The power of the human mind is wonderful and boggling – except when it turns on you while peppering your psyche with a staccato of queries about your relationship.
One minute your partner’s grandeur is so intense, it’s cartoonish. How did you ever land such a splendid fish? The next you’re spun into a vortex of doubt, placing them under intense analysis, and scrutinizing every nuance of the relationship, including their questionably thick eyebrows.
This barrage of errant thoughts and questions commonly arise in otherwise healthy relationships. The obsessions include judgments around their imperfections as a person and partner, or about the rightness of the relationship itself:
- Why can’t he get that huge mole on his back removed?
- Does her nose-have to whistle whenever she chews? Could I do better?
- I just saw a hot guy at Starbucks, so am I in the wrong relationship?
- Is he even smart enough for me?
- Why aren’t we shmoopy like other couples?
- There are times I’d rather look at Instagram than have sex with him. Am I staying in this relationship just to avoid hurting him?
- Why don’t I miss her even though I’ve been at Coachella for three days?
The form of anxiety that comes with liking someone is so common that it has its own acronym: ROCD (relationship obsessive compulsive disorder). The seemingly sublime onset of ROCD has led to many brain-worm Taylor Swift songs and vodka tonics pondering if you’re with the right person. You may avoid taking the next step in your relationship because you can’t get past their perceived flaws, or you might even quit dating altogether because no one seems good enough. You met them on a free dating app, after all.
ROCD has been receiving increasing research and clinical attention as a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in which the sufferer experiences intrusive, unwanted and distressing thoughts about the strength, quality, and nature of their love for their partner. As with other forms of OCD, the fixations in ROCD focus on issues of doubt and an intense discomfort with uncertainty.
These obsessions often contain responding compulsive behaviors to include seeking reassurances or gauging one’s own feelings, comparing characteristics of one’s partner with those of other potential mates, or avoidance actions. The compulsions, which are intended to lessen the distress caused by unwanted thoughts, can take forms such as regularly asking friends or family if you have made the “right” choice in your partner; comparing your relationship to a previous exciting (often unhealthy) relationship, Internet searches about “the one,” finding that sex is a chore or eating a sandwich during sex, while fixated on that back mole or eyebrow shrub.
Relationships in which one partner has ROCD can be chaotic, ending in the sad, ironic twist that the dread of hurting or losing one’s partner often results in both.
From Where Does ROCD Arise?
You position your companion against idealistic projections of “real” love from episodes of The Bachelor, royal weddings, or the seething sexual chemistry in Trojan™ personal lubricant commercials. This is exacerbated by dating apps like Tinder and OK Cupid which have created an atmosphere of seemingly endless options, short-attention-span-dating, and The BBD (bigger, better, deal). We have commoditized ourselves, and dating has become transactional. It’s no wonder that our anxiety surrounding relationships, commitment, and marriage has shot up, while the principles of love and marriage run askew.
Add to this the notion of “soulmates,” which further ups the relationship anxiety ante. There’s a fantasy that guides many into seeking idyllic partners or soulmates. If you could find that perfect match you’ll be guaranteed a lifetime of relationship bliss, right?
Research by Aurora University psychologist Renae Franiuk who studies people’s beliefs about their intimate partnerships, called “Implicit Theories of Relationships,” says “People who believe in soul mates may be setting themselves up for a lifetime of heartache and failed relationships. If you operate according to the soulmate theory of relationships, you constantly evaluate your dating partners against the idealized image of the man or woman who will be the one true love of your life. Once you’re in a relationship, even without your knowing it, you perform constant comparisons between the actual person you’re with and that ideal one-true-love model in your mind.”
There is a persistent idea that when we choose someone to be a long-term partner, s/he will be an incredible lover, hold fireside chats about Tolstoy, and take long beach saunters while sharing kale smoothies. OCD demands that there be no doubt in a person’s mind whether s/he has chosen the right person. To the ROCD sufferer, their obsession is, “I must know unequivocally that my partner is the absolute one for me.” This belief is steeped in anxiety. The anxiety, in turn, compels the person to engage in the compulsive behaviors in a vain attempt to arrive at certainty.
