We chatted with experts to learn how to spot and manage relationship OCD.
You might already know that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) involves repetitive, unwanted thoughts and/or behaviors. If those all-consuming thoughts or routines involve your relationship, you might be dealing with so-called “relationship OCD” (ROCD).
Heads up: ROCD is *not* an official diagnosis. Some folks say they use the term “relationship OCD” because it helps them understand their specific experience with OCD.
We chatted with therapists to learn the difference between typical thoughts and doubts about your relationship versus relationship-oriented OCD. They also offered tips for keeping your relationships healthy in general.
The term ROCD is used *unofficially* to describe a case of OCD in which the obsessive routines and overthinking (aka, rumination) center on relationships instead of, say, hygiene.
Some possible signs of ROCD:
- Running commentary or thoughts about the relationship continue from morning to night.
- Fears and questions about the relationship interfere with daily life.
- There’s a preoccupation with making the relationship or partner seem perfect.
How to tell if *you* have ROCD
David Tzall, PsyD, an NYC-based therapist, says someone experiencing ROCD spends excessive time ruminating about whether or not they are in the right situation.
Intrusive thoughts might include:
Tzall adds that while it’s natural to think about the people in your life, it’s *not* usual to spend more time dissecting a relationship than enjoying it.
“Ruminating is thinking and replaying an action over and over. You’re not really doing this to make sense or process what you did, but ostensibly beat yourself up and make yourself feel worse,” he says.
Tzall says folks with ROCD also tend to compare their relationship to the ones they see around them. This triggers a need for constant reassurance that the relationship is solid. “The person may come off as needy or insecure as a result,” he explains.
Unfortunately, seeking so much approval can backfire.
“The more they push toward the other person to make sure the relationship is secured,” says Tzall, “the more the other person might push back to regain independence and boundaries.”
What triggers ROCD?
Like other mental and emotional health issues, ROCD can be caused by various factors and life changes.
As Tzall explains, this bit of insecurity and anxiety can spiral. Some folks start to avoid social situations because of the constant need to compare themselves to others. Others might avoid downtime with their partner because of fears of something going wrong or the other person falling short of expectations.
There’s no easy-peasy “fix it” button for ROCD. But Tzall says ROCD is a learned behavior that *can* be unlearned.
Here are some ways to start managing your symptoms and help your partner understand what’s happening.
- Talk openly and honestly with your partner. “Speaking to your partner will allow them to empathize with what you are experiencing,” Tzall says. Your vulnerability also allows your partner to offer any reassurance or validation they want to give.
- Be as present as you can. Combat negative thought spirals by focusing on the here and now. “Remain mindful when your preoccupation with relationships becomes hijacking,” says Michael Gallagher LICSW, a therapist in Burlington, MA. “It is work, but it is work that is guaranteed to change your relationship with others in a better way.” Mindfulness activities include journaling, meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises.
- Practice self-love. Loving yourself first is key to a healthy relationship, according to Gallagher. He suggests committing to yourself and your engagement in the world (not just your partner’s). Scheduling time for things you love (painting, dancing, gardening, etc.) may help lighten the emotional burden of ROCD and spread your focus across other meaningful areas of your life.
- Consider therapy. “As with regular OCD, it is necessary to help reframe your negative, rigid thoughts,” says Tzall. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) involves learning to change negative thought patterns. Exposure and response prevention therapy is also helpful for ROCD symptoms.
How to love someone with ROCD
Loving someone experiencing ROCD can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to spell death for your relationship. Tzall says it can be rewarding to see a partner through the storm *if* you are genuinely willing to stick with them.
To stay focused on what matters, Gallagher suggests identifying which anxieties are valid — in other words, which fears you’re willing to soothe like you would in any other relationship.
“But those anxieties that are bound up in obsession need to be weeded out, delineated, and assigned as that partner’s ultimate responsibility to work through with limited sincere support from the other partner,” he says.
Gallagher explains that when it comes to OCD, “Too much soothing from the non-ROCD partner enables the ROCD partner’s dependence on him or her to feel better.” Ultimately, this impedes a healthy relationship, which requires trust in the unknown.
Let’s be clear: Just because you’re questioning your relationship doesn’t mean you’re experiencing ROCD.
Tzall says one way to tell the difference between ROCD and productive reflection is to consider whether you’re bothered more by your partner’s actual behavior or just the thoughts in your head.
Real relationship red flags tend to be tangible — like disagreeing about where to move or being treated poorly — while ROCD might trigger vague anxiety that you can’t put your finger on.
Some examples of relationship red flags that are never OK:
Relationship OCD can make you feel isolated and stressed. It often takes a toll on your happiness and relationships.
The first step to tackling ROCD is admitting that there’s a problem. Next, try having honest conversations with your partner, picking up a healthy hobby that helps you redistribute your mental focus, and trying mindfulness activities like journaling and deep breathing exercises.
If ROCD is interfering with your daily life, consider seeing a therapist. They can teach you to reframe negative, repetitive thoughts about your relationship.