What is Relationship-OCD and Why Does It Happen?

 You’ve most likely heard of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD, but have you heard of OCD-relationship? OCD-R is a real thing. It’s very specific and manifests itself in very interesting ways and can have a pretty harsh toll on a relationship. That’s what we’re talking about right here, right now.

Understanding Realtionship OCD

What is Relationship OCD? If you think of OCD, even if you only have a very cursory understanding of obsessive-compulsive disorder from movies and television, you’re going to understand it. Let’s take, for example, Jack Nicholson in “As good as it gets” he would never step on the cracks in the floor on the pavement.

He would wash his hands constantly and wear gloves. If you’re familiar with Howie Mandel, he suffers from OCD. He doesn’t like shaking people’s hands, that’s a germaphobia. OCD typically revolves around people obsessively doing certain actions over and over again in a compulsive way they can’t control.

It’s a compulsion. Right? And it interferes with their life. What is behind OCD? The reasons why someone has OCD are varied, but the typical reason is they feel a lack of control in a certain part of their life and they’ve developed this tic, this obsessive-compulsive action that they can contro,l and as a consequence, they feel they have some modicum of control in the world.

Oftentimes, people will make a connection psychologically. A loose connection with their mind saying: “If I do this, then everything will be okay. If I wash my hand seven times, then I can finally go to sleep”, or “If I don’t step on the cracks in the floor, then I know that my mom will make it home safely”. There is a weird gap there.

If you think back to when you were a child, a lot of us did this, we made deals with each other, and I see my own kids doing it too. They’ll take a piece of paper, wad it up into a ball and play basketball with a trash can. They they’ll say things like: “If I make this shot in, we’re going to Disneyland”

They make these arbitrary rules where they can control something that they really have no control over. Over time, most people grow out of this mentality, but people with OCD don’t, or  they did at one point grow out of it, but when faced with trauma or developmental issues they regress and engage in that behavior again. And it gets worse. It gets obsessive, it’s a compulsion they can’t control.


Relationship OCD is similar in that you obsess, and you have compulsive behavior, but in this case it centers specifically around the relationship. You don’t see things like washing hands or opening and closing the door a bunch of times. Usually, R-OCD is directly related to the relationship. 

Often they doubt whether they are even truly in love with their partner. They question if they’re actually in love. It sounds counterintuitive, but sometimes they wonder if their partner is good enough for them, attractive enough or successful enough. They constantly question the validity of their partner as an equal or a complementary match for themselves.

And while they believe they can do better, they don’t get out of the relationship. They keep saying: “I don’t know. I should get out of it. She (or he) is not pretty enough” but they never leave. So it becomes a compulsive verbal tic. Or they worry about it mentally. Sometimes they’ll write about it. That’s very common.

On the other side of the spectrum, somebody who has R-OCD can think that the person they are with is not going to stay with them very long. And this can be a heavy burden for their partner because they’re going to incessantly check in with them: “Do you still love me?”, or they’ll say: “How do you feel about the relationship?” 

Which by itself is a good thing, to check in with your partner about how they feel about a relationship is a good thing, when you do it from a place of care and compassion. But when you’re asking your partner several times a day: “Are you still in love with me?, How do you feel about the relationship?” that becomes a big burden to carry for any partner.

Another way this issue manifests is when the person checks their partner’s social media feed over and over several times a day. Or they’ll check various dating apps to see if their partner suddenly went on and joined dating apps behind their backs. So there’s that obsessive, paranoid behavior.

Unjustified Suspisciousness

It has to be a pattern where it’s not totally justified. Because, if your partner is someone who just cheated and you’re checking the dating apps once a day, that’s understandable. You’re in the open wound phase of a difficult part in your relationship, and you’re wondering if they’re going to continue cheating on you.

That’s somewhat normal. But if the relationship has no signs that the person has any kind of infidelity on their mind and you’re incessantly checking, that would be an indication that the person might suffer from Relationship OCD. 

Why It Happens

All OCD stems from control anxiety, which is the new buzzword. It was depression for many years, decades, really. Now the new buzzword is anxiety, right? Everybody has anxiety. There’s anti-anxiety medication. Anxiety is simply worrying about things that you can’t control.

If you think about it, when you worry about something you can’t control, that’s not a positive thing to do. You can’t control it. If you are worried that you might have left the stove on and you are within driving distance back to your house, that is a mental state and sometimes, it becomes an emotional state, but it’s useful because it pushes you to get back to your house and check if the stove is on so you don’t burn the house down.

That worry, which releases adrenaline and stress hormones has a productive use because it’s driving you to safety, or maybe to study harder for a test, or to land a job interview and you prepare a little extra because you’re anxious. 

But when you are riddled with anxiety, it’s usually about something you have zero control over. A very basic example is if you’re worried that there might be heavy traffic. The traffic’s gonna be what it is! You leave early, that’s as much as you can do. And then after that it’s out of your hands. It’s up to the world, the universe, God, whatever your dogma or belief system is.It’s out of your control.

