Managing Your Relationship Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated June 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you find yourself constantly comparing your partner to everyone around you despite loving them deeply, or if you find yourself wracked with doubt and confusion about a relationship you are otherwise happy to be in, you are not the only one. Sometimes, these feelings represent a common relationship shift, but in other cases, they can be symptoms of relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder, commonly referred to as ROCD.

This article explores relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder (ROCD), how you can recognize it, and options like working with a mental health professional to improve symptoms. 

What is relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder?

Although most relationships have periods of euphoria and doubt, the ups and downs within a relationship with someone who has relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder or ROCD can be more dramatic and destructive. As its name suggests, relationship OCD combines the obsessive-compulsive symptoms of traditional OCD, such as an inflated sense of responsibility, with the complexities of romantic relationships. A person with ROCD may experience intrusive and persistent relationship doubts, either about their own feelings toward their partner or how their partner feels about them. This means that someone experiencing ROCD might display patterns of alternating clingy behavior and a tendency to push their partner away. They might fluctuate between praising their partnership and considering their relationship doomed to fail or riddled with problems. People who experience ROCD may feel significant distress when feeling doubts about their relationship. 

Getty/AnnaStills
Are you experiencing relationship anxiety?

Initially, relationship OCD symptoms might seem like simple insecurity in a relationship or common relationship doubts that will dissipate with time and effort. However, ROCD can turn into extreme beliefs about relationships, such as “the thought of living life without a partner scares me,” that may worsen with the deepening of a relationship, and it can serve as a form of unconscious sabotage within an otherwise healthy partnership. Relationship OCD often requires treatment to alleviate the symptoms and habits associated with it.

Recognizing Relationship Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder symptoms

Although it may not be as well known as OCD in general, ROCD is not uncommon. Individuals with ROCD can experience common obsessive thoughts, such as:

  • Suspicions that they’re not with the “right person”
  • Fears that their relationship may not be the “right fit” 
  • Comparing their own relationship to their previous relationships or to other people’s relationships to see if they seem happier
  • Constantly seeking reassurance that their partner loves them, 
  • Feeling that if their relationship isn’t positive all the time that it’s a destructive relationship

In response to these unwanted obsessive doubts and intrusive thoughts, they may then try to monitor their own feelings toward their partner or seek reassurance from others about their relationship.

People with ROCD might get married, despite these thoughts, and then go on to doubt their marriage and feel as though they should have waited. They may also engage in other relationships to search for a more suitable partner. While the symptoms of ROCD may feel as though they are solid indicators that a relationship is not viable, they are a legitimate subset of OCD recognized by the International OCD Foundation, and they can present significant challenges to a person’s life and their relationships. One study, titled “Relationship Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Interference, Symptoms, and Maladaptive Beliefs,” found that individuals with ROCD exhibited maladaptive relationship-related beliefs and significant depressive symptoms.

People with undiagnosed ROCD may internalize their symptoms and feel as though something is wrong with them or that they are incapable of love, intimacy, or solid romantic relationships because they can’t stop thinking about problems—whether real or imagined. These people might engage in only passing relationships, avoid marriage, and avoid having children—all to keep the anxiety and compulsions that arise in relationships in check. Over time, the lack of connection and intimacy can lead to a worsening of ROCD symptoms and can even result in additional diagnoses, such as depression. People who experience ROCD may also experience severe personal distress, low self-esteem, low relationship satisfaction, and impaired sexual functioning.

Getty/AnnaStills

How it manifests in relationships

Typically, the first sign of concern is the desire to be in a relationship, accompanied by the fear of it not being the right relationship or the fear that your partner is not the absolute best that you can get. These fears might not seem strange or outside the realm of reason, but they may lead a person to jump from relationship to relationship, which can signal something deeper.

There are usually two ways that ROCD shows up in relationships: relationship-centered and partner-focused ROCD. 

