When talking about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), it’s necessary to get specific about what exactly the “obsessive” part of the disorder entails. Because words like “obsessive” or “obsessed” have their own definitions outside of OCD, its meaning is often misconstrued—as is the condition itself.
People say things like “that’s so OCD” when what they really mean is that something (or someone) is detail-oriented, organized, or clean. In reality, OCD can latch onto a wide variety of themes that have nothing to do with organization or cleanliness. On the other hand, they might use a word correctly but in a different context, like “Stop being so obsessive,” or “I’m obsessed with that show,” when they’re not referring to the clinical meaning of obsessions whatsoever.
But it may not always be easy to draw the line between one definition and the other—especially for people who are struggling with OCD, and may wonder “Is this an obsession from OCD, or is it another kind of obsessive tendency?” With the help of Dr. Patrick McGrath, NOCD’s Chief Clinical Officer, this article will discuss what obsessions in OCD are, and what they are not.
Let’s define “obsessed”
Colloquially, we use the word “obsessed” in two primary contexts: to describe a strong fondness of something, which has a positive connotation, or to describe an embarrassing, possibly worrisome fondness or fixation on something or someone. I’ve even seen many job postings that call for the candidate to be “obsessive” about details, staying organized, and customer service.
Saying “The right person will be obsessive about getting it right” or “I’m obsessed with Pumpkin Spice lattes from Starbucks” or “That girl is obsessed with me” have wildly different implications from what “obsession” means within the context of OCD. Dr. McGrath stresses this difference, too, noting, “Obsessive thinking is not inherently OCD.”
Obsessive thinking in the context of OCD consists of intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, sensations, or urges that are unwanted, distressing, and sometimes taboo in nature. The distress caused by these obsessions leads to the second component of OCD: compulsions. Compulsions are any rituals, mental thought processes, or outward actions that are done to relieve oneself of the difficult emotions that their intrusive obsessions bring up and/or to prevent a “bad” thing from happening.
So, can OCD make you obsessed with a person?
OCD does not involve what most people associate with being “obsessed” with someone. The most common themes that obsessions latch onto include relationships, sexual orientation, scrupulosity, harm, pedophilia, somatic sensations, and many more. In any theme of OCD, people are likely to obsess over doubts, fears, values, uncertainties, negative outcomes, and worst-case scenarios—not being obsessed with people.
Though OCD does not cause you to become obsessed with a person directly, it is possible that many themes of OCD involve others who are related to one’s fears or the subjects of intrusive thoughts. OCD could prompt you to obsess about a loved one’s health, your relationship with them, or what they think about you. There are themes, also known as subtypes, of OCD that describe these scenarios.
The theme of OCD that can cause you to obsess over your or your loved ones’ health is called health concern/contamination OCD. With this theme, you experience intrusive thoughts such as: “What if my partner has a fatal illness?” “What if my sister stops breathing in her sleep?” or “What if my mom catches a deadly infection at the hospital where she works?” Then, in the second key component of OCD, you engage in compulsions. Here are some examples of common compulsions with health concern/contamination OCD:
- Repeatedly asking your loved one to wash their hands.
- Constantly disinfecting your home.
- Repeatedly “checking” your loved one’s breathing throughout the night.
- Asking for reassurance: “Have you always had this mole on your neck? Are you sure?”
- Giving yourself reassurance: “They’re totally fine. They’re in perfect health.”
If you find yourself obsessively concerned about your relationship with this person, such as their feelings toward you, your feelings toward them, if they’re “the one” (in a romantic context), or if they’re a “good person,” that might be a sign of relationship OCD. This theme is characterized by obsessions about a relationship in your life—most commonly romantic relationships, but it can extend to friends and family, too. Intrusive thoughts might sound like: “Am I truly attracted to them?” “Do they love me ‘enough’?” “What if they cheat one day?” or “What if we break up?” This theme tends to come with a great deal of shame and guilt, as the person experiencing intrusive thoughts may feel as if they’re betraying their partner by having these unwanted thoughts. Compulsions with this theme may include:
- Avoiding your partner or the activities that trigger intrusive thoughts, like sex
- Mentally reviewing past situations with your partner to discern whether they’re a good person, whether they love you enough, etc.
- Confessing your thoughts to them in an effort to relieve your guilt and get “bad” thoughts out of your head
- Saying “I love you” in order to feel reassured by hearing it said back to you
- Constantly comparing your relationship to your friends’ relationships or the ones you see on TV/read about in books.
- Seeking reassurance from your partner: “We’re not going to break up, right? We’re not going to end up like our friends who just got divorced?”
