Is It ROCD Or Am I Not In Love?
ROCD or relationship anxiety occurs when your mind deems love, relationships, and commitment dangerous.
It would then find ways to warn you of all the things that can go wrong and all the downsides of your relationships.
You may find yourself questioning your love, wondering if your partner’s love is enough, or whether committing to them would be a huge mistake.
Going through these anxious thoughts and seeking answers to them, may bring some reassurance and momentary relief.
However, reassurance as with other types of OCD, keeps your anxiety alive.
The answer is no answer at all.
This might sound counterintuitive. It is difficult not to seek reassurance when anxiety is trying to get your attention by forcing terrifying and painful thoughts into your head and triggering painful physical sensations.
But fighting and seeking reassurance hasn’t worked, and it’s time to try something else.
When you give up the fight, make space for the discomfort, and make peace with the intrusive thoughts you may experience, you free yourself from ROCD grip.
- The Neurobiology of Anxiety Disorders
- What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder OCD?
- What Is Relationship OCD (ROCD)?
- Is It ROCD Or Am I Not In Love? 8 Signs of Relationship OCD
- Relationship Anxiety vs. ROCD
- How To Get Over Relationship Anxiety and ROCD?
- Conclusion – Recovery Is a Path
- FREE Printable Relationship Worksheets (PDF)
The Neurobiology of Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are the result of overactivity in the amygdala –an almond-shaped cluster of neurons located at the base of the brain.
The amygdala receives input from our senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, sound) and processes this information to decide whether to trigger a threat response (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn) or not.
Ideally, we need to experience a proportional threat response to a real danger (be it in your relationship or in life in general).
For those struggling with anxiety disorders, the amygdala is overly attuned to threat, creating and amplifying danger when there isn’t much at all.
The reason for that, as with many other psychological conditions, is a mixture of nature (genetics) and nurture (upbringing).
Anxiety Itself Is Not The Problem
Anxiety, like other emotions, serves a purpose. It keeps us from getting close to danger – that is as long as it’s proportional to the actual threat.
However, when anxiety triggers signals in our brain that are too loud, irrational, and incessant, it becomes unhelpful and may even limit our lives.
The good news is that the prognosis for treatment is highly positive. Given the right treatment and the willingness to change, most people get better.
Related: Anxiety Free Resources
What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder OCD?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder DSM – 5, the official guidebook of diagnoses that mental health professionals turn to when assessing a case, OCD is characterized by the presence of obsessions, compulsions, or both.
Obsessions are defined by:
1. Recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are intrusive and that can cause marked anxiety or distress.
2. The urge to ignore or suppress such thoughts, urges, or images, or to neutralize them with some other thought or action (i.e., by performing a compulsion).
Compulsions are defined by repetitive behaviors (e.g., hand washing, ordering, checking) or mental acts (e.g., praying, counting, repeating words silently) that the individual feels driven to perform in an attempt to prevent or reduce an obsession. (American Psychiatric Association 2013)
OCD is mostly depicted in the media as compulsive cleanliness or organization, but the subject of intrusive thoughts in OCD can involve more than a desire to be clean and organized.
OCD chooses what you care about most and what you fear most – the sort of things that could lead to rejection and suffering if they’re to occur.
What Is Relationship OCD (ROCD)?
ROCD is the fear of being in the wrong relationship, fear of not being truly loved by your partner, or fear of not truly loving your partner.
It’s important to keep in mind that no matter how disturbing the thoughts you have may be, you are not a bad person for simply experiencing intrusive thoughts.
In fact, your thoughts are considered intrusive especially because they go against your values, actions, and true desires.
If you don’t suffer from OCD, you may choose to use the term relationship anxiety instead. Whatever term you choose to use, the treatment of relationship anxiety and ROCD is the same.
It’s important to note that relationship OCD is not an official diagnosis and is not included in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V). This is because all types of OCD are part of the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.
Categories of Relationship OCD
Compulsive behaviors in ROCD fall into four categories:
1. Overt compulsions.
Overt compulsions are rituals or behaviors that are repeated many times until you achieve the right feeling. These behaviors may include; washing, checking, tapping, touching, etc.
