What if my partner leaves me?
Am I attractive enough for them?
Did I do something to upset them?
What if I end up alone forever?
Do these obsessive thoughts sound familiar? If you find yourself thinking about this theme constantly, it may be a sign that you have a subtype of OCD known as Relationship OCD (ROCD).
Your worries may have a cause: introducing Relationship OCD
Relationship OCD, also known as ROCD, is a subtype of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that can cause you to doubt your relationship, your partner, or you as a partner for countless hours, everyday. It all starts with the sorts of thoughts I listed at the top of this article—everyone is likely to have a thought like this from time to time, and they’re not a problem on their own. However, if you’re struggling with ROCD, thoughts like these can become all-consuming, taking up more and more of your life and eventually interfering in your relationship itself.
These intrusive thoughts, feelings, urges, and doubts are known as obsessions, and they can fill your day with worry, distress and panic. Whereas someone without OCD may be better able to accept these uncomfortable thoughts, remain committed to their relationship, and feel generally in control of how they see their partner, OCD takes hold of these sorts of doubts, making them feel like urgent threats. It feels as if these thoughts and uncomfortable feelings will never stop unless you do something to confirm that they’re wrong or to make sure that your fears aren’t true. As a result, you engage in actions or mental routines called compulsions.
Compulsions can be defined as purposeful and repetitive physical or mental actions that a person feels compelled to do in order to relieve distress, eliminate uncertainty, or prevent a feared outcome from happening. These actions are usually very specific and often have their own strict rules.
In ROCD, compulsions are generally done in order to feel secure in your relationship or feel reassured about your partner’s feelings. In this particular case, your compulsions would likely have the goal of feeling 100% certain that your partner won’t leave you. Here are some common examples.
Common compulsions related to these worries:
- Asking your partner for reassurance that your relationship is secure
- Comparing your relationship to others’ relationships
- Asking loved ones if they believe your relationship is secure
- Constantly asking your partner if they’re okay, upset, angry, etc.
- Seeking reassurance about your relationship online
- Mentally reviewing interactions with your partner, searching for signs that they might leave you
Rather than actually resolving fears or uncertainty, compulsions only reinforce the vicious cycle of OCD. By providing a temporary sense of relief in the moment, they make you believe that as long as you keep doing them, your fears will not come to reality, or that you can feel absolute certainty about your doubts.
Unfortunately, despite all of the efforts you make and time you spend keeping up with compulsions, the panic and discomfort surrounding your fear do not go away, and OCD demands a certainty that is impossible to achieve. This cycle makes you more dependent on your compulsions over time, as they provide some short-term relief but lead to more and more long-term suffering.
What if my relationship fears are legitimate?
Intrusive thoughts caused by OCD are ego dystonic, meaning that they are in opposition with who you are as a person, with your intentions and your values. What this means is that no matter how hard you try to rationalize with these thoughts, the anxiety/distress will not decrease. OCD feels very real despite the rational understanding that you may have about these thoughts.
This ego-dystonic factor of OCD makes this disorder extremely distressing. Sufferers spend hours per day analyzing, rationalizing, or ruminating about their relationship and its meaning, hoping to find some type of relief or absolute certainty in order to put their doubts, worries, and discomfort at bay. What this really involves is mental compulsions, which keep the OCD cycle going and actually provide less relief over time.
If this sounds similar to your experience, please know that you are not the only one experiencing these types of intrusive thoughts. Many, many people with ROCD are not only distressed, but also feel ashamed of having these thoughts about themselves, their partner, and their relationship. Nevertheless, ROCD is very common, it can happen to anyone, from all walks of life, and it doesn’t mean anything about you, your partner, or your relationship. Fortunately, there is a way to manage these thoughts more effectively and finally start to feel better.
How you can find relief from your fears
If fears about your partner leaving you or related to relationship OCD are causing you to suffer, know that you can get better. It is important to find an OCD specialist who has been thoroughly trained in Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, the most effective treatment for OCD.
A major component of all themes of OCD, especially ROCD, is an intolerance for uncertainty. Most often, a big reason that your worries are taking over so much of your life and causing so much distress is that you feel like you can never know for sure that your partner won’t leave you. And unfortunately, that’s a fact you have to learn to live with. In fact, uncertainty is a necessary aspect of every part our lives—ROCD just wants you to believe that you can’t handle uncertainty about your relationship. But with ERP, a therapeutic approach that’s based on decades of rigorous research, you can teach your brain that is is able to tolerate relationship uncertainty. In fact, it’s able to thrive on uncertainty, gaining greater freedom in your relationship and in every other area of your life.
Here are some examples of possible therapy exercises you might do to redice your fears over time, with the help of a trained specialist:
- Refrain from texting your partner for (an hour, a day, a week)
- Put on your least favorite outfit before seeing your partner.
- Write down worst-case scenarios to embrace the uncertainty of the possibility of your partner leaving you.
- Read articles or material about breakups.
- Imagine living without a partner.
ERP involves carefully confronting your fears, but the most important piece of recovery is the response prevention component of therapy. By teaching yourself that you can accept obsessive doubts and uncertainty about your relationship without resorting to compulsions, you can learn to better tolerate the discomfort associated with those obsessions and see that thoughts do not actually pose any “risk” to you, your partner, or your relationship. Exposures are introduced to you gradually and your therapist will guide you through effective response prevention. Remember: you don’t have to do this alone!