One day you look at your partner and think, “I’m happy, this is going well!” and the next day you’re spiraling about a loss of attraction. Whether that means you’re focused on something physical, like their cleanliness or facial features, or something “cringey” that they do, you can’t shake the feeling that your attraction is waning. Then come the “what ifs”: What if this relationship is a mistake? Are we doomed?
Of course the occasional worry or doubt or insecurity in any relationship is normal. If the thought crosses your mind—”Am I really attracted to my partner?”—you’re not alone, and there’s not necessarily a cause for concern. However, when thoughts about the loss of attraction for your partner become persistent and even intrusive, there could be something else at play. You might be experiencing a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder known as relationship OCD (ROCD).
Some tell-tale signs could include compulsions like checking your feelings about your partner’s attractiveness (constantly asking friends, “Is he cute?”), comparing your partner’s looks to other people, or changing your behavior around your partner to be more distant because you’re worried that you won’t find them attractive.
Let’s dive in further to explore this relationship phenomenon, what it means for your partnership, and what you can do to get help.
What is ROCD?
Relationship OCD is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that is centered around your relationship. As with all types of OCD, there are two main components: obsessions and compulsions. You may have obsessive thoughts about a partner cheating on you, whether you’re attracted to them, or whether you’re doing enough to please the person you’re with—the list goes on and on. At the same time, you might engage in compulsions like seeking reassurance, comparing your relationship to your friends’ relationships, or changing your behavior around your partner to be more avoidant or attentive.
How Relationship OCD Differs from Your Average Relationship Insecurities
Ultimately, ROCD causes a fair amount of distress in your life, and attempting to “neutralize” your thoughts to feel better only works temporarily, because OCD is cyclical and the obsessions and fears always return. People with this subtype of OCD will spend hours consumed in obsessions and compulsions, endlessly seeking relief from their fears or uncertainties. Sometimes there are truly issues in a relationship that need to be addressed, but ROCD is often present when very minor issues feel insurmountable and catastrophic.
What Are the Signs of Relationship OCD?
Common obsessions in ROCD
- Do we still have chemistry?
- Is there someone better out there for me?
- That couple seems happier than us. Is our relationship wrong?
- Could I be with someone more attractive?
- Will my feelings fade over time?
- Are my partner’s smallest “flaws” a reason to break up?
- Will my partner fall out of love with me?
- Is my partner going to cheat on me?
- If I don’t think about my partner all the time, are we the wrong match?
- Am I just going through the motions in my relationship?
Common compulsions in ROCD
- Seeking reassurance from your partner (or other people) about your relationship
- Compulsive behaviors like needing to have physical intimacy every day
- Constantly looking at pictures of your partner to check your feelings of attraction
- Researching incessantly about healthy relationships
- Comparing your partner to others to feel certain about your match
What Causes ROCD?
While it’s normal to want to know exactly what causes any type of OCD, the truth is that there is not one clear-cut explanation. According to Johns Hopkins medicine, “Experts aren’t sure of the exact cause of OCD. Genetics, brain abnormalities, and the environment are thought to play a role.”
The disorder often runs in families to some extent, and different family members can be affected to varying degrees. Symptoms of the condition often begin in the teenage years or early adulthood, but can also begin in childhood or adolescence. OCD affects men and women equally.
For ROCD in particular, certain aspects of one’s relationship history may sometimes have an influence on why a person’s OCD fixates on this theme. Many people develop OCD in the wake of especially stressful or traumatic events, so it stands to reason that severely negative experiences involving relationships could lead OCD to latch onto similar themes.
How Your Relationship Might Be Impacted if You Have ROCD
A person with ROCD may notice it impacts their relationship in several ways—even when one’s compulsions are done in an attempt to strengthen or secure a relationship, OCD causes these intentions to backfire.
For example, if you’re starting to engage in avoidant behaviors because of your obsessive thoughts about your attraction level, they might feel like you are pushing them away. It can create fear and anxiety about the relationship for both partners. ROCD also makes a sufferer less able to be present in the relationship. Partners may struggle to enjoy their relationship’s positive aspects, and have difficulty maintaining a meaningful connection, feeling ruled by worry and anxiety.
What’s the best treatment for Relationship OCD?
ROCD can be debilitating and interfere greatly with one’s ability to feel comfortable in their life, but like all forms of OCD, it is treatable. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with a trained ERP therapist, you can find relief from the cycle of OCD. ERP is the gold standard of treatment for OCD and is backed by decades of clinical research. Most individuals who do ERP with a trained OCD therapist experience a decrease in OCD symptoms, reduced anxiety and distress, and increased confidence in their ability to face their fears.
When doing ERP therapy, you will work on practice exercises with a trained therapist who will guide you in resisting the urge to respond to your relationship obsessions with compulsions. In other words, over time, you stop engaging in the responses that make your fears stronger over time. While these examples might seem a bit odd, that’s exactly the point—instead of running from your fears, you face them and learn that you don’t need to be guided by your worries. For instance, you might:
- Image what it would feel like to lose all attraction for your partner and writing a story about the worst-case scenario
- Kiss your partner even if the thought of someone you find more attractive pops into your head
- Write a script comparing your partner to a another person
When you don’t avoid these fears, they have less power over you, and you learn that the resulting anxiety dissipates over time. You can gain the confidence you need to engage in your relationship according to your own values and desires, rather than OCD’s “what ifs.”
As an OCD/ERP trained therapist, I have worked with many people who deal with fear about losing attraction to their partner. Just as important, I have seen people overcome this fear and live happy lives together. The key is often to work with a trained OCD therapist who understands how OCD can manifest itself in ROCD. This person can also help you determine if there are more serious relationship issues at play that are not related to ROCD, like abuse or neglect.
You can access expert help today
ERP done in live, face-to-face teletherapy (over a video call) is just as effective as traditional in-person ERP therapy. If you think that you or a loved one may be struggling with OCD, you can access effective treatment—and you just might see significant relationship benefits as a result. I encourage you to learn more about NOCD’s evidence-based approach to treating OCD.