2. Avoidance compulsions.
This is when you attempt to reduce your anxiety by avoiding what’s triggering it. Common examples include:
- Avoiding making a promise or a commitment toward your partner for fear of leading them on, when you are not 100 percent certain
- Avoidance of deepening your relationship so that you won’t be hurt when your relationship fails
- Avoiding intimacy for fear of having unwanted thoughts
- Avoiding people you find attractive for fear of acting on an impulse
3. Reassurance-seeking compulsions.
This is when you attempt to reduce anxiety by seeking reassurance. Examples may include:
- Excessive online searching of the problem or symptoms
- Excessive discussion about your relationship with others
- Confessing to thoughts you worry are wrong or unfaithful
- Seeking reassurance that your partner truly loves you
- Comparing your partner to other people to “test” their attractiveness
- “Testing” your feelings for your partner by flirting with other people
- Checking your physical reactions during sex for signs that you are still attracted to them
4. Mental compulsions.
This is the most difficult of compulsions to identify and isolate because it feels like overthinking. This compulsion includes:
- Mentally ruminating on whether or not your relationship or your partner is right for you, reviewing pros and cons
- Mentally ruminating on a situation to see if you acted in a way that would prove or disprove your love for your partner.
Is It ROCD Or Am I Not In Love? 8 Signs of Relationship OCD
Relationship OCD Or Wrong Relationship?
The following is the Relationship Obsessive-Compulsive Inventory (ROCI).
This test is not meant to act as a substitute for proper assessment.
- Do you constantly doubt your relationship?
- Do you find it difficult to dismiss your doubts about your partner or the relationship?
- Do you check and recheck whether your relationship feels “right”?
- Do you constantly look for evidence that your partner loves you?
- Do you feel like you need to remind yourself again and again why you love your partner?
- Do you feel extremely disturbed by thoughts that something is “not right” in your relationship?
- Do you continuously ask your partner whether they really love you?
- Do you frequently seek reassurance that your relationship is “right”?
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Relationship Anxiety vs. ROCD
Whether to call your anxiety, relationship anxiety, or relationship OCD depends on the severity of symptoms and level of impairment you may be experiencing with relationship anxiety being on the less severe end of the anxiety spectrum and ROCD on the more severe end.
How Compulsive Behavior Keeps Anxiety Alive
As we engage in compulsion, we learn that the way to stop intrusive thoughts and feelings and escape discomfort, is to ruminate, avoid, or seek reassurance.
Although we may experience relief when we engage in a compulsion, the relief is temporary and makes us much more likely to engage in that same compulsion the next time. Reinforces two messages in our brain:
1. By acting on an intrusive thought we validate it.
2. By escaping the anxiety triggered by the intrusive thought, we reinforce the belief that we can’t handle the pain and therefore we must escape it.
The more we validate those beliefs, the bigger our anxiety grows. This cycle continues onward and grows out of control.
Although you can’t control your intrusive thoughts or the feelings that accompany these thoughts, you can still control your reaction to these thoughts and feelings.
When you cut compulsions and instead tolerate the anxiety, you teach your brain that the intrusive thoughts it’s sending you are not important and you stop reinforcing the need for certainty.
Redefining Our Relationships Expectations
Our relationships expectations are one of the main reasons behind our anxiety. It’s when we believe in the Hollywood version of love and won’t settle for anything less, that we place a lot of pressure on the other person and on the relationship.
When we release the expectation that a partner should also be a friend, savior, emotional support, intellectually equal – be it all, our anxiety will have much less reason to sound the alarm.
Although there is nothing wrong with a good love story, expecting perfection in a relationship makes us less satisfied in love.
For instance, the knotting sensation in the stomach we experience when we’re in love, also known as the butterflies feeling, comes from the amygdala – the same part of our brain responsible for registering threat and for our anxiety.
We experience these same butterflies when giving an important presentation, preparing for an interview, or when we jump out of a plane. However, when felt in the context of romance, we came to associate these feelings with a sign that we have finally found the One.
When we meet someone who’s secure and safe, we may not feel the nervousness we’re so used to feeling and assume that we’re “not that into them.” This makes it difficult to relax into vulnerability and stay connected to them.
How To Get Over Relationship Anxiety and ROCD?
#1. Reframe Your Negative Thoughts and Cognitive Distortions
Cognitive distortions are unhelpful thinking patterns that are often inaccurate and negatively biased.
Cognitive distortions are tricky because, for the most part, we’re not even aware that we’re making generalizations, catastrophizing a certain situation or engaging in all-or-nothing thinking.
However, this lack of awareness is not the problem. It’s when we believe these thoughts and perceive them as fact, that they hinder our ability to accurately assess threat and negatively affect our relationships.
Common Cognitive Distortions
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
This is when you perceive a situation in black-and-white terms instead of seeing the gray areas or a continuum. The mind goes directly for the worst-case scenario. You find yourself viewing things as either good or bad, right or wrong, success or failure.
So how do you know which thoughts you need to listen to and which are simply an exaggeration of the anxious mind?
