Relationship OCD: It's Not What You Think
My name is Cole Sommeling, and I am a placement student working at King’s College and currently getting my BSc in psychology. I’ve been inspired to write this blog piece to give light to a topic that I feel is rarely discussed, but yet, so often experienced. I’m writing this piece not only to bring light to what Relationship-OCD (or ROCD) is, but to support those who experience it, maybe even unknowingly.
Recognizing and communicating experiences similar to others can be a powerful comfort for those who need it. I understand the feeling of seeing yourself as uniquely “troubled” and in searching for answers, finding pages worth of symptoms and experiences that are just like the ones you have, and no longer feeling alone. And finally, for those amazingly strong people in my life, who I know have experienced this firsthand, this is a page of thanks and praise for holding on and persevering though.
You got this.
More Than Meets the Camera Eye
So often do we hear, in the media, about someone who flips the light switch off a certain number of times, or another who needs to align everything on their desk at a perfect 90° angle. And so often does this get attributed to OCD; it’s as if there is a dense fog obscuring the true facets that make up OCD. The only distinguishable features in sight are those that are overblown on television. It has even become part of our everyday ‘throw-around’ language — you could be in a restaurant with a group of friends, and perhaps one of them aligns their fork a little too deliberately beside their plate, causing another friend to remark, “Do you have OCD or something?”
And I’m no angel, I’m sure I’ve done this too. But it just goes to show how this consistent portrayal of a select few symptoms has so strongly affected the general view of this disorder.
As anyone with OCD, or their loved ones would know, these symptoms are the mere tip of the iceberg. It’s more than just doing everything in threes and making sure every inch of your house is neat and tidy. It can be persistent doubting, always checking for reassurance from others, having thoughts that you would never want to think… constantly.
In reality, OCD is thought to be characterized by the presence of compulsions and obsessions. Obsessions being anything from thoughts and images to urges and impulses that aren’t wanted, and compulsions being repetitive behaviours that an individual feels forced to perform. Though OCD was thought to be quite rare in the past, current research suggests otherwise. There are even subtypes of OCD that fixate on different themes, from focusing on harming oneself or others (Harm OCD), to endlessly worrying about one’s own sexual orientation (SO-OCD). Another one of these themes being relationships, abbreviated as ROCD.
ROCD: What is it?
As the name suggests, ROCD obsesses over one’s own relationships, giving its target intrusive thoughts and doubts about their relationship typically with their significant other. Intrusive thoughts and doubts are normal in regular OCD, the only difference being that these thoughts are specifically centered around the relationship. These doubts can come in the form of questions such as:
“Is this person the one I’m meant to be with?”
“Do I really love this person?”
“Do I care about this person?”
“Do I do enough for this person?”
Unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of research surrounding these subtypes, so it’s very rare you’ll hear about ROCD at all. We do know, just like regular OCD, ROCD is ego-dystonic, meaning that the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing are against what you truly value and believe — hence the name “instrusive” thoughts. This is why its impact can be so catastrophic.
But still, I know it’s imperative that it be researched more for those who always feel as if they are inexplicably drifting from their partner despite having a great connection, and for those who are in relationships with someone they absolutely adore but their brain forces them to question that very fact. Not to mention, the majority of the symptoms of ROCD are internal, so unless you know about ROCD yourself through your own investigation and connect the dots, chances are you’ll never even know you have it.
ROCD usually accompanies regular OCD, but even for those who know they have OCD, they still may have no idea that these subtypes exist and may feel that these symptoms are completely separate from their OCD.
Having lived with someone with ROCD, I know far too well that the impact it can have on its target is crippling, since the intrusive thoughts focus on their partner who they care about deeply. ROCD not only stresses the relationship itself, but it also takes a good day out, a romantic dinner, a fun night out on the town, and shrouds it in a fog of panic and doubt with the only visible way out being a subsequent spiral of guilt. That is what typically follows these intrusive thoughts: days or weeks of guilt that make you regret thoughts you didn’t even want to think in the first place.
It’s not what you think
It may seem obvious to those who don’t experience this, but for those that do, it must be made clear that it is absolutely not your fault and the guilt should fall on no one, especially not yourself.
It is not your fault that you are being forced to think terrible thoughts you wouldn’t ever dare to think on your own. It is not your fault that because of these terrible thoughts you don’t have the will to go outside or be “productive”. It is not your fault if you ask your significant other for the 100th time for reassurance. And it is not your fault if you can barely tell the difference between your normal thoughts and your ROCD thoughts. ROCD can be very deceptive and easily blur the lines between what is true and what is made up. Your intrusive thoughts do not represent reality and how you actually feel towards your partner and the relationship itself.
All you need to know is that through it all, your partner is with you and will continue to support you as you mentally manoeuvre the proverbial labyrinth that is ROCD. Don’t think they will resent you for your thoughts, because chances are it couldn’t be further from the truth. Do your best to communicate to your partner how you are feeling, and they will surely stand by you. And know there may be dark moments, and sometimes it may seem never-ending, but there will also be many, many great moments together. Moments you will remember for decades. So, embrace them as much as you can and persevere, in the future you’ll be all the better for it.
Just know, for now, you’ll be fine.