What is ROCD?

When the focus of your OCD is on your relationship, you might have what we call ROCD. ROCD stands for Relationship Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and it is helpful to think of this as relationship-themed OCD. The condition comprises both obsessions about your relationship, i.e. unwanted thoughts and doubts, and compulsions, i.e. the things you do to feel better, such as seeking reassurance or mentally analysing your relationship.

Relationship OCD is not a formal diagnosis because it does not appear in diagnostic manuals used by mental health professionals, such as DSM5; this does not mean that what you are feeling is not valid. What you are experiencing falls under the category of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. There are models of therapy that can help you with this.


ROCD cartoon image of Dr Elaine Ryan in session with client

To make this article easier to read, I will write about a female with ROCD in a heterosexual relationship. Still, the following article is the same for both men and women and those in heterosexual and same-sex relationships.

One of the most interesting things about ROCD is the type of questions I get asked as a psychologist.

Many people will ask long and elaborate questions, outlining their background, the background of their relationship, the doubts they have in their head, and the anxiety they feel, and most end with the question–how do I know if I really love my partner, is this really ROCD or am I in the wrong relationship?

If you ask these types of questions, I would suggest that you ask a different question.

Ask yourself what I can do to get rid of obsessions and compulsions? Once you recognise symptoms in terms of OCD, instead of a problem with your relationship, you break the cycle of ROCD.

CYCLICAL NATURE OF ROCD

At the heart of ROCD are thoughts such as, what if I don’t love my partner? What if this is the wrong relationship? These thoughts (obsessions) lead you to carry out compulsions such as comparing your relationship to others to help ease the mental turmoil. The more you carry out compulsions, the stronger the initial thoughts become. You get caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions.

Hence, the key to recovery is to ask what I can do to stop the obsessive-compulsive cycle?

If you have ROCD, it is not caused by your relationship. It is caused by how you think about your relationship and the things that you do.

Dr Elaine Ryan

What causes ROCD?

ROCD is caused by habitual thoughts about your relationship that create anxiety and is maintained by the compulsions you carry out to reduce your stress.

Habitual thoughts

For example, if you get a thought, “what if I am in the wrong relationship?” The first time this happens, it is just a thought because it has formed no habit in your brain. However, suppose you analyse the idea and keep returning to it. In that case, you are likely to develop a ‘habit.’ Your brain learns from experience. If you keep repeating the thought (or have similar ideas), your brain learns, and you develop a habit (so to speak.)

Thoughts create anxiety about your relationship.

These thoughts make you feel anxious about your relationship. You may even feel it in your body; nervous, feeling or edge 

Maintained by compulsions

When you have these thoughts about your relationship and feel anxious, you more than likely ‘do’ things to help you ‘check out’ that you are meant to be in the relationship. The things that you do also help to reduce the anxiety that you are experiencing temporarily.

The obsessions create anxiety, and the compulsions help ease the tension. The thoughts create stress and the things you do reduce the anxiety. However, they do not fix the problem; rather, they make a cycle of obsessions followed by compulsions.

Recent research2 suggests that people with OCD that ‘the brain responds too much to errors’. Applying this finding to people with ROCD might give some understanding of why you spend so much time focusing on the flaws in your relationship.

It is essential that when talking about causality, that you think in terms of OCD.

All forms of obsessions (thoughts) within OCD focus on the negative aspect of what the person holds dear. It focuses on what could go wrong, creating a cycle of doubt. The person carries out a ritual or compulsion to avoid a negative consequence.

Many people with ROCD think they do not have any compulsions and dismiss the OCD nature of the condition. Rumination itself is a compulsion. 

Your relationship does not cause ROCD. Unwanted obsessive thoughts about your relationship cause it. The condition is maintained by giving in to doubt and carrying out compulsions.

Dr Elaine Ryan

Types of ROCD

Relationship Focused1, and

Partner Focused.

Relationship Focused.

Relationship Focused is where you focus on the relationship itself. ROCD or wrong relationship.

These types of obsessions can lead to many doubts about your relationship, even though your relationship may be excellent.

Partner Focused

Partner Focused is where you focus on your partner

You might find that you obsess about your partner’s appearance, how intelligent they are, or what they are like with other people.

Finding flaws in their appearance

How they dress; too shabby, not trendy enough, not the right labels.

