A person with obsessive compulsive disorder often focuses on a partner’s faults rather than the positive aspects of a relationship. Photo: iStock
Q: I am a 42 year-old man with mild obsessive compulsive disorder. I want to settle down and marry, but I can’t fall in love. I haven’t loved any woman since my first girlfriend at 25. I’ve had other relationships (for up to a year) with women I’ve been fond of, and we’ve enjoyed great sex. I feel excited as relationships begin, but then become anxious, disconnected, and then split up. Afterwards, when it’s too late, I feel the love again, but question if it’s real. I come from a loving family, and would love one of my own like my friends, but I can’t imagine feeling strongly enough.
A: OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) is popularly associated with symptoms such as repeated hand washing, extreme tidiness and a need for order or symmetry, or as an irrational fear of germs. This syndrome can also manifest as a problem in maintaining relationships (both romantic and social).
Intimate relationships are important for a person’s wellbeing, so they can easily become an area for obsessions. Some people with relationship OCD have obsessions about how they feel in a relationship, or how they felt in past relationships.
It is normal to experience doubts and anxieties as a relationship develops. However, in ROCD, such preoccupations are chronic and intrusive, unwelcome but unstoppable, and quite disabling, affecting the sufferer’s ability to fall in love.
Fear of making a mistake can cause a person with ROCD to keep asking for reassurance, to continuously doubt whether they love their partner, whether their relationship is the right one, or to doubt that their lover really loves them.
When people with ROCD are pretty sure they are in a loving relationship, they might still constantly check and reassure themselves that it is the right feeling. They often nit-pick and find fault. Instead of finding good in their partner, they focus on shortcomings, often exaggerating them and using them to prove the relationship is bad.
This inability to concentrate on anything but a partner’s flaws causes great anxiety, and strains the relationship. However, when they attempt to end a relationship, they are then overwhelmed with anxiety about whether that was a mistake, and maybe she was actually “the one” and they have blown it. Nothing ever just feels comfortable and right.
Psychological and biological factors are thought to play a role in the development and maintenance of all forms of OCD. When a person relies too heavily on his or her intimate relationships for feelings of self-worth, or where someone has a fear of abandonment, this can contribute to ROCD.
You mention the failed romance of your youth, saying that woman was the only one you have ever loved. Was the ending of that relationship distressing and traumatic? Did your fear of getting it wrong play a negative role at that time? What was it about her that you loved, and that all other women lack? I suspect some of the clues to your current distress will be found in that relationship.
It is a truism that you cannot love someone else before you love yourself. When you are complete in yourself, you do not look for a partner to complete you. You see the other person as an individual, live in the moment, and make calm, measured assessments about how it’s going. You do not approach your lover in a needy way, cling to them for fear of rejection, or criticise them in case you make a mistake and get trapped.
In order to break out of a cycle of behaviour that is not serving you, you need to change the wording of the thoughts that revolve in your mind. Cognitive behavioural therapy is very effective in helping you to do this. So is exploring the concept and practice of mindfulness.
For more information about ROCD, and to find resources that might be useful, take a look at websites such as rocd.net.
If you feel you could do with some professional help with your struggle, consider seeing a psychologist or relationship therapist who has experience with treating suffers of OCD.
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