Is it Relationship OCD or a Bad Relationship?

Patrick Carey

January 10, 2019

Ah, relationships. Everyone’s talking about them– as we always have. And these discussions have expanded far beyond the intimate relationships we– or our friends– are part of. Though it is by no means the starting point of relationship anxiety, social media has given us access to a far larger field for comparison. If you’re looking to find evidence that you and your partner are (or aren’t) in the right relationship, you’ll have an easier (or more confusing) time than ever before.

Some people probably aren’t in the best relationships. But even in clear cases when they can’t be safe, healthy, or happy, people can have a really hard time leaving an intimate relationship. Often, relationships end when someone moves away or things just fizzle out. But in between the start and end of any relationship, there can be a lot of confusion and torment along with the good feelings.

When people say things like “You just know when they’re the one,” it doesn’t mean they actually know. They might feel a deep and meaningful connection– but that doesn’t mean they have any magical knowledge of billions of other people, allowing them to make a definitive judgment. There is always doubt and ambiguity in human relationships, whether they’re intimate, platonic, or even familial.

This doubt is often most pronounced in intimate connections. Just about everyone wonders how their partner really feels, whether or not they could be happier with someone else, and so on. But what about when these thoughts become debilitating and leave someone feeling like they need to respond to their discomfort whenever doubt emerges?

People dealing with Relationship OCD– as many psychologists and people with OCD call it– struggle with obsessions and compulsions related to relationships and their feelings about them. In this subtype of OCD, the fundamental uncertainty of intimate relationships can feel unbearable, and any hint of imperfection might launch an obsessive-compulsive cycle. Compulsions can consume a lot of time and energy, and they tend to make relationships more, rather than less, difficult.

Here’s an example using a common framework:   

  1. Trigger: Made eye contact with someone attractive
  2. Intrusive Thought: I could be dating someone more attractive
  3. Catastrophic Assessment: The thought feels important, even urgent
  4. Obsession: I could be stuck in the wrong relationship forever
  5. Distress: As obsessions continue, the sense of inner tension increases
  6. Compulsions:
    • Googling “Is it normal to find strangers more attractive than my partner?”
    • Asking a friend if they think you could do better

None of these steps alone is “abnormal” or “unhealthy.” But when they turn into a repetitive cycle that reduces our quality of life by consuming a lot of time and energy, we might be looking at symptoms of OCD.

The line between “good” and “bad” intimate relationships is often unclear. So, how can someone know when they’re actually in a bad relationship?  When someone is disrespected, ignored, abused, or manipulated, these are signs that the relationship is unhealthy. The rest can be murkier, and any broad claim about what constitutes the “right” relationship will quickly prove problematic.  

Everyone wonders about their partner, the other possibilities out there, and the way their partner might see them. These questions emerge even in relationships that both partners perceive as happy and healthy. But when someone feels a need to figure these things out and tries to do so on a consistent basis, it’s worth learning more about Relationship OCD.

Wondering what kind of treatment can help people with Relationship OCD?

Please note that this post is an exploration of a common question from our community members. It is not intended to diagnose. 

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