Never in a million years did I think that OCD would attack my relationship. As if it’s not already challenging enough living with obsessive-compulsive disorder and questioning my every move on a day-to-day basis, questioning my relationship has truly been the ultimate challenge.
The ‘average person’ struggles with doubts and confusion about their relationship, but what about when those doubts and confusion become an obsession and hinder your ability to live your life?
My boyfriend and I had been dating for about five months at the time and I vividly remember the sheer panic I experienced when I thought about this other guy.
My heart was racing, my palms got sweaty, and I kept asking myself over and over again, ‘Why am I thinking about him? Does this mean that I don’t love my boyfriend? If I thought about this guy, does that mean that I’m with the wrong guy? Does it mean that I wished things worked out with the other guy?’ Yes, I asked myself many questions. Over and over and over again.
Obsessive compulsive disorder is a mental disorder that makes a person have recurring ideas, thoughts, or obsessions that make them inclined to perform things repeatedly. This repetitive behaviour includes cleaning or checking on things or handwashing. It can affect their social interactions and daily activities.
OCD is often called ‘the doubting disease’ – and for a good and clearly obvious reason. OCD is the doubting disease. The second that I found myself doubting my relationship was the same second that I triggered the cycle of ROCD.
In my case, I spent hours ruminating about the past, questioning my relationship, and comparing my feelings to those that I once felt with this other guy. Logic told me that this other guy was just someone from my past, someone who I had a crush on as a 22-year-old just graduating from college and still completely unfamiliar to dating (to provide context: I grew up in a conservative Christian household and had zero dating experience).
So those 22-year-old feelings were just that: 22-year-old feelings. Logic also told me that I barely remembered his face or who he is as a person. But ROCD convinced me that since I had one thought about him: He must be in my mind for a reason. And there ‘must be a reason to question my current relationship’.
What is ROCD?
ROCD stands for relationship OCD, a subset of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) where sufferers are filled with doubts about their relationship.
Doubts include the person’s love for their partner, whether or not they’re attracted to their partner, and what their level of compatibility is with their partner.
Anyone who has been in a serious relationship may have experienced doubts and fluctuations in their feelings, which is natural. However, people with ROCD experience doubts that are far more than the typical. A person with ROCD will usually think that these doubts indicate that there’s something terribly wrong with the relationship.
Some common obsessions
- Do I really love my partner?
- Is my partner good enough for me? / Am I good enough for my partner?
- Is this the right person? / Am I with the right person?
- Why have I been thinking about my ex? Does that mean I don’t want to be in this relationship?
- Is it ‘normal’ to think about leaving your partner?
Just like any form or subset of OCD, ROCD comes with its own set of compulsions.
How these compulsions manifest?
- Obsessive questioning
- Seeking reassurance (from your partner or from friends)
- Spending hours on Google researching what the perfect relationship is ‘supposed’ to look like
- Comparing your relationship to others
Most often my compulsions come in the form of the first three bullet points. I learned about ROCD a little over a year ago when I experienced my first relationship based intrusive thought which was about a guy I dated six years ago.
Is it treatable?
It’s clear that the compulsions and symptoms of ROCD make for an unhealthy relationship. However, people usually don’t know of this disorder. They’ll usually think of these symptoms as being a worrywart or just being too choosy.
To know if a person is just plain picky or is suffering from ROCD, time is an indication. Experts say that if a person’s compulsions or thoughts make up more than one hour each day, he may have ROCD. To be diagnosed with the disorder, the person’s compulsions should cause significant stress or ruin your work, relationships, and other areas of life.
People with ROCD like me need not despair because it’s considered treatable. Therapists will use ritual prevention and cognitive behavioral therapy, which will prevent the patient from engaging in compulsive behavior. The patients will then be gradually exposed to their feared thoughts. Severe symptoms are treated with a combination of therapy and medication.
It was exhausting. For months to come, I also found myself obsessively googling ‘What does it feel like to be in the perfect relationship?’, ‘How do you know if you’ve found the one?’, ‘Is it OK to have thoughts about an ex?’, ‘How do I know if I really love my partner?’ I felt so painfully shameful for having these thoughts. I felt so unbelievably guilty for questioning my relationship. Not surprisingly, the shame and guilt made matters worse and further fuelled my ROCD.
I remember one day telling myself, ‘Enough is enough’. The intrusive thoughts were so loud and the obsessive googling had gotten out of hand, so much so that I was feeling depressed and knew something needed to be done. So, I decided to seek help from a mental health professional.
I was grateful to have found a therapist who specialises in OCD. I remember nervously picking up the phone and scheduling an appointment and then immediately feeling a sense of relief. My whole demeanour shifted: I could feel my shoulders drop, my jaw loosen, and my thoughts – the noise in my mind – calming down.
My therapist helped me learn more about both OCD and ROCD. She guided me to shift my perspective about relationships by sharing, among many things, that everyone has doubts and that it’s normal to question things.
She also helped me uncover childhood traumas which had led me to develop an anxiety disorder. She continued by sharing that obsessive compulsive disorder was a way for me to cope with my anxiety.
This was something that had never occurred to me before! It was a revelation. Through going to therapy, journaling my thoughts, and learning more about OCD, I also noticed a trend: Each time I found myself doubting something in life I would more frequently experience intrusive thoughts, including intrusive thoughts about my relationship.
Every day since that revelation, I’ve been managing my anxiety by finding ways to give myself more certainty. When I make a decision, I congratulate myself for making a decision, regardless of what it is; when I have an intrusive thought and find myself obsessively questioning, I remind myself that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer.
By facing my fear of uncertainty every day I’m forcing my brain to recognize how irrational my intrusive thoughts are; it’s as if I’m exposing them into the light and realising that they’re just not real.
Sure enough, slowly but surely, the intrusive thoughts about my relationship are occurring less and less and, when they do pop up, stay top of mind for a shorter period of time. Recovery is possible. You are not alone. Don’t give up on yourself.
Elisabeth Donatella certified wellness coach who helps women simplify the steps towards living their most authentic, confident, fun, and happy life shame-free and guilt-free.
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