Once things go out of your control, anxiety and worrying about these things have no positive impact on your life. It’s only negative and people feel that anxiety in different ways. Some people feel it in their neck, like they’re about to choke. Some people feel a big tightness in their chest. Some people even feel tingling sensations in their bodies.

Coping Mechanisms

The coping mechanisms that people come up with to deal with this anxiety range from being very healthy to very dangerous. One way to cope that isn’t healthy but also not very dangerous, is when the body says: “Ok, I can’t control the traffic, so what am I going to do? I’m gonna tap on my steering wheel six times every time I see a car that drives by me, and that’ll make sure that I don’t have into traffic.

It’s an illogical step to dealing with this problem where you worry about something out of your control. So, Relationship OCD comes from that lack of control, that insecurity that you can’t control the situation. That’s really where it comes from. There a more intricate psychological breakdown of this on a clinical level, but when I’m explaining things to my own clients, this is how I phrase it. 

So if we take a look at Relationship OCD knowing that it comes from a place of insecurity, it starts to make sense, right? If you have this obsessive feeling that your partner is gonna walk out on you or that they don’t love you, that’s because you’re insecure. Pretty simple, right? What about the other way though? What if you have Relationship OCD and you’re worried that the person you’re with isn’t pretty enough or handsome enough or successful enough for you to be with? If you you scratch down and look under the surface, is also a result of insecurity. Why? Well, who’s going to be with a person that’s not attractive enough for them in the first place?

Someone who’s insecure. And they’re so insecure that they’re going to date someone they normally wouldn’t date because they’d rather be with someone than be with nobody. And if they don’t have a prospect that’s up to their high standards, then they’re going to settle in their own mind, but then they are worried they’re missing out, and yet they’re not strong enough in their character to end the relationship.

They’re insecure that they won’t find somebody who is of their high standard. That also stems from a place of insecurity.

The Case of Jessica

I had a client once. I’ll call her Jessica, who came in with her husband, and she was suffering from Relationship OCD and she had a therapist. They were coming to me specifically just on learning tools about how to be a better couple, and she was trying to deal with her OCD. And what was really interesting is that in one of our sessions I asked how it manifests in the relationship.

She told me that she asks her husband if he still loves her, four or five times a day. Once in the morning, once at night, she’ll text him a couple of times. It got to the point where the husband had pre-written answers that were a little bit longer because he found that when he explained in more than just a: “Yes of course”, if instead he wrote a paragraph on why he still loves her and reminded her about it she would be pacified quicker.

What he did is he took those long, six or seven long paragraphs, re-wrote them, and made them keyboard shortcuts in his cell phone so that he could easily choose and send the message. It got to the point where he had to create these systems.

The issue developed only after they had children. And I asked: “Why don’t you walk me back through your own childhood?” And what we found is that Jessica’s father after having her, walked out on the family when she was four or five years old, and he left a note for her mom that said: “I don’t love you anymore and I’m done”.

He just walked out of her life and now she has this fear, this insecurity, that men, according to her, have the ability to stop loving without warning. And she’s constantly checking in with her husband about whether or not he loves her and he tries to pacify her telling her that he’s going to stick around and not walk out on her and their baby.

It is not uncommon in people who suffered trauma where they were victims of something and had no control in making the situation better for themselves, that they develop these tics, whether it’s asking incessantly if the person will still be in their life or washing their hands.

Many times there is trauma at the root of this OCD behavior. And sometimes exploring and understading that root helps to relieve some of the compulsive behavior. In Jessica’s case that’s exactly what we explored. We dissected their parents’ relationship, how quickly they got married, and how he was never truly happy. 

She talked to her mother and she agreed. She said, he never really said he loved her. They walked through the entire history of their relationship, and then I had her write it down. To write down all the evidence that the relationship wasn’t strong to begin with, and that he was just trying to stick it out because he felt an obligation to raise her before he disappeared.

And then on the other side of that same paper I had her write all the evidence in her own life on why her relationship was different; how he courted her, how her husband was very effusive verbally, the different gifts he’s bought for her, the different ways he has sacrificed and made his life about the family. 

And she keeps this list on her at all times now, especially when she’s feeling insecure and wants to know if he loves her. One of her husband’s text messages says at the end of it: “Please consult the list in your purse. Everything on the list is still true” because he’s trying to reinforce her behavior, to remember and be grateful for this wonderful relationship that has come into her life. 

Relationship OCD is Complicated

Relationship OCD is complicated. There’s no doubt about it. It can be a burden both on your partner and yourself if you suffer from it. And it’s one of those things that it’s not so simple to get rid of on your own. As much as I believe in journaling and meditation, you might need to seek some professional help in order to get R-OCD under control.

If you feel like you or someone you know might be suffering from Relationship OCD, suggest to them that they get some professional help, at least a session or two, and see if it’s something that’s going to become more difficult over time or if it’s just a phase that they’re going through. 

Suggest to them to get some professional expert opinion on the matter because it can be debilitating and if it pops up halfway through a very long-term relationship, it could be a very difficult thing to go through.

As always, you know you can contact me for professional counseling at mrspirituality.com. Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next time.

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