You don’t actually have to know the answer. You just need to remind yourself that this isn’t the only way to think and that your thoughts are not necessarily facts.
You may tell yourself, “Just because (triggering thought or situation), doesn’t automatically mean (worst-case scenario).”
Also known as fortune telling, this is when you view situation to its worst-case conclusion in the future.
Catastrophizing is characterized by a chain-like downward spiral of thinking that quickly moves from one horrible conclusion to the next (and then this will happen, and then, and then).
This magnifies our fear and minimizes our trust in our ability to handle that outcome if it were to happen.
To challenge this cognitive distortion, you don’t need to tell yourself that whatever you fear won’t happen. Rather, remind yourself that you don’t know for sure what will happen and that whatever will happen, you can do your best to cope with it and that you still have options.
3. Emotional Reasoning
This is when you believe something is true simply because you feel it so strongly, even when there is no evidence to support that belief.
Although your instincts and gut feelings can be helpful, if you struggle with relationship anxiety, they might be unhelpful.
What we feel to be true is usually a more accurate indicator of what we fear to be true than an indicator of the truth itself.
The key here isn’t to discard our emotions, but rather to make sure that what you’re feeling isn’t just a fear response that’s preventing you from enjoying your relationship.
4. Should or Must Statements
Also known as perfectionism. This is when you cling onto fixed and unrealistic ideas about yourself and others.
For example, you may think to yourself, “I shouldn’t feel this way. If I do, then something must be wrong.”
It’s important to pause to consider whether the standards we are holding ourselves and others to are realistic or helpful.
Truth is we lose so much in the pursuit of perfection – we miss out on the real thing and the good-enough things we have.
Remind yourself that good enough is good enough.
This is when you compare yourself, your relationship, and your life in general, to another person’s, when you really don’t know the whole story.
There is an evolutionary reason for this tendency to compare. It helped us fit in with the group and increased our chances of survival. If we didn’t measure up, we could be expelled from the security of the group. Today, we’re not only comparing ourselves to those around us, but also to those whom we’ve never even met.
It’s difficult not to feel inadequate, even when we know that what’s on social media is mostly fake and filtered.
The key here is to remind yourself that you have absolutely no idea what another couple’s relationship is truly like.
6. Mind Reading
This is when you believe you know what other people are thinking, without considering other, more likely alternatives.
Mind reading occurs when we project our own fears onto the thoughts of others and assume the worst despite the absence of evidence.
This tendency to mind-read how others perceive us is also called the spotlight effect. This is when we believe that others are paying more attention to us than they really are.
If you have a thought that your partner wants to end the relationship, try looking around and see if there’s any evidence to support your brain’s claims, without evidence, it’s safe to decide that this is a cognitive distortion.
Simply remind yourself that you have absolutely no idea what someone else could be thinking, without real evidence.
Correcting Cognitive Distortions (Cognitive Restructuring)
Everyone is guilty of falling into the traps of cognitive distortions from time to time. However, those struggling with anxiety can get stuck more often and much longer.
One way to correct cognitive distortions is to use a CBT tool called cognitive restructuring.
This refers to the process of noticing our intrusive thoughts and correcting them to in the moment. One helpful way to do that is to Keep a thought log.
FREE Reframing Negative Thoughts Worksheets
#2. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Although challenging our negative thoughts is a great way to reduce anxiety, it won’t make your anxiety go away because challenging your thoughts will keep you in conversation with your anxiety.
But while you can’t control what intrusive thoughts you experience, you can still control your response.
Acceptance and commitment therapy helps you manage whatever noise is leftover, after restricting your distorted thoughts by tolerating and accepting your anxiety without any intention of changing it.
Willingly tolerating your anxiety may sound counterintuitive, but it is the best way to stop anxiety from running your life.
Fighting against anxiety can look like:
- Judging yourself for having anxious thoughts (I’m a bad person for having these thoughts)
- Hating your experience (I hate that I have to deal with this)
- Thought stopping by saying stop either out loud or in your mind
- Resisting (I refuse to feel this way)
Even though it sounds counterintuitive, the more we struggle against anxiety and pain in general, the more it persists.
The reason why we feel anxious is that we believe these thoughts, feelings, and experiences shouldn’t exist. As long as we believe that, our minds will continue to produce warning messages.
What Is ACT?
Acceptance and commitment therapy ACT was developed by psychologist and researcher Steven Hayes in 1982.
ACT is a less confrontational approach to the treatment of unwanted thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It helps us move from resistance to peaceful coexistence.
Keep in mind that anxiety in and of itself is not a bad thing. It is an adaptive threat response, that’s fundamental to our survival. Therefore, it cannot (and should not) be completely eliminated, no matter how good you become at catching your cognitive distortions.