If you experience intense worry about what someone thinks about you, and you consistently fear that you’ve done something to make them upset or think poorly of you, you could be experiencing scrupulosity OCD. This theme focuses on one’s moral and ethical soundness. The sufferer wants to make sure they are “good” and are not doing anything to hurt or upset anyone around them. This theme is also associated with high levels of guilt, since the individual places an enormous amount of responsibility on their shoulders—they strive for perfection. Intrusive thoughts can sound like: “My loved one is in a bad mood—did I do something to upset them?” “Did I tell this person I love them enough? What if I didn’t and now they’re sad? Do I even deserve this relationship?” or “I just thought about my partner getting injured at work. Am I a terrible person?” Then, ensuing compulsions might look like:
- Seeking reassurance from your loved one: “Did I do something to make you upset? What can I do to make you feel better?”
- Giving reassurance to yourself: “I always do the right thing.”
- Repeatedly apologizing for things someone said didn’t bother them.
- Mentally reviewing situations where you think you might’ve done or said something wrong and imagining how it might’ve affected the other person.
- Avoiding people, situations, news, or activities that trigger obsessions.
Notice how “reassurance seeking” was on all three lists of possible compulsions. This is a highly common compulsion across all themes of OCD, and it can make you feel like you’re dependent on the person you seek reassurance from. You might feel like you can’t be safe or “okay” without them and their reassuring words—especially if they don’t recognize this as compulsive and like to give you reassurance to help you feel better. It’s possible that this feeling of dependence could cause you to think that you’re “obsessed” with this person.
How to know if your relationship with someone is being affected by OCD
Dr. McGrath says that relationships can be affected by OCD in “all kinds of ways.” He explains that sometimes people will become fed up by someone’s compulsions. For example, if every time a couple goes out to dinner the person with OCD has to walk around the house three times to make sure all the lights are off, making them ten minutes late, this can become frustrating over time—again, especially if the behavior isn’t recognized as an OCD symptom. If someone is experiencing relationship OCD and routinely “confesses” their intrusive thoughts to their partner, the partner may become overwhelmed by these doubts and worries. And as we witnessed in our earlier example, being an unwitting source of reassurance can become very burdensome.
If you’re not sure whether OCD is negatively affecting your relationship, here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Do you feel like your mind is always on other things when with your partner?
- Do you ever avoid activities like intimacy in order to avoid the intrusive thoughts that come with it?
- Do you feel like you trust this person more than yourself to regulate your emotions and make you feel safe?
- Are you constantly assuming responsibility for this person’s feelings or moods?
- Do you find yourself repeatedly saying “I’m sorry” or “I love you” to assuage the doubt or shame you feel from intrusive thoughts or doubts?
- Do you have a hard time trusting your feelings for this person or their feelings for you? Does this lead to arguments or conflict?
If the information on OCD doesn’t resonate with you but you still think you may be fixated on someone in a way that crosses their boundaries or makes them uncomfortable, you can work with a licensed mental health therapist to develop healthier relationship skills. A good place to start your search is for a therapist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) who specializes in relationships.
If this information on OCD does resonate with you and is affecting your relationship, seeking treatment can help you recover from OCD and improve your relationship in the process—including difficult or embarrassing symptoms that cause you to worry that you’re “obsessed” with someone.
All themes of OCD are treated with exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP is a process in which client and therapist work together to carefully, gradually, and intentionally expose you to places, activities, people, sensations or scenarios that trigger your obsessions. You won’t be forced into anything you’re not ready for, and your therapist is there to guide you through the feelings that exposures bring up. Then, they’ll help you to resist engaging in compulsions and instead grow your tolerance for uncertainty and discomfort.
Dr. McGrath says that if another person is involved in someone’s obsessions and/or compulsions, in any of the ways listed above, he makes sure they understand and are onboard with the treatment plan. The partner of someone with OCD needs to know what reassurance-seeking sounds like, for example, so that they can get comfortable with not giving it. “Sometimes it feels like it gets worse before it gets better, and partners or other loved ones need to understand that,” Dr. McGrath says. He encourages patients and their loved ones to have patience, as ERP is not an overnight light switch. It’s a long-term rewiring.
If you’re having a hard time visualizing what exposures would look like for the above themes, here are some examples:
- Not asking your partner if they washed their hands when they got home
- Washing your hands just once when you get home
- Going a day without sanitizing surfaces in your house
- Sleeping next to your partner without checking their heartbeat or breathing
- Hearing your partner say “I love you” and accepting your uncertainty about whether they “really mean that”
- Engaging in intimacy with your partner, aware that intrusive thoughts may occur
- Listening to a friend talk about their breakup without comparing your relationship to theirs
- Letting your partner be in a bad mood without asking, “Did I do something wrong?”
- Asking your partner how their day was just once
- Reading a story about someone who physically harmed their partner
Speak with a mental health professional to get an assessment and proceed with an appropriate course of treatment. If you don’t think what you’re experiencing is OCD, a professional can help you determine what’s going on that is making you feel obsessed with a person and develop better relationship skills. Know that recovery is possible, and so are thriving, healthy relationships with others.