You love your partner, but you might not be able to keep yourself from wondering, What don’t I know about them? Are there things they’ve hid from me? Are there past relationships that they still think about? It’s normal to have passing thoughts like these, but if they are incessant and feel out-of-control, you might be experiencing an obsession. Obsessions can be scary and all-consuming. However, they don’t have to last forever!
Keep reading to learn more about obsessions, as well as the signs and symptoms of true obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and how you can get help, with the guidance of April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC, therapist and clinical trainer at NOCD.
One word before we move on: This article is assuming the context of a healthy, loving relationship. Unhealthy or abusive relationship dynamics may exist in which one partner is blatantly secretive and withholding, or compares their partner to previous ones, but this is not the situation we’re referring to.
What does “obsessing” mean?
The word obsess can mean many things. Saying “I’m obsessed with this jacket” is worlds different from having a clinical obsession, which Kilduff explains is half of the equation of OCD. “It’s an intrusive or unwanted trigger—which could be a thought, an image, an urge, a sensation, a feeling, that someone experiences that then causes distress and impairment,” she says. Clinical obsessions are always ego-dystonic, meaning they don’t align with your true thoughts, feelings, values, or beliefs.
“Intrusive thoughts can latch onto anything,” Kilduff says, “and in particular, the things that you value.”
Why am I obsessing about my partner’s past?
It bears repeating that even in a loving relationship, it’s OK to wonder or worry about your partner’s past, particularly if it includes behaviors that don’t align with your values or beliefs, or if you have questions about their history. And hey, it’s impossible to know every single thing about your partner’s life before they met you.
You may also be concerned that past behavior is an indicator of future behavior, says Kilduff. For example, if your partner cheated in a previous relationship, you may become fixated about whether that means they’ll cheat on you, too.
However, if you spend a lot of time thinking about what your partner may have done in the past, people they’ve dated, especially if you worry about things that you don’t know to be true—so much so that it causes you impairment and/or distress—you could be experiencing relationship OCD.
What is relationship OCD?
Relationship OCD (called ROCD for short) is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder in which you worry about the “rightness” of your relationship. With ROCD, you may question the validity of your feelings for your partner. Are you truly attracted to them? Are they really a good person? Are they “the one”? And do they feel the same way about you?
These obsessions can be as unique as the person experiencing them, but examples include thoughts like:
- What if my partner loved a past partner more than me?
- What if my partner secretly wants to cheat on me?
- What if their past means that they’re not “the one” for me?
- What if I’m missing giant red flags?
You might also have feelings such as:
- An urge to break up with your partner.
- A feeling of disgust or mistrust.
- Images of your partner being intimate with past partners.
While everyone experiences intrusive thoughts, with OCD you’re unable to dismiss those thoughts as unimportant and untrue. They bring extreme distress—including anxiety, fear, panic, guilt, shame, embarrassment. And in an attempt to rid yourself of these intense, uncomfortable feelings, you engage in compulsions.
Compulsions can be any physical or mental action, but here are some common examples that crop up in ROCD:
- Rumination. For example, perhaps you keep thinking of a conversation you had with your partner about a past relationship, examining it over and over trying to find a new piece of evidence that shows they love you less, or aren’t faithful to you.
- Reassurance-seeking. For example, you may repeatedly ask your partner about their past relationships, asking them to tell you how their feelings for you are different—and stronger. And then to reassure yourself, you might repeat certain comfort thoughts like, Of course my partner loves me more than past partners, or Of course we’re meant to be together.
- Checking and/or testing your feelings or physical sensations. You may ask yourself, Do I love my partner enough? and then wait to see what immediate thoughts or feelings pop up. And then you might interpret those emotions as “proof” that you do or don’t love your partner.
- Avoidance. This looks like steering clear of anything that could trigger your obsessions. For example, it’s common for those with ROCD to feel triggered during intimacy. You may start to avoid physical affection and sex with your partner.
- Mental review. Maybe you think back to times when your partner told you stories about their life before meeting you. You may labor over trying to remember every single word they said, looking for things you may have forgotten that could be a red flag.
Because OCD is cyclical, compulsions never provide lasting relief from your obsessions. Rather, they provide bursts of short-term relief before ultimately paving the way for more doubt and frantic “searching” for answers. Compulsions reinforce your brain’s habit of taking intrusive thoughts seriously. When they inevitably fail at providing 100% certainty—because OCD knows how to find any and all room for doubt, no matter how improbable—you just have to do more and more of them. And the cycle continues.
How can I stop obsessing about my partner’s past?
Like all kinds of OCD, the most effective way to treat relationship OCD is with exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. This method works to desensitize you over time to the fear and anxiety that obsessions bring.
The goal of ERP is not to rid you of intrusive thoughts—because those are just normal parts of the human experience. However, your intrusive thoughts tend become less and less frequent as you give less attention to them. And most importantly, they won’t cause such distress or disrupt your life.
Here’s how it works: An ERP-trained therapist will work with you to understand your intrusive thoughts, what triggers them, and what compulsions you engage in. From there, you’ll collaborate on a plan for gradual exposures. You’ll start with exposures that bring a low level of anxiety and work your way up to the ones that cause the most stress. And that means that you’ll never be forced into anything that you don’t feel prepared to handle.
Kilduff says that exposures are tailored to each individual’s unique triggers, but here are a few examples of what they can look like:
- Writing out a “worst case scenario”: If my partner did something “bad” in their past, then that means…
- Jotting down an uncertain statement (Maybe my partner has red flags I don’t know about) and then reading it back to yourself.
- Reading or watching a story about someone who got back together with an ex.
As you tackle these exposures, which are typically practiced both during and outside of therapy sessions, your mental health professional will give you the tools to resist compulsions. You’ll naturally experience a spike in anxiety, but this is strategic. It creates opportunities for you to practice feeling stress without having to “do something” about it. Over time, your brain realizes that intrusive thoughts are not so dangerous and don’t need to be taken seriously.
ERP may be hard work, but it can be incredibly rewarding. You’ll feel empowered by knowing that while you can’t control what thoughts pop in your head, you can control how you react to them. This will allow you to be present in your relationship with a clear-headed perspective rather than one born from fear.