Tolerating and accepting anxiety means making space for your feelings and expanding your definition of what you’re willing to feel and how much you’re willing to feel, this eliminates your suffering.
Redefining Happiness In Relationships
Research shows that 69 percent of all relational problems in a relationship are considered perpetual problems, Resulting from fundamental personality differences between partners, and are never solved, only managed (Gottman and Silver 1999).
There is nothing wrong with feeling irritable, bored, turned off, or having off-days in relationships. When we believe that our relationships should feel amazing all the time, we create so much suffering and anxiety.
You can choose to stop fighting and let your thoughts and feelings be – you can redefine what it means to be happy.
A more relaxed approach would be to accept that which we cannot change and to live life to the fullest anyway.
Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean we should ignore toxic or abusive behavior. Acceptance is about allowing the possibility of enjoying our relationships and doubts at the same time.
1. Defuse Your Anxious Thoughts
When you repeat your anxious thoughts to yourself in a direct, factual manner (I’m destined for a life of regret), your brain registers the thought as a fact and triggers anxiety as a response.
In ACT this is called thought fusion, where we can’t separate from the thought enough to stay objective and modulate our reaction to it.
Thought defusion is a good way to spate ourselves from the content of our thoughts and view them from an objective point of view. This can be simply done by saying something like, “I’m having the thought that…,” or, “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that…” This in turn reduces our reactivity.
Thought defusion helps us accept our thoughts and let these thoughts exist rather than fighting or resisting them. It allows you to see your thoughts for what they are, just thoughts and not necessarily the truth.
2. Leaning In
Leaning into discomfort helps you tolerate anxiety by acknowledging that relationship anxiety or ROCD acts like a bully and that the best way to manage a bully is not to fight them back because that’s what a bully wants – a reaction, but rather to ignore what they say.
This can be done by taking on an attitude of playful indifference, thanking your mind for the information, or even not engaging at all with the thought.
The less you feed your anxious thought, the less likely they are to return or trigger an intense reaction.
3. Living According to Your Values
ACT states that we need to categorize our thoughts not as good or bad, right or wrong, but rather as either helpful or unhelpful.
This is because when we label a thought as bad, we sensitize our brain to that thought, telling it that this could be a danger, so stay alert.
When we instead drop the judgment and simply ask, is this thought helpful? Is it serving me? Does it align with my values as a person and as a partner? Or would it take me away from the kind of relationship I want?
For you to answer these questions, you need to first clarify your personal values – what kind of person and partner you want to be.
To do this, imagine you had no anxiety, what kind of partner would you want to be? How would you like to treat your partner? How would you like your partner to describe you and describe the way you make them feel?
It’s important to note that values are not the same as goals. While goals have a definite endpoint that you reach, values, like kindness, honesty, or growth, are continuous guides to living.
When you have your values clear, you get to act in a way that’s aligned with these values. For example, if one of your relationship values is to be a loving partner, even when you don’t feel loving, you can still choose to act in a loving way, that, not only improves your relationship, but can also shift the way you feel.
ACT expert Russ Harris says, “The feeling of love comes and goes on a whim; you can’t control it. But the action of love is something you can do, regardless of how you are feeling” (2009, 9).
#3. Exposure Therapy and Response Prevention for ROCD
An important component of recovery from relationship anxiety is taking action and facing your fears head-on.
Exposure and response prevention helps you do that. This is a therapy that involves exposure to a feared situation in order to intentionally trigger your anxiety. This is then, followed by response prevention, which eliminates any behavior meant to neutralize the anxiety spike.
For example, if you tend to avoid attractive people so you won’t compare them to your partner, you use exposure and response prevention by exposing yourself to these attractive people (interacting with them, looking at them, etc.) without giving into any compulsions. Meaning, you would tolerate the anxiety you feel without responding in any way.
Why Exposure Works?
Many of us believe that unless we remove ourselves from the anxious situation or resist the anxious thoughts, the discomfort will go on forever, and even increase.
However, studies say otherwise. Harvard neuroscientist Jill Bolte-Taylor (2009) found that the average life span of an emotion, if we allow it to exist without any resistance, is only about ninety seconds. The ninety-second rule applies to all painful emotional spikes, including your anxiety.
When you remind yourself that threat is not real and allow yourself to tolerate the anxiety, eventually you send a message to your brain that there is no actual threat and reinforce the belief that you can actually handle your anxiety.
This might not be as simple especially if your anxiety feels paralyzing to you. Exposure doesn’t to happen at one, rather it can be gradual.