Finding flaws in how intelligent they are

and the list goes on

Finding flaws in how they interact with other people

What are the symptoms of ROCD?

The best way to explain the symptoms to you is to split this into obsessions and compulsions.

Obsessions

OBSESSIONS are all those thoughts in your head regarding your relationship. They differ from other thoughts in that they are.

These are common obsessive thoughts about your relationship

Compulsions

These are things you do to help you make sense of the thought and include seeking reassurance

An important point to note with ROCD is that it is not your relationship that is the problem. You are concerned about your relationship because of the meaning you give to the thoughts in your head and what you do to help you cope with the thoughts. I shall explain to you what I mean by this.

If you have ROCD, you will place too much emphasis on your thought processes (your obsessions). It is very important that I call them obsessions as I want to help you see them for what they are; they are part of OCD, as opposed to being ‘the truth.’ When you identify the worries you have about your relationship as obsessions, you can distance yourself from them and get down to working with getting over your obsessions.

How do I know if I have ROCD?

The nature of ROCD can make it difficult to know whether the thoughts and doubts you experience are related to being in a relationship that is not right for you. Or whether you have a condition that has nothing to do with your relationship.

If you would like my help with ROCD I have an online course that is available to start immediately

Rumination involving your relationship is typical in ROCD, but someone without ROCD can also think about their relationship. The difference lies in the thinking styles.

If someone is concerned about their relationship, they think about it and decide based on their thought processes. In contrast, the thoughts experienced by someone with ROCD are unwanted, uninvited and obsessive. The person does not choose to have them. 

Video taken from my online course
Take a test.  You can take my test, which is for informational purposes only.

How to get over ROCD

You suffer, not because of a problem in your relationship, but because of obsessions and compulsions.

Suppose you see your thoughts (obsessions) as being ‘the truth.’ In that case, you will want to investigate this further and get some reassurance or answers to questions you have about your relationship, and this is where your compulsions can start.

For example, if you are obsessing about your partner’s perceived flaws, you may compare them to other people. This comparison can be the start of compulsion if you find you compare them to others every time you are obsessing over their shortcomings.

With ROCD, once you see your difficulty in terms of obsessions and compulsions, you treat the OCD instead of repairing your relationship.

Therapy and Treatment

If you have been searching for treatment for ROCD, I would advise you to undertake Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Mindfulness and anxiety management training, and I shall explain my reasons behind this now.

CBT for ROCD

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helps with both the obsessions and compulsions that you experience.

The ‘cognitive’ part helps with your obsessions by working with your thought processes. The ‘behavioural’ part helps with reassurance seeking.

How does this help?

The problem is not your relationship; the problem is how you think and the things you do, such as the constant analysis and reassurance seeking. CBT helps change your thought processes into more balanced, realistic thoughts rather than the thoughts you have at the moment that are fuelled by relationship OCD.

CBT also teaches you to manage the things you do that keep ROCD going, such as seeking reassurance about your relationship.

Mindfulness for ROCD

Mindfulness helps you to ‘let go of your thought processes. Having the ability to ‘let go’ is why I recommend having a fundamental mindfulness practice. As I have said above, it is the thought processes that keep the problem going.

 

 

Further Reading

References

  1. Doron, G., Derby, D. S., & Szepsenwol, O. (2014). Relationship obsessive compulsive disorder (ROCD): A conceptual framework. Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, 3(2), 169-180.DOI: doi.org/10.1016/j.jocrd.2013.12.005
  2. Luke Norman, Stephan Taylor, Yanni Liu, Joaquim Radua, James Abelson, Mike Angstadt, Yann Chye, Stella de Wit, Joseph Himle, Chaim Huyser, Isik Karahanoglu, Tracy Luks, Dara Manoach, Carol Mathews, Katya Rubia, Chao Suo, Odile van den Heuvel, Murat Yücel, Kate Fitzgerald. S20. Error-Processing in OCD: A Meta-Analysis of fMRI Studies and Investigation of Changes Following CBTBiological Psychiatry, 2018; 83 (9): S354 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2018.02.911

Sources

Melli, G., Bulli, F., Doron, G., & Carraresi, C. (2018). Maladaptive beliefs in relationship obsessive compulsive disorder (ROCD): Replication and extension in a clinical sample. Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders18, 47–53. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jocrd.2018.06.005