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3 Steps for Coping With Relationship OCD

1. Recognize and identify your compulsions and triggers.

Key points

  • ROCD is characterized by persistent and distressing doubts regarding one's romantic relationship or partner.
  • Coping with ROCD includes disengaging from compulsions while being present in the relationship.
  • Attention training, mindfulness, and allocating time for deliberations are effective tools for managing ROCD.
Source: Cottonbro studio/Pexels
Source: Cottonbro studio/Pexels

Questions and doubts related to relationships, such as commitment, compatibility, communication, and intimacy, are common experiences for many individuals. These may include wondering if one’s partner is the right fit for them, contemplating the suitability of the relationship, or feeling stressed about making commitments such as marriage or having children. However, while such relationship-related questions can arise naturally in romantic relationships, for people with what's known as relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder (ROCD), these questions can lead to intense feelings of distress.

ROCD is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in which one’s relationship becomes the focus of obsessive preoccupation (Doron & Derby, 2017). People with ROCD experience influxes of intrusive relationship-related doubts and questions (e.g., “Is my partner the one for me?”; “How come I’m feeling bored while I’m with my partner?”), accompanied by distressing feelings such as anxiety, shame, or a sense of urgency. In addition, people with ROCD tend to view their thoughts as meaningful and revealing about themselves, their partners, and their relationships (e.g., “If I doubt my love for my partner, I’m likely not in the right relationship.”).

To these distressing thoughts, referred to as obsessions, people with ROCD react with behavioral or mental acts, which are called compulsions (Foa & Kozak, 1995). Compulsive reactions are aimed at ridding oneself of intrusive thoughts and uncomfortable feelings, as well as intended to help achieve an urgent resolution and a sense of certainty about the relationship. Although compulsive reactions may lead to a brief reduction of one’s obsessions, these distressing thoughts quickly return even more intensely and call for further use of compulsive reactions.

Unfortunately, this pattern can trap individuals in a cycle of constant struggle with their thoughts and feelings, which impacts their personal and interpersonal lives and prevents them from fully experiencing their relationships.

Coping With ROCD

Coping with ROCD can be a daunting and perplexing task. However, several key strategies can guide effective treatment and management of the condition:

1. Recognize and identify your compulsions and triggers. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that are intended to alleviate unwanted thoughts and feelings and achieve an immediate sense of certainty or relief. Compulsions are time-consuming, interfere with daily functioning, and often prevent individuals from focusing on quality-of-life issues that are important to them (Twohig, 2009).

Compulsions serve as the fuel that maintains the ROCD cycle. The more one reacts to their unwanted thoughts and distressing feelings, the more meaningful those thoughts and feelings become, calling for further use of compulsions the next time they arise. Hence, thoroughly recognizing compulsions is critical in breaking the cycle of ROCD.

When learning to recognize compulsions, it is essential to identify both overt compulsions (e.g., searching the Web for ways to know if one is in the right relationship) and covert compulsions, e.g., repeatedly monitoring one’s feelings toward their partner, comparing a partner’s characteristics and flaws to those of others. (For a list of common ROCD compulsions click here.)

To recognize compulsions, the focus should be on the purpose of the behavior rather than the specific action itself. For example, searching the Web for relationship-related questions is not in itself a compulsion. It may, however, serve as a compulsion when conducted repeatedly and with the purpose of reducing one’s distressing feelings that accompany the thought “Is my partner the one for me?”

In addition, people with ROCD should try to recognize common triggers, which are events and situations that provoke obsessive and compulsive behavior. Triggers can be external (e.g., meeting desirable people, watching romantic movies, discussing commitment-related issues) or internal (e.g., experiencing boredom or negative emotions). Identifying common triggers can help individuals anticipate and effectively prepare for the urge to engage in compulsive reactions.

Creating a list of your common compulsions and triggers is a useful exercise in developing awareness and understanding of ROCD.