Studies show that two-thirds of those who received ERP experienced improvement in OCD symptoms, and approximately one-third were considered to be recovered, meaning they no longer qualified for a diagnosis of OCD (Eddy et al. 2004).
Note: ERP can be hard work, especially if your anxiety is so severe and facing your fears is incredibly triggering. If you become overwhelmed as you try ERP, consider working with a qualified relationship OCD therapist to guide you through your response to discomfort.
1. Create Your Exposure Hierarchy
Exposure hierarchy is a list of your feared situations organized in increasing order of difficulty.
The key here is to challenge your fears, while avoiding moving on so fast and becoming overwhelmed. By slowly building up your tolerance to discomfort, you keep yourself motivated to face your fears.
2. Response Prevention
It’s important to avoid giving into your compulsions or avoidance behavior when doing exposure that you would use to neutralize your anxiety.
Common overt compulsions in ROCD may include:
- Engaging in counting rituals to keep bad things from happening in your relationship
- Tapping surfaces or moving in a ritualized way around your home
- Washing hands or performing any other observable ritual to neutralize negative thoughts
Common avoidance behaviors in ROCD may include:
- Avoiding intimacy for fear of having anxious thoughts or doubts
- Avoiding romantic movies, books, or songs for fear of being triggered
- Avoiding attractive people who might trigger questions about your attraction to your partner
- Avoiding talking about your relationship with others for fear that you don’t sound in love enough
- Avoiding posting about your relationship on social media for fear that it will become “official”
Common reassurance-seeking behaviors in ROCD may include:
- Searching the internet for answers to the question “Are we compatible enough?” or “How do you know they love you enough?”
- Checking your partner’s physical appearance to test whether or not it is enough for you to stay attracted
- Repeatedly asking your partner “Do you love me?”
- Comparing your relationship to other relationships to find out if you are in the right relationship
#4. Using Self-Compassion to Heal Shame
It’s hard not to feel shamed when you experience intrusive thoughts that are sometimes downright horrifying.
Shame can also come with its own anxiety that if others knew how you feel or what your think, they’d reject you.
How do you identify shame?
People often confuse guilt with shame.
Guilt is the feeling that I’ve done something bad, while shame is the feeling that, I am fundamentally bad.
While guilt helps us face our mistakes and fix them, shame makes us want to hide.
Unless you heal your shame, you’ll always struggle with letting someone in, no matter how safe they are.
Related: Toxic Shame Quiz
Self-worth is different from self-esteem.
While self-esteem represent a belief that we are worthy because we do worthy things, self-worth, on the other hand, doesn’t ask us to do anything. It doesn’t require achievements or accolades to be earned.
Self-worth honors our inherent value as human beings. In this sense, we don’t just treat ourselves kindly when we do worthy things, or feel deserving. Instead, we learn to love ourselves unconditionally just because we are as valuable and precious as any baby on the day that they were born.
This sense of self-worth is mainly cultivated through self-compassion. By honoring and validating your own pain and choosing to treat yourself with as much compassion as you believe others in pain should be treated, you stop being your own bully and allow yourself to feel worthy of love.
Self-compassion expert Kristen Neff says, “The beauty of self-compassion is that instead of replacing negative feelings with positive ones, new positive emotions are generated by embracing the negative ones. The positive emotions of care and connectedness are felt alongside our painful feelings. When we have compassion for ourselves, sunshine and shadow are both experienced simultaneously” (2011, 117).
Conclusion – Recovery Is a Path
Recovery doesn’t mean you have to change yourself and become a different sort of person. Rather, recovery is a realistic plan to manage your anxiety and discomfort is a compassionate way.
Anxiety and OCD Treatment Resources
Anxiety and Depression Association of America: resources for those struggling with depression and anxiety
The International OCD Foundation: use their listing of psychotherapists who specialize in the treatment of OCD near you
OCD-UK: OCD education and resources in the United Kingdom
FREE Printable Relationship Worksheets (PDF)
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5), © 2013 by American Psychiatric Association. All rights reserved.
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Relationship OCD, © 2022 by Sheva Rajaee. All rights reserved.
- Relationship Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder: Interference, Symptoms, and Maladaptive Beliefs – PMC (nih.gov)
- The Relationship OCD Research Unit – ROCD.net
- Relationship Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Interference, Symptoms, and Maladaptive Beliefs – PubMed (nih.gov)
- International OCD Foundation | Relationship OCD (iocdf.org)
- (PDF) Relationship Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder: Interference, Symptoms, and Maladaptive Beliefs (researchgate.net)
- Relationship OCD: Causes, Problems (healthline.com)Relationship anxiety: Signs, causes, and management (medicalnewstoday.com)