The Impact of OCD on Relationships
A look at how obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and its counterpart relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder (ROCD), can impact communication, trust, and intimacy within interpersonal relationships.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
June 13, 2023
Table of Contents
There are many situations that trigger patterns of anxious thoughts—preparing for a test, applying for a job, or fighting with a friend or partner. However, most people can manage their preoccupation with negative thinking and refocus on the positive. They can stop the cycle. For individuals that suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), though, focusing away from disturbing and anxiety-provoking thoughts, images, and ideas does not come easily.
OCD is a mental health disorder characterized by recurring mental obsessions and compulsions that can significantly interfere with a person’s life. The various symptoms associated with this disorder can make it challenging to maintain personal relationships. In fact, there is a type of OCD, referred to as relationship OCD (ROCD), that specifically involves preoccupations and maladaptive behavior centered around a person’s romantic relationships. Learn more about how OCD and ROCD can negatively affect interpersonal relationships here.
OCD is a chronic condition defined by unwanted and recurrent thoughts (obsession) that lead people to develop repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Symptoms vary from person to person. Certain obsessions and compulsions are more common than others.
- Fear of germs and contamination
- Fear of forgetting, losing, or displaying something
- Fear of losing control over actions or behaviors
- Need for symmetry, order, and precision
- Unwanted or taboo thoughts about sex, religion, or harm
- Preoccupation with bodily wastes
- Excessive hand washing, showering, or brushing teeth
- Ordering or arranging items in a particular way
- Repeatedly checking things (like the lock on a door or knobs on an oven)
- Rituals to prevent harming themselves or others
- Hoarding things of no apparent value
- Other specific cleaning rituals
The OCD cycle begins with a particular fear or anxiety, and the thoughts surrounding these fears and anxieties become so overwhelming and time-consuming that they develop into obsessions. Despite the desire to stop thinking about the source of their anxiety, individuals with OCD have immense difficulty redirecting their thoughts.
These individuals develop rituals or compulsion that aim to deescalated their discomfort and unease. Similarly to obsessions, people often act out compulsions despite their desire not to engage in the behavior.
For people with OCD, this cycle can be debilitating. It affects their ability to function on a day-to-day basis, especially when it comes to maintaining interpersonal relationships.
OCD and relationships
For many, OCD is an all-consuming mental health diagnosis. Understanding the time required to manage the emotional and behavioral symptoms of OCD provides insight into the challenges of living with the disorder, especially when it comes to maintaining healthy relationships.
Without help from a mental health professional, it is difficult, if not impossible, for some people with OCD to modify their thought patterns and behaviors, even though they are aware of their negative impact on their quality of life. Let’s consider some ways that an OCD diagnosis can pose challenges to an individual and their interpersonal relationships:
Many individuals with OCD suffer from embarrassment surrounding intrusive thoughts and compulsive behavior. It is easy to understand why regularly explaining OCD behaviors to others is something a person would want to avoid. For this reason, it is possible for people with OCD to isolate themselves from social interactions with friends, family, and loved ones instead of confronting questions such as, “Why do you wash your hands all the time?” or “Why can’t you just act like other people?”
Feelings of shame, embarrassment, and guilt surrounding their thought patterns and behaviors can cause people with OCD to withdraw from social interaction, leading to self-imposed isolation.
Communicating with others can be challenging for individuals with OCD due to the disturbing nature of their intrusive thoughts. Imagine trying to enjoy a night out with friends while constantly thinking about whether or not you locked your front door—a common OCD obsession.
People who do not know what it is like to live with an OCD diagnosis may struggle to understand the intrusive thoughts and compulsions of someone with OCD. Consider the example above. A friend may say, “Don’t worry about whether you locked your front door, I’m sure you did, and you don’t need to worry about it!”
Despite the friend’s intention to put anxiety at bay, advice of this kind is often ineffective in helping someone with obsessive thinking. In fact, communication of this kind can lead to frustration and resentment towards those offering advice, as they lack a proper understanding of the impact of living with OCD and may believe it is something that a person can just “snap out of.”
