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? Is ruminating on things like whether your partner still loves you, values you, cares about you driving you mad?
First, 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 seemingly 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, such 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 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.
OCD jumps in on the heart of the matter
OCD tends to jump in on the heart of the problem, what matters the most, which is the partner’s values system. With the example of appearance, it would be the quality of being desirable, and in the instance of job roles it would be the importance of career prospects.
In relationship OCD (ROCD), a person’s judgement of what is important in life spirals out of control and can interfere with the relationship. It goes beyond intelligible values, which, throughout life, the person moulds for 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.
In ROCD, intrusive thoughts meddle with one’s belief system. Subsequently, this 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 their obsession – e.g., ‘If my partner wants to spend two or three nights out, 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 over the “what-if” scenarios to prove or disprove whether there is anything legitimate to worry about, and then still being doubtful.
High anxiety levels and compensatory rituals, which include reassurance, questioning and mental review take over. It’s crucial, therefore, to understand how these compulsions serve to offset the adverse effects arising from the intrusive thoughts, and how to change this problem around. Rituals 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, even in the face of fear, and until it reduces naturally. Subsequently, one gains the confidence to handle uncertainty while nurturing a healthy two-way bond.
When thoughts about uncertainty persist
No matter how much someone obsesses or compares their qualities with their partner, she will never be satisfied with the outcome. Also, in whatever ways someone seeks reassurance and checks for proof that having differences in beliefs or interests is okay, it will never provide him with consistent answers. Checking leads to one doubt after the other, and doubts can never be satisfied. Compulsions relieve anxiety, but unfortunately strengthen the obsession about the relationship, hence the repetitiousness.
It’s not unusual for someone to find herself questioning her 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. With this type of pressure, it’s easy to think and reason on an emotional level. For example, she might mistakenly see proof about her beliefs 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. A partner who has grieved a loss in the past, for example, might overreact about his present partner’s temporary absence, terrified that s/he has left him. Realistically, addressing insecurities about relationships through active listening (counselling) can build trust. At the same time, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and exposure-response prevention (ERP) can help resolve irrational fears.
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 and thus incorporate active listening skills into their therapy sessions. It tackles relationship problems with both partners, which is a bonus for addressing and resolving deep-rooted beliefs, such as grief and loss.
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.
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By Carol Edwards © 2018 Updated 2019 and 2020