I recently ran into a girl I graduated with. We decided to grab coffee and spent several hours together, reminiscing and laughing about our college days. At a certain point, my attention turned from the fun we were having to an intrusive thought I just couldn’t shake.
Am I attracted to Jennifer?
Here’s the thing: I’m a heterosexual woman, and I’ve been happily married to my husband for the past 16 years. My OCD, however, discounted all of that and continued generating a barrage of uncomfortable follow-up questions.
What does this say about me?
Am I gay? What if I don’t even know myself?
This sudden flood of doubts was so distracting that I wondered if Jennifer could tell my mind was elsewhere. For the remainder of the day, I replayed every aspect of our catch-up, desperate to make sense of this thought.
Did you just think she looked good after all these years, or were you physically attracted to her?
If I am truly gay, what does that mean about my marriage?
Did I waste all this time because I really like girls?
I then tried to remember my physiological reactions during our impromptu visit.
Did I feel aroused?
I told myself that I didn’t think so, but the self-questioning was relentless, and it turned into several days of near-constant rumination, confession, seeking reassurance, and research. I woke up and went to bed feeling anxious and miserable. My husband—who is not always the most intuitive guy—could sense that something was off.
Even though I’m a therapist trained in treating OCD, the disorder’s hold can be so all-encompassing that it took a whole week before I successfully put the tools I employ in my work to good use on myself.
I stopped trying to figure it out. I fully acknowledged that my OCD had resurfaced and was trying to latch on to something in my life. As I tell my patients, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is the best bet for breaking the cycle.
I knew I needed to start exposing myself to the idea—however unlikely—that I felt sexual attraction to my friend. It was hard at first—ERP is never without its challenges—but soon, I began to accept that there was some chance that I could be attracted to Jennifer, and that it didn’t have to mean anything about me, my marriage, or my life. My efforts allowed me to tolerate uncertainty, even about important parts of my identity, which is the key to ERP’s demonstrated effectiveness in treating OCD.
After an unsettling week, I again enjoyed spending time with my husband. We went out for a date night, and soon I had forgotten about my fears and doubts. I’d practiced what I preached and was back to engaging in my life and marriage after a brush with something called “false attraction” that my OCD latched onto.
What is false attraction in OCD?
False attraction is a common symptom in several subtypes of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) where a person experiences unwanted and intrusive thoughts, images, or doubts about their attraction to someone or something entirely unusual for them.
You might suddenly question whether you’re attracted to someone of a different gender than your typical partners, someone older, someone younger, or maybe someone close to you. False attraction can be involved in many different themes of OCD involving attraction generally: relationship OCD, pedophilia OCD, incest OCD, or—as in my case—sexual orientation OCD.
The critical thing to remember about false attraction is that the person feeling this draw doesn’t want it. When someone experiences this alien-feeling draw, they’re prone to feel anxious, fearful, or even in some cases disgusted about the attraction, if it opposes their values (often the case for people with fears that they could be attracted to children, animals, etc.). They might try everything in their power to rid themselves of their doubts and worries, but end up caught in a vicious cycle, unwilling to accept uncertainty and unable to get rid of it completely.
It’s worth noting that having seemingly random feelings of attraction to someone or even something out of the ordinary can happen to anyone. The presence of safety-seeking behaviors—or compulsions—will enable a therapist with my background and training to diagnose whether you’re indeed experiencing OCD.
How can I tell false attraction from genuine attraction?
The key difference between real attraction and false attraction is the emotional response to that attraction. Real attraction is typically accompanied by positive emotions such as excitement, happiness, and desire, whereas false attraction is accompanied by negative emotions such as anxiety, distress, and guilt.
Here’s a scenario to help illustrate the difference:
Rachel is a 23-year-old college student who has been dating her boyfriend, David, for six months. They have a great relationship and enjoy spending time together. One day, Rachel meets a new guy in one of her classes named Alex. She is suddenly attracted to him and begins to experience intrusive thoughts about him. Rachel starts to worry that she may be developing feelings for Alex and begins to feel guilty and anxious about it.
Real attraction: If Rachel is genuinely attracted to Alex, she may feel excited and happy when she thinks about him. She may look forward to seeing him and feel a desire to spend more time with him. Rachel may also feel guilty about her attraction, given that she is in a relationship with David, but her overall emotional response to her feelings is positive.
False attraction: If Rachel is experiencing false attraction, she may feel overwhelmed and distressed by her thoughts about Alex. She may be plagued with doubts and worries about her relationship with David and feel guilty for having these thoughts. In this case, the prospect that she could be attracted to Alex becomes overwhelming, and she may also try to avoid situations where she may see Alex or engage in other compulsive behaviors to alleviate her anxiety and doubt.
It’s important to note that in any case, telling the difference between real and false feelings of attraction can be incredibly difficult—especially for people with OCD. A trained therapist can help provide insight and guidance to identify false attraction.