2. Practice reducing compulsions. After recognizing one’s compulsions and triggers, individuals can begin practicing reducing their compulsive reactions by allowing their unwanted thoughts and feelings to arise without reacting to them. By doing so, individuals gradually learn that they can react to their thoughts and feelings but are not required to do so. This practice enables the ability to sustain the presence of unpleasant thoughts and feelings, while regaining control over one’s attention and mental capacity that were previously consumed by struggling with obsessive thoughts and distressing feelings (Foa et al., 2012).

Here are some tools and techniques that may support the process of reducing compulsions:

  • Attention training. Attention training involves refocusing attention on the outside world despite the urge to obsess over a thought or feeling. By doing so, one can gradually build a “focus-shifting muscle” that helps them not to suppress their thoughts and feelings but to disengage from them, similar to hearing a background conversation that catches our attention and choosing not to focus on it.
  • Mindfulness. Through practicing mindfulness, one learns to observe their inner experiences, such as thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations, while refraining from getting directly involved with them, reacting to them, or trying to change them. This is somewhat similar to watching objects on a conveyor belt, noting them passing by without reacting to their presence. (Click here for an illustration using a sushi train metaphor.) Mindfulness is not a relaxation technique, but a method that enables us to create space between ourselves and our thoughts and feelings. One may be mindful of their distress and anxiety without considering them as an indication of a required reaction.
  • Allocating specific time for deliberations. Setting aside a specific time for relationship-related deliberations and postponing preoccupation with such thoughts and questions to that time can help individuals strengthen the way in which they handle their inner experiences. This practice enables individuals to choose when and how they handle their thoughts and feelings, rather than feeling obligated to react to them whenever they arise. Consider yourself at work, working through a stack of tasks one by one. Then, a colleague approaches you and gives you another task. You have two options: You could immediately stop whatever you’re doing and switch to the new task, which is similar to engaging in a compulsion. Alternatively, you could add the new task to your list and address it when you choose to, giving you control over your schedule (or your mental capacity). When practicing compulsion reduction, individuals need to focus on both overt and covert compulsions. Practicing the techniques described above, among others, may help you reduce engagement in compulsions, allow you to notice and acknowledge unwanted thoughts and uncomfortable feelings, and refocus attention from "being inside your head" into the outside world.

3. Be present in your relationship. As one reduces their engagement in compulsions, they can become more present in their relationship itself and experience it to the fullest. Instead of getting caught up in thoughts and questions about the relationship, shift your attention to the actual interactions taking place. This is similar to watching a movie: If you're too occupied with thoughts and judgments about the movie, such as how realistic it is, how good the actors are, or how reliable the plot is, you'll miss out on fully experiencing it.

Similarly, to evaluate the suitability of a relationship, it's essential to reduce constant engagement in thoughts, judgments, and deliberations and become more present in conversations, mutual interactions, and relationship-related activities. In doing so, one becomes empowered in making informed choices about the future of their relationship.

Coping with ROCD can be challenging and confusing. Working with an OCD specialist who practices cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can significantly aid the process. OCD specialists are trained in helping clients recognize their compulsions, teaching them a variety of methods and tools to prevent compulsive responses, and supporting them in being present in their relationships.

This post is Part 1 of a two-part series on coping with relationship OCD. Part 2 focuses on exposure and response prevention (ERP) as an important tool for effectively managing ROCD.

To know more about Relationship OCD, click here.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Doron, G., & Derby, D. (2017). Assessment and Treatment of Relationship‐Related OCD Symptoms (ROCD) A Modular Approach. The Wiley handbook of obsessive-compulsive disorders, 1, 547–564.

Foa, E. B., & Kozak, M. J. (1995). DSM-IV field trial: Obsessive-compulsive disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 152, 90–94.

Foa, E. B., Yadin, E., & Lichner, T. K. (2012). Exposure and response (ritual) prevention for obsessive-compulsive disorder: Therapist guide. Oxford University Press.

Twohig, M. P. (2009). The application of acceptance and commitment therapy to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 16(1), 18–28.

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