterday they used emojis but today it’s just text—what gives? Why didn’t they call me by the cute nickname they gave me? Is this a sign? Is the relationship ending? Have I done something to upset them? Have they fallen in love with someone else?
You may stay up all night compulsively reading old text messages looking for reassurance in their texts. You might write and rewrite the message you are going to send back 10 times. You may even consider breaking up with this person to escape the uncomfortable uncertainty that you’re feeling as a result of the texts. What’s going on here?
Why you may be obsessing over texts
We’ve all been there. Relationships can be challenging, and there can be endless explanations for why you might be obsessing over texts. Sometimes it’s a valid desire for more communication in your relationship, when it is lacking. Other times, you might be looking for validation and reassurance that you are wanted or loved. You might be struggling with anxiety, Or, simple differences in attachment style could be at play. Essentially, there’s no one-person-fits-all explanation.
However, in certain situations the obsession over texts exceeds “normal” relationship doubts and general anxiety about a relationship. Let’s explain something called Relationship OCD.
What is Relationship OCD?
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder that affects an estimated 2.3% of the population, or 1 in 40 people, over the course of their lives. People with OCD dwell on certain unwanted thoughts or fears (called obsessions) and engage in compulsions, which are mental or physical acts done to alleviate the anxiety and distress provoked by obsessions. There’s a particular subtype of OCD called Relationship OCD (ROCD), where the primary obsessive thoughts center around—you guessed it—one’s relationships.
Someone with ROCD can have a variety of different obsessive fears, and one focus of those fears might be text messages. Often, when obsessing about text messages, a person with ROCD is fearful of what the text (or absence of a text) may mean. The obsession starts as a doubt.
The doubts of a person with ROCD may sound like this: “What if they aren’t texting back because they don’t like me anymore?” “This text seems like they might be angry. What if I did something to upset them?” In both of these examples, and countless others like them, doubts lead to a slippery slope of compulsions. Before you know it, you may be spending several hours a day checking or re-reading text messages, trying to find any bit of reassurance you can. The problem is that it’s impossible to relieve these doubts with any certainty—the more you try to reassure yourself, the less sure you feel. It’s a vicious cycle.
Signs of ROCD
It’s worth repeating: obsessing over texts is a common experience, and many people without ROCD will experience this. But in order for obsessions to “count” as OCD, some additional criteria have to be met. OCD does not only entail obsessing about why that person hasn’t texted back yet; it also includes compulsions, the purpose of which is to escape the uncertainty, doubt, or anxiety someone is feeling.
While there’s no single type of compulsion related to this obsession, here are some examples:
- You keep re-reading old messages for reassurance of your partner’s feelings toward you.
- You excessively compare one text message to another to identify differences that might indicate the relationship is doomed.
- You call the person you’re dating several times after not receiving an immediate reply to a text.
The difficult truth about compulsions is that they never accomplish the long-term relief that you think they’ll provide. If you’re suffering from ROCD, another—more effective—solution is needed.
The best treatment for Relationship OCD
Know this: there is hope. All forms of OCD (including ROCD) are treatable, and research has shown that Exposure and Response Prevention, or ERP, is the most effective form of treatment.
Here’s how ERP therapy works for OCD patients: a therapist works with a patient to identify the specific obsessions and compulsions that are causing distress. Then they work together to develop a hierarchy of feared situations or stimuli, starting with the least anxiety-provoking.
Instead of avoiding these “triggers,” the patient is gradually exposed to each situation. Then comes response prevention, which is a fancy way of saying that patients learn how to resist the urge to engage in compulsions, such as checking their phones repeatedly or seeking reassurance from their partner. Though at first their discomfort may increase as they learn to sit with anxiety and uncertainty, over time they feel less and less discomfort when their obsessions come up again.
Where to get help for ROCD
If you think you may be struggling with ROCD and you’re interested in learning more about treatment, help is available. I recommend that you start by checking with your insurance about mental health coverage. Then, find a provider who specializes in ERP treatment.
At NOCD, we make finding an ERP specialist easy. Every therapist at NOCD has been trained in ERP, and receives ongoing supervision from industry leaders in OCD treatment. In fact, you’re struggling with ROCD—or think you might be—you can learn more about NOCD’s specialized, accessible approach to OCD treatment. I know from personal experience that ERP therapy can help you live with greater confidence, learning to accept uncertainty in all areas of your life.