Do you ever 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? Is ruminating on things like whether your partner still loves you, values you, cares about you driving you mad?
Anyone can have doubts about whether the partner they are with is right for them. Usually, such doubts circle around one and the other’s values.
For example, someone may develop insecurities about his seemingly mundane job because his partner’s occupation is on a professional level. Or one partner may find a celebrity attractive (blue eyes with blonde hair). Then the other partner may feel a little bit insecure about her 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, such uncertainties are clouded, given that the signals from OCD are inaccurate. Consequently, a resolve is harder to find because the outcome points towards inconsistent conclusions.
In other words, the brown-eyed brunette, if vulnerable to OCD, may develop an obsession with her looks, and may even dye her hair blonde. Or the person whose attention is on which partner has the more dynamic career may find he is suddenly lacking in confidence and subsequently starts to feel depressed. If susceptible to OCD, he could develop relationship-intrusive thoughts about perceived inadequacy.
Relationship OCD (ROCD) tends to jump in on the heart of the problem, what matters the most, which is one’s values system. With the example of appearance, it would be the quality of being desirable. In the instance of job roles, it would be the importance of career prospects and being successful.
ROCD Goes Beyond Intelligible Values
A person’s judgement of what is important in life spirals out of control in ROCD and can interfere with the relationship. It goes beyond intelligible values, which, throughout life, the person has moulded for him or herself. Usually, 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. Their preferences can cause one or two rifts, but not where it jeopardises each other’s values system or their bond in the relationship. Therefore, each partner might agree it’s healthy to have time alone, but not be threatened by that, which fosters trust in the relationship.
However, in ROCD, intrusive thoughts meddle with a partner’s belief system. Subsequently, it becomes a negative focus whereby the attention moves away from the healthy value system and instead is paid to intrusive thoughts about infidelity if this is the obsession. For instance, ‘If my partner wants to spend two or three nights out, he must have lost interest in me, and is seeing someone else?’ Or, ‘I think other guys are good looking. What if it means deep down, I don’t want to be with my boyfriend anymore.’
A lot of people who develop OCD feel challenged when coping with ambiguous situations. This is why checking is a typical compulsion. For example, being sure about something means going over the “what-if” scenarios to prove or disprove whether there is anything legitimate to worry about, and then still being doubtful. It’s a never-ending circle, but the person doesn’t trust yet that ROCD is nonsensical.
When Thoughts About Uncertainty Persist
No matter how much people obsess or compare their qualities with their partner, they will never be satisfied with the outcome. Also, in whatever ways people seek reassurance and check for proof that having differences in beliefs or interests is okay, it will never provide them with consistent answers. Checking leads to one doubt after the other, because irrational doubts can never be satisfied. Compulsions relieve anxiety, but unfortunately strengthen the relationship obsession, hence the repetitiousness.
As we’ve seen, high anxiety levels and subsequent rituals to counter the ROCD fears include reassurance, questioning one’s partner and ruminating over what-ifs. They provide anxiety relief, yes, but the OCD bounces right back and continues to disrupt the relationship.
The solution, therefore, is to systematically resist all compulsions and learn to lean into associated anxiety until it reduces naturally. Consequently, a partner gains the confidence to handle uncertainty. For example, ‘Maybe my partner has lost interest in me, maybe not, and that’s okay.’ Or, ‘Perhaps I am attracted to the guys I find good looking. I might even leave my boyfriend for one of these guys one day. Time will tell.’ Or, ‘It seems my partner’s flourishing career makes her more successful than me, but that might not be the case, so I will live with the uncertainty.’
Partners can be involved in therapy, too?
Inviting a partner to therapy sessions can provide education on OCD and how ERP works. It helps partners follow through with ERP homework assignments separately, and also together. Most therapists are trained in core counselling skills. So they may, if needed, incorporate active listening skills into their therapy sessions, too. For example, counselling can help resolve relationship problems, such as legitimate insecurities within the relationship. At the same time, they would use cognitive therapy to address thinking errors related to ROCD coupled with ERP to reduce the obsessive-compulsive symptoms.
Get a free counselling consultation with Sunil Punjabi
Sunil Punjabi is a confident therapist and highly recommended for his expert approach for delivering exposure-response prevention, the treatment of choice for OCD.
Sunil is available
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