How to Counter ROCD:
The goal is to reduce ROCD symptoms enough to reach an informed decision regarding your relationship. Implement any of the following skills to move toward inner peace:
1. Let go or be dragged.
Radically accept that there is no way to know with 100% certainty whether any relationship will work out for the long-haul. If they make you happy, and you share similar values and goals, then Yahtzee! We all have flaws, and no relationship is perfect.
2. Remember thoughts and feelings do not equal facts.
Remind yourself that all OCD is rooted in irrational fears and lies to you with baseless obsessions, rituals, and ruminations. Just because you think it or feel it, doesn’t mean it’s true. And, if you have experienced past OCD symptoms, a relationship can easily become the new focus.
3. Expose yourself.
The most effective form of treatment for ROCD is called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). This entails exposing yourself to the thoughts, images, objects, and situations that make you anxious and cue your obsessions, while not engaging in a compulsive behavior in attempts to alleviate the angst. For example, if you’re claustrophobic, take the elevator, not the stairs.
4. Daisy chain your obsessions.
If you mentally play-out the calamitous beliefs causing you distress, you will negate their power over you. For each obsession, ask “And what’s the worst that can happen?” until you get to the end and see that the worst result is not catastrophic. ROCD includes a gross overestimation of the negative consequences of staying in relationships or being alone.
5. Stop the comparisons.
Comparison is the fastest route to misery. Stop researching or collaborating with others about the fit of your partner. Check-in with yourself whenever you find you’re ruminating about the relationship. This includes comparing your real relationship with those nauseating social media versions that you can “thumbs-up” later when they inevitably split.
Attraction and arousal wax and wane. Expecting yourself to always find your partner attractive, or to always be interested in sex is setting yourself up for discontent.
6. Realize that risk is scary, but regret is scarier.
Be willing to sit with the anxiety caused by the thought that you may not be committing to the “right” person. To live life fully one must take risks, or face regrets. Once you stop pursuing a futile quest for certainty, you can move forward. Seeking assurances is a compulsion that increases OCD thinking patterns.
7. Give yourself the present of presence.
Mindfulness is a skill that is practiced and perfected little by little … like using chopsticks to eat a salad. Mindfulness meditation encourages the practitioner to observe wandering thoughts as they drift through the mind. The intention is not to get involved with the thoughts or to judge them, but simply to be aware of each mental note as it arises. With practice, an inner balance and peacefulness develops and you become Yoda-like.
Don’t worry — meditating is easier than you might think.
Sit or lie comfortably in a quiet setting. Close your eyes. Make no effort to control the breath; just breathe naturally. Maintain your focus and attention on your breath and on how your body moves with each inhalation and exhalation. Each time your mind drifts to your thoughts, refocus back to your breaths.
8. Grab a pen and get mighty.
Research has shown that journaling helps reduce stress, solve problems more effectively and even improve your health. University of Texas at Austin psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker found that regular journaling strengthens immune cells, called T-lymphocytes. Writing about stressful events helps you accept them, thereby reducing the impact of the stressors on your mental and physical health.
9. Remember that you cannot control your thoughts.
And that’s okay! It may appear that you can, but it only backfires with more obsessions and compulsions. What matters is what we do with our thoughts. Pay attention to your breathing and notice where in your body you are feeling the melee. Stay with that for a few minutes. Then notice where you feel the most comfortable. Then stay with that. Shift back and forth slowly for about 15 minutes. Do this every day.
10. Get by with a little help.
Notice your past relationships. How often have similar doubts shown up in your life? If there is a pattern, do not break off the relationship until you have practiced these skills, or consulted with a professional therapist. Like other OCD symptoms, relationship OCD symptoms require psychological intervention if causing significant distress.