The Pitfalls Of A Relationship: OCD And Its Effect On Intimacy

Reviewed by Melinda (Santa) Gladden, LCSW

Published 06/24/2022

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder has plenty of ties to cleaning and being tidy but is less often seen as a source of stress or frustration in relationships. As with any mental disorder, though, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can have a negative impact on relationships. Is this true of all people with OCD, or is it only a specific type of OCD that experiences significant struggles within relationships? Relationship anxiety, OCD, and romantic difficulty can all be closely tied together.

What Exactly Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is an anxiety disorder known for its classic symptoms involving obsessions and compulsions. While one may be more dominant than the other in disorder may, most cases of OCD demonstrate a continuous relationship between obsessions and compulsions, forming something of an unhealthy symbiotic relationship. In OCD, obsessions are typically thoughts, images, or thought patterns that repeat themselves or pop up without warning or invitation. Compulsions are related to obsessions in that they are engaged to soothe the discomfort brought about by obsessive thoughts. The cycle of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior forms the basis of the entire disorder and causes a significant amount of distress to people living with OCD.

Learning that you have OCD typically comes about after seeking treatment for anxiety or even an unrelated issue and having symptoms and signs evaluated by a mental health professional. Online OCD quizzes can offer some support in self-identification by asking a series of questions about current symptoms. Quizzes can help clarify lingering questions about specific OCD symptoms a person is experiencing and OCD symptoms as a whole. Still, online quizzes are not intended to take the place of a diagnosis delivered by a mental health professional. Instead, they are often a great starting point for someone to begin taking steps toward seeking answers and seeking treatment.

The Subsets Of OCD

There are several subsets of OCD used to describe the many different ways that OCD can manifest. Because Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a disorder of obsessions, the symptoms of the disorder can focus on specific areas of an individual’s life, including romantic relationships. It is possible to have multiple subsets of OCD, and people with a certain subset of OCD might not immediately recognize that their OCD symptoms have begun to focus on a single subject, or may not have sought help for their obsession and compulsions at all, not recognizing the symptoms of the disorder.

ROCD is one of the subsets of OCD, wherein obsessions and compulsions focus on relationships. Harm OCD is another potential subset of OCD, with symptoms centered on aggression or violence. Although the different subsets of OCD are not typically diagnoses of their own, they can heavily inform the treatment course used to manage symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. The different types of OCD can all benefit from psychotherapy and may be candidates for pharmaceutical intervention.

What Is ROCD? OCD, Dating, And Relationships

ROCD is the preferred term for “Relationship Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,” or a specific type of OCD. Symptoms focus on relationships and disordered thinking involving romantic relationships and romantic partners. In relationship OCD, the standard symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder are present but are relationship-centric. Obsessions common to ROCD include:

  • Questioning whether your relationship is right. People with ROCD may obsess over whether or not their relationship is right. They may spend an unusual amount of time worrying about the state of their relationship or their partner.
  • Preoccupation with perceived relationship problems. People with ROCD may see small issues with relationships as large, significant, and overwhelming relationship issues. Although there will be some variation from person to person about what constitutes a significant issue and a minor one, ROCD can make even a relatively stable relationship feel unsafe and overwhelming.
  • Undue focus on a partner’s flaws. Some people with ROCD will feel incapable of focusing on a partner’s positive attributes and will instead be perpetually focused on their perceived flaws. These thoughts will typically cause some degree of distress.

Compulsions found in Relationship OCD typically involve:

  • Frequently asking for reassurance. Partners with ROCD may constantly seek reassurance from their partners, friends, and family to soothe their obsessive relationship thoughts. They may ask a partner, “Do you really love me?” They may ask friends and family, “Do you think we’re a good fit? Do you think we will be able to stay together?” These questions will go beyond typical reassurance needs.
  • Seeking signs that the relationship is “right.” People with ROCD may look for signs from the universe or signs from a partner that the relationship is the right relationship or their partner is “the one.”
  • Self-soothing behaviors. Self-soothing behaviors can include poring over memories to verify that you are, in fact, happy with your partner or thinking about leaving your partner and gauging your relationship to evaluate how sad you would be and how likely it is that you’ll miss your partner.
  • Constantly comparing relationships and partners. In ROCD, people may constantly compare their current relationships and partners with past relationships and partners or compare them to other couples and potential partners.

Although many of the symptoms of ROCD are considered normal experiences in a relationship—struggling with a partner’s flaws, for instance, or wondering if your relationship is the right fit—they are greatly exaggerated and cause a significant and unhealthy amount of stress when they are symptomatic of ROCD. Within the subset “ROCD,” there are two different designations: relationship-centered ROCD and partner-centered ROCD. Both of these can create unhealthy and frustrating patterns in romantic relationships, and people with ROCD may feel as though they are too precise or incapable of forming romantic attachments. ROCD may not be recognized as a viable diagnosis until after a clinical evaluation has taken place.

OCD, Dating, And Relationships

Even in the absence of Relationship OCD, relationships and OCD can feel incompatible. Because OCD is characterized by highly patterned behavior, disordered thought patterns, and compulsions, people with general OCD might also find themselves with relationship difficulties. Still, these difficulties are not quite as intense or relationship-centric as the symptoms of ROCD. Nevertheless, people with OCD might express difficulty in functioning in relationships—especially close or intimate ones. This is because OCD is a disorder that places a significant emphasis on control. Being able to control situations, outcomes, and exposures to alleviate the anxiety central to OCD is central to people with OCD's lived experiences. Relationships are entities that exist entirely outside of one’s control. Consequently, the control sought after in OCD can hamper intimacy and cause strain in relationships without treatment and management.

Some of the strain involved in relationships with people with OCD comes from a lack of understanding: people with the disorder may feel as though they are chronically misunderstood, while partners, family members, or friends may feel as though they are never quite able to support or empathize with their loved one with OCD. Although how each of these frustrations manifest will likely differ, the result is typically the same: relationship discord, the potential for resentment, and difficulty maintaining closeness. In some cases, OCD treatment alone will be enough to repair fractured relationships. In others, group, family, or couple’s therapy may be needed to get a relationship back on track.

OCD And Recovery In ROCD

OCD relationships can be difficult to navigate for the person with the disorder and the other relationship members. People with OCD may struggle to manage their disorder or may struggle to feel seen and known in their entirety. In contrast, friends, partners, and family members may struggle to deal with the fallout of OCD symptoms. They may experience frustration with the limitations and strain OCD symptoms can place on a relationship. The symptoms of OCD can encourage feelings of isolation, embarrassment, and shame, which can drive additional wedges into relationships and can damage communication patterns and habits.

OCD can affect relationships in many ways, and OCD-borne relationship difficulty can even be a diagnosis in and of itself. Relationship Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is often recognized through a pattern of unstable and inconsistent romantic relationships and a sense of being “bad at relationships” or “incapable of finding love.” Although these sentiments are certainly understandable, given how ROCD affect people, they are another component of disordered thinking. They can cause further discontentment and frustration with oneself and with romantic partners.

While how relationships are affected by OCD is vast, the disorder is a highly treatable one, with a long history of successful treatment through both psychotherapy (often involving some type of exposure therapy) and pharmaceutical intervention. Together, these treatment options can help manage OCD symptoms or help eliminate them to help patients have lasting, healthy, and secure relationships, both in romance and without.