In other words, the mental energy and time commitment required to manage OCD creates communication barriers that can make maintaining interpersonal relationships difficult. Furthermore, stigma associated with the diagnosis can make it difficult for friends and family to understand what living with OCD is like and hinder their ability to offer proper support. Thus, communication is strained from both ends.
Emotional and relationship strain
The constant presence of obsessions and compulsions can create tension and strain within a relationship. Challenges in managing OCD symptoms can overshadow the positive aspects of the relationship, leading to feelings of frustration, resentment, and helplessness for the person with OCD and their loved one.
The person with OCD may feel helpless in their attempts to change their thinking and behavior, and their partner may also feel powerless in their efforts to help their loved one overcome the challenges of the diagnosis. If the relationship continues to experience strain of this sort, and things do not get better, both people may feel that their relationship is stagnating.
An OCD diagnosis can also damage a person’s level of self-esteem and they may regularly seek validation from their partner in a way that can feel overbearing and unnecessary.
It is absolutely possible for an individual with OCD to maintain a platonic, professional, or romantic relationship, but the intrusive thoughts and compulsive behavior characteristic of OCD can strain their interpersonal relationships.
Relationship OCD (ROCD)
While the above section highlights how an OCD diagnosis can pose challenges in social settings and within interpersonal relationships, there is a unique subset of OCD symptoms that center on fears and anxieties about romantic relationships. Obsessions and compulsions of this nature represent a specific type of OCD diagnosis known as relationship OCD (ROCD).
Individuals with ROCD experience intrusive thoughts, doubts, and uncertainties about their romantic partner or the relationship itself. These obsessions can be distressing and lead to the development of compulsive behavior that can put large amounts of strain on the relationship.
Several obsessions are common within the context of ROCD:
- Constantly doubting the viability of the relationship or the suitability of their partner: Constant thoughts about whether or not the relationship will work out or if their partner is right for them may lead a person with ROCD to hyper-focus on their partner’s negative qualities, and the relationship’s challenges. This constant uncertainty and focus on the negative leads to emotional distress and overshadows positive parts of the relationship.
- Doubting if they are actually in love with their partner: While it is normal to question whether or not you are in love with your partner, a person suffering from ROCD will obsessively focus on this question. They may constantly seek reassurance from their partner or close confidants about their relationship and perform mental rituals to analyze their emotions. Again, this constant doubting and the mental energy directed toward answering whether true love is present in the relationship causes strain and conflict.
- Comparison of your partner to other people: ROCD can involve a tendency to compare the current relationship to previous relationships or other people’s relationships. This can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration. Again, while everyone occasionally engages in this type of behavior, the intensity and frequency of the thoughts and feelings differentiate harmless comparisons from ROCD obsession.
- Need for certainty and reassurance: Similar to general OCD, individuals with ROCD often seek constant reassurance from their partner and engage in repetitive behaviors to alleviate their anxiety and doubts. Many people with ROCD do not want to ruminate on negative aspects of their relationship but are unable to redirect their thinking, despite knowing that there is little truth to the ideas they are focusing on. To confront this issue, a person with ROCD will seek validation about the relationship from their partner in a way that can feel overbearing and illogical.
- Problems with sexual functioning: According to the United Brain Foundation, research suggests that people with OCD report higher than average levels of problems with sexual functioning. This can cause feelings of rejection and inadequacy. Some common issues that arise concerning intimacy include:
- Trouble becoming sexually aroused
- A low sex drive
- Dissatisfaction with their sexual partner
- A fear of having sex
- High levels of disgust when thinking about sexual activities
How Charlie Health can help
The amount of emotional strain caused by the obsessions and compulsions present in OCD and ROCD can make maintaining relationships, either romantic or otherwise, seem like an uphill battle for both the person suffering from the mental health diagnosis and their loved ones.
Luckily, there is help available. If you are experiencing obsessions or compulsions that are affecting your relationships or are currently in a relationship with someone suffering from this type of behavior, your relationship might benefit from professional support. Charlie Health’s virtual intensive outpatient program (IOP) provides high-quality, comprehensive mental health treatment, including group, family, and individual therapy.
With support, learning to better manage your symptoms or your loved one’s symptoms can be possible. Click here to start your journey toward improving your relationships while managing your mental health.