Savage Love: Feb. 8, 2024

Relationship OCD and how to fix it

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A therapist suggested I might have “Relationship OCD.” While I haven’t been formally diagnosed, it rings true to me. 

As soon as I get close to someone, I experience so much anxiety. If I kissed a partner and they kissed me in a way I didn’t like, I would think, “Why didn’t you like that? Maybe you don’t really love them. Maybe you don’t even like people of this gender. Maybe you’re lying to yourself.” And before I know it, I’m spinning out of control and panicking. When I’m single, I never have thoughts like this.

I was in a four-year relationship that just ended. While I’m sad it ended, I understand why it needed to and I’m trying to move forward. However, I’m stuck on the impact my obsessions had on our sex life. In the first two to three years, I didn’t have these obsessions, but during the last one, I started to experience such bad anxiety that I couldn’t enjoy sex. Perhaps foolishly, I viewed this person as the exception to my obsessive thinking, but it seems like as the stakes in the relationship heightened, so did my obsessive thoughts. 

I’m single again now, and I learned a valuable lesson from this relationship: no matter what relationship I’m in or how much I love my partner, I will have these obsessive thoughts. I’m in therapy, and I would like to have a long-term relationship with someone that includes living together, traveling together and maybe even having kids together. But I find it hard to work on my issue when I’m NOT in a relationship. Is there anything I can do right now, while I’m single, that will help me in my next relationship? 

— Sad That Relationship Elevates Stress Symptoms 

I shared your question with Sheva Rajaee, a licensed marriage and family therapist, author and public speaker. The founder and director of the Center for Anxiety and OCD, Rajaee wrote  the literal book on relationship OCD: Relationship OCD: A CBT-Based Guide to Move Beyond Obsessive Doubt, Anxiety & Fear of Commitment in Romantic Relationships. 

“Part of what makes relationship OCD (ROCD) so painful and damaging is that these incessant doubts seep into every corner of our relationships,” says Rajaee. “And cruelly, it’s loudest in our most viable relationships. ROCD doesn’t care about your summer fling with an expiration date. Nope! ROCD is coming for the relationship with actual legs.”

Basically, STRESS, your ROCD is going to lay more or less dormant when you’re seeing someone you can’t see yourself with long-term. That summer fling is gonna end with the summer, and the potential downside of picking the wrong person for that summer fling are minimal. But the moment you realize you’re seeing someone you might actually fall in love with — the moment you start picturing a future that includes marriage and kids — the stakes shoot through the roof.

“When the love ‘risk’ is higher, the greater the chance the psychological defenses of someone suffering from ROCD will try to keep them safe by pointing out perceived flaws and incompatibilities,” says Rajaee. “What STRESS describes — what she just went through — is a textbook example of relationship OCD. It’s the spiraling nature of worries that take small imperfections or incompatibilities (‘I don’t love the way they kiss’) and blows them up to worst-case outcomes (‘I’m lying to myself and to them’).” 

Can a person work on their ROCD when they’re not in a relationship and/or they’re enjoying the kind of casual connection  that don’t trigger their ROCD? 

“Yes and no,” says Rajaee. “STRESS can work on anxiety in general, practicing riding waves of discomfort and even panic without getting caught up in the scare stories. She can examine her expectations of love and relationships and practice exposure therapy, so that when these thoughts surface in her next good relationship — as they likely will — she’ll have a solid strategy to address them.” 

But the most important work  can only be done during one of those high-stakes relationships. 

“In STRESS’s case, this means opening herself to sex, love and connection and then working through near-crippling anxiety while trying to maintain a healthy relationship,” Rajaee says, “and that’s guaranteed to introduce some conflict into her next partnership. But I want her to know that it’s possible to do this and that I see it done — and done successfully — all the time. In fact, for many of my clients, doing this work brings them closer together.” 

The Center for Anxiety and OCD’s website is caocd.com. The Center is on Instagram and Threads @theshrinkwrap.

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