How to handle relationship OCD (ROCD)

Doubting woman.
ROCD, like all forms of OCD, is characterised by doubt and 'what if?' thinking.

My last column focused on relationship OCD (ROCD), which is characterised by agonising doubts and compulsive attempts to gain certainty about an important relationship in your life. In this follow-up piece, I focus on thinking errors often seen in ROCD.


As with all forms of OCD, sufferers resort to avoidance and compulsions in an effort to ease their doubts and anxieties. These compulsions can be hard to spot to the untrained eye – for example, subtle checking rituals, compulsive rumination on your relationship, incessant reassurance-seeking, avoiding people that trigger unwanted thoughts, and so on. The sufferer craves certainty, but it never comes – relief is always temporary.


If you have OCD, your aim must be to develop a greater tolerance for uncertainty. Remember, one obsession usually replaces another. An obsession about relationships could be replaced by an obsession about your sexuality, or your morality, or whether you might harm someone, or countless other themes. You must resist the urge to know "for sure"; otherwise, you remain stuck in an endless cycle of rumination and crippling "what if?" thinking.



Couple sunset.
Perfectionist ideas about "the one" are common in ROCD.

With ROCD, it also helps to be aware of certain thinking errors, or cognitive distortions.


For example, all-or-nothing thinking is common: "I must always feel completely in love with my partner, or else he is not 'the one'"; "I noticed another attractive person so I must not love my partner"; "I often get angry with my partner so I must not love him"; "Other couples are happy all the time".


This is perfectionist, black-and-white thinking. The idea of "the one" is a myth. As for noticing attractive people – there are many attractive people in the world, the idea you should not notice them is completely unrealistic. Forget the movies; relationships are messy. Some things will always be "wrong". Things will never be perfect.


Another thinking error to look out for is catastrophising : "I might not be right for my partner. If this is the case and we stay together, I will ruin her life"; "Living without your soulmate is not like living at all"; "Being without a loving partner would cause terrible pain to me and everyone around me"; "Breaking up with someone would cause irreparable damage, both to me and my partner".


When you catastrophise, you view a situation or problem as worse than it really is. With ROCD, people often:

  • overestimate the consequences of being alone;
  • overestimate the consequences of a relationship ending;
  • overestimate the consequences of being in the wrong relationship.

In reality, none of these things are the end of the world. Relationships are important, but they are not everything in life. Keep an eye out for this kind of catastrophised thinking.


Hyper-responsibility/inflated responsibility: One of the aforementioned catastrophised beliefs – "I might not be right for my partner. If this is the case and we stay together, I will ruin her life" – is also a classic example of inflated responsibility. OCD makes it seem like you are responsible for everything but that's not true; you cannot control your partner's life or live their life for them.


Ask yourself, are you holding yourself to a higher standard than everyone else? Do you expect every person in a relationship to agonise over the possibility that they might unintentionally wreck their partner's life? Also, do you think your partner wants you to agonise? Does it help your relationship or hurt it?


'Should' statements: "I should not dislike certain things my partner does", "I should always want to be intimate with my partner" – OCD is full of "shoulding". Excessive use of "should" statements is indicative of a rigid, unhelpful thinking style; try to be aware of this and cut back on "shoulding".


Thinking errors aside, ROCD sufferers invariably return to one question: how do I know it's ROCD and not a bad relationship? Remember, OCD is the doubting disease; you will never get the certainty you seek, so stop trying to get it.


Instead, ask yourself two questions. Firstly, do you recognise yourself in the compulsions I listed earlier – the reassurance-seeking, the rumination, the analysing, the avoiding, the checking?


If so, ask yourself: am I willing to try and stop performing these compulsions?


Remember, compulsions maintain obsessions. Your goal should not be to eliminate relationship uncertainty – your goal should be to free yourself from OCD's grip.


(First published in The Southern Star on 08/7/2021)