Why does false attraction occur?
First off, it’s important to remember that when and how OCD shows up, in general, isn’t well understood. However, research suggests that a combination of genetic, neurological, and environmental factors likely causes the disorder.
Why false attraction occurs is similarly unclear. It may occur simply because we see something we like. Let’s say a person is wearing your favorite color, just got a cool haircut, or is wearing a cologne that you find intoxicating. Someone with OCD may start to feel a build-up of anxiety around their body’s physical response when they have that thought. They—or should I say we—are prone to assign meaning to a thought that people without the disorder would more likely dismiss as random or unimportant.
In an unfortunate twist, these fears are often our brain’s way of being overprotective of things that are important to us, like our identity or relationships. Since we value these things so highly, OCD focuses on the slightest uncertainty about our attraction, making it feel intolerable. Really, uncertainty exists in every part of life, and we can learn to tolerate uncertainty about our attraction just as we do in other areas of our lives every day.
Could false attraction be a sign of OCD?
Anyone can feel attraction to something they think of as being odd. When that false attraction starts to cause distress and meet specific criteria, the likelihood that it’s a sign of OCD increases.
Remember, OCD can only be professionally diagnosed when a person:
- Has intrusi ve thoughts, urges, or images that cause distress;
- Engages in compulsions, mental or physical acts intended to reduce this distress;
- Experiences some level of impairment in social, emotional, and occupational functioning, and;
- The symptoms are also not better explained by another condition, like an illness, injury, or substance use.
When a person experiencing false attraction has intrusive thoughts, urges, or images, some examples of these obsessions could be:
- A fear that they want to cheat on their spouse
- Fears that they may be attracted to someone of a different gender than their usual partners
- Fears that they are attracted to their pet
- Physical sensations of arousal (groinal response) in the presence of someone they feel attracted to
- Fear that they have wasted their time with their spouse because they are experiencing attraction to someone else
Examples of some compulsions associated with false attraction:
- Checking for physical arousal in the presence of false attraction
- Seeking reassurance from their friends or family: “You don’t think I would ever cheat on my husband, do you?”
- Researching false attraction: “Is it normal to be attracted to someone you are not married to? What does it mean if I am attracted to someone else?”
- Rumination—persistently trying to figure out why thoughts are happening
- Avoidance of the person, place, or thing they fear they could be attracted to
How can I be sure my feelings of attraction aren’t real?
In short, you can’t be 100% certain—just as you can’t be certain about other parts of your life or identity. We can’t control feelings of false attraction or real attraction, but we can control how we respond.
If the attraction is unwanted, then we learn to sit with the uncertainty that comes from feeling it. You should do your best not to figure out whether the attraction or false attraction is real. This isn’t helpful and will only feed a tendency to ruminate on the smallest “what if,” making your fears even worse over time.
Feelings are not truths. Feelings will create doubt. Feelings are ever-changing. A feeling of false attraction could be here one minute and gone the next. When you experience feelings of false attraction, this is a good opportunity to recognize the fear that comes up and decide how you want to react.
Do you want to take hours, days, or weeks to examine your feelings regarding the attraction, or do you want to move in the direction of your values and intentions? I suggest moving towards something important to you, rather than engaging in the game OCD will insist you play.
Thankfully there’s a treatment for all subtypes of OCD that is proven to be incredibly effective at reducing symptoms and enabling people to regain control of their lives.
What’s the best way for me to manage false attraction in OCD?
Undergoing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with a specialty-trained ERP therapist is the best course of treatment for OCD.
ERP with a trained therapist is the gold standard of treatment for OCD, has been empirically validated by decades of clinical research, and has been found to be effective in helping most people with OCD manage their symptoms long-term. Through ERP, you can break the cycle of OCD and find relief from your OCD symptoms. People who struggle with false attraction will work with their therapist to build what’s called an exposure hierarchy and begin confronting their fears and doubts one trigger at a time. Usually, an ERP therapist will start with an exposure that is predicted to elicit a low level of fear and work up to the harder exposures—ones that elicit greater levels of fear and anxiety. Examples of possible exposures done to treat OCD focused on false attraction may include:
- Writing about the worst-case scenario of your attraction being real and reading it aloud each day
- Spending time with a friend you worry you may be attracted to, without confessing your thoughts or asking for reassurance after
- Reading articles about couples divorcing due to unfaithfulness
ERP teaches us how to tolerate doubt, and leaning into this uncertainty is the only way to move past the fear. You can’t be sure that your feelings of attraction aren’t real. They may be. But this doesn’t mean you have to act on them or that they have to guide your life. And you certainly don’t have to divorce your husband of 16 years because you question that you may be attracted someone you run into—take it from me!
If you’re struggling with OCD, you can schedule a free 15-minute call today with the NOCD care team to learn how a licensed therapist can help. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP.