Do you have intrusive thoughts that make you think your partner is attracted to someone else or vice-versa? Do you worry endlessly that your partner will leave you for someone else, or that you should end the relationship? Do you ruminate on things like whether your partner still loves you, values you, cares about you?
Anyone can have doubts about whether the partner they are with is right for them, and usually, such doubts circle around one and the other’s values. For example, someone may develop insecurities about their mundane job because their partner’s occupation is on a professional level. Or one partner may find a celebrity attractive (blue eyes with blonde hair), and then the other partner may feel a little bit insecure about their own dark-haired brown-eyed looks. These are justifiable self-doubts because any person can feel confidence issues creeping in at times. Still, such insecurities are generally fleeting and are resolved by standing back and putting in some rational perspective.
However, when obsessions are involved, the uncertainties are clouded, given that the signals from OCD are inaccurate. Consequently, a resolve is harder to establish because the outcome points towards inconsistent conclusions. In which case, the brown-eyed brunette may develop an obsession with their looks, and may even dye their hair blonde; and the person whose attention is on which partner has the more dynamic career may find they are suddenly lacking in confidence, become depressed and, if predisposed to OCD, it could bring on the appearance of relationship-intrusive thoughts. OCD tends to jump in on the heart of the problem, what matters the most, which is the partner’s values system – in the examples given, it would be the quality of being desirable and the importance of job roles.
Basically, in relationship OCD, a person’s judgement of what is important in life spirals out of control which can negatively interfere with the relationship. This goes beyond their intelligible values, which they mould for themselves throughout life. People direct their paths and influence what happens by their qualities and faults and what matters to them. In a non-OCD relationship, for instance, certain habits are the norm, partners accept each other’s “ways” even if they moan about them now and then. Let’s say one partner likes to have a few nights out, and the other one prefers to stay home, this can cause one or two rifts, but not where these jeopardise each other’s values system (e.g., each agree it’s healthy to have time alone), and more importantly, the bond in the relationship.
The problem with relationship OCD, however, is that in a similar situation, such intrusive thoughts meddle with one’s belief system. Subsequently, this becomes a negative focus whereby the attention moves away from the healthy value and instead is paid to intrusive thoughts about infidelity, if this is their obsession – e.g., “If my partner wants to spend two or three nights out, s/he must have lost interest in me, and is seeing someone else?”
A lot of people who develop OCD feel challenged when coping with ambiguous situations. This is why checking is a typical compulsion for people on the OCD spectrum. Being sure about something means going through the “what-ifs” to prove or disprove whether there is anything legitimate to worry about, and then still being doubtful.
High anxiety levels and compensatory rituals such as checking, reassurance, questioning and mental reviewing take over, and so it’s crucial to understand how these compulsions serve to offset the adverse effects arising from the intrusive thoughts. It’s also vital to grasp that counteracting trouble-making intrusive thoughts is short-lived – e.g., the anxiety relief is provided by giving into rituals, yes, but the problem bounces right back and continues to barge in and disrupt the relationship.
By systematically resisting the compulsions and learning to lean into associated anxiety, even in the face of fear, and until it reduces naturally, a person who has relationship OCD can gain the confidence to handle uncertainty while nurturing a healthy two-way bond.
When thoughts about uncertainty persist
Managing uncertainty is one thing, yet when a partner continues to ruminate on whether their relationship is compatible or not, then thinking errors may need to be addressed. For instance, some thinking errors focus on values, noted already. As an example, if you or your partner has strong political ideals and the other one doesn’t, then intrusive thoughts might make you erroneously believe you’re not meant to be together. Sharing and enjoying a harmonious relationship with inherent and learned differences is how things would be, generally, so when unwanted thoughts clouds your thinking, it can make you mistakenly think that having separate interests, different habits, distinct sets of beliefs, a contrast in job-roles and salary, means your relationship is incompatible.
No matter how much someone obsesses or compares their qualities with their partner, they will never be satisfied with the outcome. Also, in whatever ways they seek reassurance and check for proof that having differences in beliefs or interests is okay, it will never provide them with consistent answers. This is because one doubt leads to another because no doubt can ever be satisfied. Also, and as mentioned before, while giving into compulsions relieves anxiety, behind the veil, it tells the brain that the alarm bells that signal erroneous information about the relationship could be correct, and this is why the OCD cycle keeps going in a circle.
It’s not unusual for someone to find themselves questioning their partner’s commitment to the relationship when intrusive thoughts creep in. As already discussed, the fears associated with obsessions put that extra strain on the relationship, and so it’s easy to think and reason emotionally how someone might mistakenly “see proof” when rationally, there is no proof. Also, if there’s a legitimate concern, this might be blown out of proportion (catastrophising) when OCD intrudes on it, whatever it might be, such as overreacting about a partner’s attraction to the celebrity with blonde hair. Realistically, insecurities about relationships are addressed through active listening (counselling); while OCD fears are treated with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and exposure response prevention (ERP).
Cognitive behavioural therapy and active listening
Coming back to the solution, cognitive therapy targets erroneous thinking since it can help a person see things from a new perspective; the behaviour side of treatment (ERP) encourages them to resist compulsions to starve the obsession. Active listening, on the other hand, works on the basis that a partner talks about worrying thoughts, perhaps upsetting memories in the past, or maybe a recent distressing time in their life that may have triggered the obsession. Anything that is discussed can help reveal why a partner may have deeper level relationship insecurities.
Should partners be involved in therapy too?
Yes, inviting a partner can help each one follow through with ERP homework assignments separately, and together – the homework tasks are those that the therapist sets out in the CBT session. Also, most therapists are trained in core counselling skills that would incorporate the active listening part in therapy to address relationship problems with both partners, which is an added bonus for addressing and resolving deep-rooted beliefs.
By Carol Edwards © 2018 Updated 2019