[View original article published in Psych Central here]
Chuck said he wasn’t sure if he really loved his fiancée. Yes, there were times, when he was certain he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. But lately, the doubts were constant and he thought he should break the engagement. The wedding was two weeks away.
He had experienced obsessive-compulsive disorder challenges since he was a teenager. He had mistakenly learned to deal with the symptoms by rationalizing and neutralizing his thoughts, thus he didn’t think his doubts about his fiancée had anything to do with OCD.
Experiencing the jitters and cold feet can be a normal reaction to this significant milestone. So, was it a big deal? On the phone he informed me his family had insisted he schedule an appointment before making his final decision. He said this would be the third time he would be calling a wedding off. It wasn’t until this session that he realized his OCD had morphed into his present dilemma.
How do you know if your doubts are legitimate and you are simply not the right match? People break up relationships. Eventually they find the right person and are able to move on with their lives. On the other hand, individuals who are challenged with OCD suffer with never-ending doubts and indecision. Quite often they are not able to recognize that OCD may be targeting their relationship. Here is a list indicating the major red flags and ways to begin tackling this type of OCD:
- Intolerance of uncertainty. When an individual experiences OCD, the most common thinking error is the inability to tolerate even a minuscule sign of doubt.
- Polarized thinking. When they begin to doubt their love toward their special person, they believe their relationship will fail. They can’t stand the idea of making the wrong decision.
- Obsessive thinking. Day in and day out, individuals obsess about whether they love the person. Maybe they make lists and write the pros and cons. The results are never satisfying. They obsess about qualities such as appearance, intelligence, personality, accomplishments, morality, and social skills.
- Seeking reassurance. The only way to feel better — at least temporarily — is to find reassurance from friends, family, or themselves. They try to go back and review the past good times to satisfy their doubts. They may begin to feel good about the relationship until the next trigger comes along.
- Atypical behavior. For instance, people may normally not be jealous, but this feeling creeps into their lives. They may begin to question their loved one’s loyalty, fidelity, and love. Their constant questioning leads their loved one to feel irritated. They in turn see it as a sign to end the relationship.
- Feeling able to control thoughts. The person may decide that he or she is going to enjoy the loved one and will suppress any disturbing thoughts that will ruin the moment. If a thought regarding a physical feature comes up and the person no longer finds it attractive, they look away and try to suppress the thoughts. Perhaps they notice “an attractive” person walking by and quickly look away. They don’t want to doubt and compare. Unfortunately, the loved one notices the discomfort and may ask what’s wrong. The OCD sufferer denies anything is wrong and becomes defensive, which leads to a fight. Trying to control thoughts backfires.
- Avoidance. The person may try to stay away from situations or people that trigger doubts about the loved one. They may conclude that the best way to decrease the fights is just to stay home, away from possible triggers. The loved one may question this behavior and this leads to more disagreements.
- Guilt. This may be a prevalent feeling in the sufferer’s life. They may say to themselves, “I should not feel this way, I should not think this way about my loved one. This is so wrong and ridiculous!” Yet, their doubts override everything and it becomes difficult to decrease the compulsions. They may just wish to have time alone to figure out the relationship.
If you suffer from these problems, what can you do?
- Look at your mental and emotional history. If you have experienced OCD symptoms in the past, it’s possible that your relationship is now the target of your obsessions and compulsions.
- If you have never experienced OCD symptoms and the obsessions and compulsions are atypical, find out your family history of anxiety disorders. Research indicates OCD can be a genetic predisposition and stress can trigger the symptoms.
- Reassurance regarding your loved one is important to you. You seek reassurance from anyone who would give it to you. Unfortunately, this is a compulsion and it will only strengthen the OCD thinking patterns. Start limiting this compulsion one step at a time.
- Remember that you cannot control your thoughts. It may appear that you can, but you may recall that when you’ve tried this in the past, it only backfires with more obsessions and compulsions.
- What matters is what we do with our thoughts. Reacting with catastrophic thinking activates the fight-or-flight response. Try to shift your focus. Pay attention to your breathing and notice where in your body you are feeling the inner storm. Stay with that for a few minutes. Then notice where you feel most comfortable. Then stay with that. Shift back and forth slowly for about 15 minutes. Do this every day.
- Notice your past relationships. How often have similar doubts shown up in your life? If there is a pattern, do not break off the relationship until you have consulted with an OCD specialist.
- Invite your loved one to come to all the sessions. In therapy, you’ll learn skills to decrease your OCD symptoms. You both will learn communication skills and how to handle the OCD moments in your relationship.
- Do your assignments and be patient. There is hope!