Many people have anxiety about committing to long-term relationships and struggle with important questions before making such commitments. For instance, are my partner and I compatible? Do our values align? Do we communicate well enough to make a long-term relationship work? People with relationship OCD (ROCD), a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), may obsessively question if they are in the “right” relationship and focus on their partner's flaws and/or perceived incompatibilities. These obsessions are typically accompanied by intense anxiety, distress, and the urge to engage in rumination and checking compulsions to determine if they are sufficiently “in love” with their partner or if they should terminate the relationship. For example, one may obsess for hours over a remark their partner made, questioning, with great urgency, what it means about their partner’s character and its potential implications on their future relationship. Unfortunately, the more one continues to take their romantic pulse and focuses on feeling in love, the more elusive those feelings may become. The gold standard treatment for OCD, including ROCD, is exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP). The goal of ERP is to break the cycle of OCD by learning to stop treating intrusive thoughts as meaningful. This is accomplished by purposely exposing oneself to feared thoughts and situations and not engaging in compulsions to reduce the anxiety. In ERP treatment, it is not generally recommended to engage with specific OCD content, as this causes the brain to take intrusive thoughts more seriously and increases associated anxiety. However, uncertainty and anxiety in relationships are common human experiences. The overlap between “regular” relationship concerns and ROCD concerns makes it particularly tricky to treat, as it is not always immediately apparent if the doubts should be challenged or treated as irrelevant, like any other intrusive thought. Additionally, beliefs in unhelpful myths about relationships are prevalent in our culture, often even influenced by the media we consume. We may develop unrealistic expectations of falling deeply in love and remaining in bliss for the rest of our lives. Though we may acknowledge that relationships occasionally “require some work,” many of us buy into the idea that love is sufficient to keep relationships strong. While we may not usually challenge underlying beliefs in ERP, relearning realistic expectations and beliefs about relationships can set an important foundation for ROCD treatment with ERP. For example, the belief in having one perfect “soul mate” may influence a person’s choice to continue seeking certainty of the ideal partner and relationship or to let go of this goal. Beliefs About Love This emphasis on feeling “in love” in committed romantic relationships is historically new; marriage used to be a more practical arrangement. Marriages were typically arranged by parents based on financial status and family values, with little regard for passionate or romantic feelings.
While most of us appreciate the idea of partnering with someone to who we feel strongly emotionally connected, there may be some wisdom to glean from earlier norms of romantic relationships. The matched couple likely did not expect to feel in love at the start of their relationship–often, they barely knew one another. Over time, however, through many acts of caring toward one another, a strong love developed. Instead of subscribing to the idea that we must feel love to give love, why not act lovingly to feel the love? Another type of relationship that may demonstrate this idea is a parent’s love for a child. A child’s love for their parent, though strong, often cannot compare to the fierce love a parent has for their child. One explanation for this phenomenon may be that from the moment they are born, a parent is constantly giving to their child. Parents are endlessly sacrificing for and investing time, money, and energy into their children, creating and fueling a powerful feeling of love for the child. Similarly, giving gifts to another person can increase warm feelings, even more than being the gift recipient. Researchers Zhang and Epley (2012) found that the thoughtfulness put into choosing a gift for another caused the giver to feel closer to the recipient. This is another manifestation of the idea that acting lovingly creates love. As is the premise in many behavioral therapeutic approaches, we do not need to wait to experience a feeling to act. Instead, we can act to produce a feeling and live a life guided by our values and priorities. We do not need to wait to feel happy. For example, before we decide to call up a friend, we can choose to do so in a conscious effort to help lift our mood and help move us toward valued friendships. Adjusting Beliefs About Love in OCD When those experiencing relationship OCD doubt the strength of their feelings for their partner, they can get stuck in a constant anxiety-provoking “checking” compulsion, assessing their feelings of love, attachment, and attraction, and analyzing their partner's qualities. We can shift our mindset from answering OCD’s question of “do I love my partner enough to invest in this relationship?” to “how can I invest in this relationship to help it blossom?” Instead of giving constant attention to questions of “am, I getting enough from this relationship,” we can devote attention to the question of “what can I do for my partner today?” We can choose to make mood-independent choices so that even when we do not know with certainty if our feelings are strong enough for our partner, or if we are not feeling particularly “in love” that day, we behave in ways that strengthen the relationship. In the process, we enhance the opportunity for those positive feelings to appear and grow. We can always choose to act according to our values and behave like the respectful, loving, thoughtful, and committed partners that we would like to be. If you want to feel more loving – choose to do something in a loving way. Devote time and energy to your partner. Put in the effort to make them smile or make their day a little easier. Shifting attention from the relationship’s effect on oneself to how to have the most positive effect on the relationship will foster the creation of a satisfying partnership. Paradoxically, by focusing on behavior and letting go of trying to feel a certain way, one often finds more room for those exact feelings to flourish. This advice is not just useful for those who experience ROCD. Any person seeking a satisfying partnership can benefit from treating love as more of a verb than a noun. An important caveat: One should not ignore the red flags of an unhealthy relationship. ROCD goes beyond the necessary assessment of the relationship in that it has the sufferer constantly attempting to find certainty about the relationship and does not respond to logical attempts to find the “answer.” Working with an OCD specialist can help you learn to recognize when relationship doubts have veered into OCD territory.
References Zhang, Y., & Epley, N. (2012). Exaggerated, mispredicted, and misplaced: When “it's the thought that counts” in gift exchanges. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(4), Zhang, Y., & Epley, N. (2012). Exaggerated, mispredicted, and misplaced: When “it's the thought that counts” in gift exchanges. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(4), 667–681. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0029223