Relationship-centered

With relationship-related OCD symptoms, someone may tend to have intense doubt surrounding the relationship itself. For example, people with ROCD may have relationship-centered obsessions and may constantly be seeking reassurance about their relationship, asking friends or family to weigh in on their relationship to try to gain certainty of the situation. They may constantly ask about their partner’s feelings and whether their partner is truly "in" the relationship. Someone experiencing ROCD may experience consistent doubts regarding the rightness of the relationship. In these relationships, the person with the disorder may be nervous about committing to any relationship for fear of making the wrong relationship choice or depriving themselves of greater relationship or sexual satisfaction. These individuals may experience intense fear when it comes to getting married, moving in together, or engaging in similarly large relationship milestones for fear that they've made a mistake.

Partner-focused 

People with partner-focused symptoms tend to focus on their partner's qualities and perceived flaws. Someone might love their partner, for instance, but dwell on their partner’s emotional stability, intelligent, or looks. Despite everything else in the relationship working well, they may continue to experience partner-focused obsessions and may focus on their partner’s appearance or other qualities that they don’t consider to be perfect. They might love their partner tremendously but continue to look elsewhere, constantly evaluating people around them to determine if they would make more suitable partners. 

Other individuals with relationship OCD may have obsessive thoughts about their significant other’s previous partners and past sexual activity, or they may obsess that their partner is cheating without any evidence to back up the thought. 

Some people with ROCD have both types, experiencing fear regarding both their relationship and their partner. These fears can compound to create a truly difficult relationship. People who have both types might have difficulty maintaining a long-term relationship with a romantic partner and might experience even greater feelings of depression and anxiety than others who have only one of the ROCD types. 

Regardless of the focus of ROCD, the condition can be overwhelming. Because connection and intimacy tend to be important aspects of the human experience, having ROCD symptoms might put a person at greater risk of developing depression and relationship aversions, and ROCD may result in them avoiding anything but casual relationships.

Managing symptoms on your own

Just as other types of OCD can be treated and managed, there are options for ROCD treatment. Although therapy is usually necessary for at least a portion of treatment, there are steps you can take to help manage your symptoms, neutralize anxiety, and get your relationship on the right track.

  1. Take Stock Of Your Relationship. When you feel doubts creeping up about your partner or your relationship, you might take a few moments to sit down and truly think. Do you love your partner? Do you like where you are in your relationship? 
  2. Identify Unmet Needs. Relationship OCD can seemingly create problems out of nowhere, but your misgivings can still be evaluated. If you have a persistent feeling that something is not quite right in your relationship, you might give yourself a time limit for really thinking about this and see if you can find a legitimate reason. If your uncertainty is primarily based on appearance or frivolous concerns, it may be that it is affecting you. If not, you may have a solid base where you can start to explore your concerns with a licensed professional.
  3. Talk To Your Partner. Despite any fears you might have about your feelings, it can sometimes help to let your partner know what you’re feeling. This may be difficult at first, but discussing your condition with your partner can help your partner understand your unique needs and some of the behaviors associated with ROCD that they may have been blaming themselves for previously. Knowing how your partner feels about the situation can also be beneficial. If there is something in your relationship that isn’t working, your partner may be able to help bring some clarity and a new perspective you hadn’t considered before.
Relationship OCD can be difficult to explain to your partner. Acknowledging your misgivings to your partner can create division and frustration in your relationship. If you are worried about talking to your partner about your symptoms, consider first discussing helpful, healthy ways to tackle the discussion with a therapist. This may help you go into the situation feeling confident and avoid any unnecessary confusion or upset that can occur as a result of divulging your experiences.

Are you experiencing relationship anxiety?

Managing it through therapy 

If you feel overwhelmed by symptoms of ROCD, support is out there. While it may seem intimidating to talk about your experience, a therapist can help you with it and other relationship concerns. Getting professional help may lead to better, longer-lasting results.

The first step in receiving treatment for this condition is getting a diagnosis. Many people discount the feelings created by symptoms as being indicative that they have a personal flaw or that the relationship in question needs to end. While this can be the case in some relationships, if you have a pattern of similar behaviors, thoughts, or feelings with romantic partners, you may have relationship OCD. 
No detail is too small to talk through when you are first seeking treatment, as the seemingly inconsequential details of your symptoms can sometimes provide insight and help a therapist accurately determine the best diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up plan.
For most people, no one can perfectly embody their fantasy or fulfill every need. While people with a healthy view of relationships and partners may not need to explore this idea in depth, those with relationship OCD may benefit from the help of a counselor or therapist to let go of old, unproductive ideas surrounding partners and relationships.

Relationship OCD treatment does not necessarily mean a person will stay in their existing relationship. You might feel as though breaking up during treatment is a violation of your treatment process or an indication that you've failed. However, such beliefs can exacerbate ROCD symptoms. You may simply realize that your relationship is not a good fit for your life. Discussing this with a licensed online therapist may help relieve any fears or concerns regarding your progress.

Research has found a type of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) called exposure and response prevention therapy, or ERP therapy, to be an effective treatment for OCD. ERP therapy usually involves gradually exposing oneself to the thoughts, images, or situations that spur one’s relationship obsessions and resolving not to engage in compulsive behaviors to try to alleviate the accompanying anxiety. Over time, an individual generally starts to experience a decrease in their anxiety levels. Relationship OCD treatment also tends to focus on helping an individual accept the presence of uncertainty around their romantic relationship and tolerate the discomfort this may create.

Another treatment approach for OCD is something called the inference-based approach (IBA).

The IBA suggests that those with OCD and its subtypes have a difficult time distinguishing possibility from reality, which can result in thinking and behaving as if a possibility were reality. 
Inference-based therapy (IBT) utilizes IBA to help those with OCD understand that their reasoning system can result in doubts, fears, obsessions, and inaccurate assumptions and conclusions. IBT aims to help them identify these mistakes in their reasoning system, thereby reducing the power that these thoughts have and enabling these individuals to work through them with overall less anxiety than they might have with other OCD treatment options.

Online therapy for relationship anxiety

With the growth of online therapy, help is more available than ever. Research published in BMC Psychiatry has shown online therapy to be effective for OCD, and it offers some unique advantages. With online therapy, you can work with a licensed mental health professional, or choose from a pool of OCD specialists, from the comfort of your home or office—or anywhere you have an internet connection. Another advantage is that online therapy can connect you with a professional who specializes in ROCD therapy, whereas you may be limited in therapist options in your community. 

With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist from a network of more than 25,000 mental health professionals, which may make it easier to find someone with experience helping people with ROCD. Also, you can always change therapists if needed until you find a good fit.

Below, some users weigh in on their experiences of working with BetterHelp therapists on concerns related to relationships.

BetterHelp counselor reviews

“The longer I work with Dr. Simon, the more grateful I am to have found a counselor who strikes such a kind balance between supporting and empathizing as well as challenging and coaching. She’s been invaluable to the progress I’ve made individually and in my relationship.”

“I’ve worked with Alyson for 1 month and it was my first time working with a therapist. From when I started, I feel so much better. I was dealing with frustrations in my relationship and I also was constantly stressed and anxious. Alyson showed me ways to communicate better in my relationship and how to work at them. She also helped me with stress management tactics and now I feel really good about how to handle my stress. I feel much less anxious now. Overall I am in a much happier place and obstacles feel like mere obstacles because there are stress-free ways to tackle life problems. Thank you so much, Alyson!"

Takeaway

If you’re experiencing symptoms of relationship OCD (ROCD) or doubts about a relationship, you don’t have to face them alone. Engaging with an online therapist at BetterHelp may help alleviate your ROCD symptoms, improve your current relationship, and give you the tools and self-reassurance to enjoy fulfilling intimate relationships in all areas of life. Take the first step toward less anxiety and more relationship satisfaction, and reach out to BetterHelp today.

Work through personality disorder symptoms
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started