“To love is to risk not being loved in return. To hope is to risk pain. To try is to risk failure. But risk must be taken because the greatest hazard in my life is to risk nothing.” ~Leo Buscaglia
It was the day after my boyfriend proposed and I felt sick with anxiety. I couldn’t understand this feeling. I loved my boyfriend; we were living together, and I didn’t want to break up with him, so why was I so anxious?
I googled furiously in search of answers. I worried this was a sign that the relationship wasn’t ‘right,’ and this made me feel even more anxious. I worried that it was my gut instincts speaking to me and I would regret it if I didn’t listen. But there was another part of me that didn’t want to leave the relationship. That was very confusing.
“Maybe I am just afraid to be alone,” I thought.
However, as someone with a tendency toward anxiety I also wondered if this was just another expression of that. Finally, after about a month of sleepless nights, worrying, and googling, I came across a forum that mentioned relationship obsessive compulsive disorder (ROCD) or relationship anxiety.
What is ROCD?
“Relationship OCD (ROCD) is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in which the sufferer experiences intrusive, unwanted, and distressing thoughts about the strength, quality, and ‘true nature’ of their love for their partner. Obsessions in ROCD include a preoccupation with a partner’s appropriateness as a mate, overall level of attractiveness, sexual desirability, or long-term compatibility, and often arise in otherwise entirely healthy relationships.” (Center for OCD Los Angeles)
It gave me a huge sense of relief to know that what I was experiencing was indeed anxiety-related and I didn’t need to leave my lovely fiancé.
I took a relationship anxiety course and it was of enormous help to me. I learned so much about myself and am now able to enjoy my relationship again. I want to share what I learned in the hope that it will help someone else.
The Difference Between Anxiety and Gut Instincts
My main concern before and after learning about ROCD was “What if this is actually my gut instincts telling me that I need to leave?” This is a scary question, and a very common one for sufferers of ROCD. There is also no definitive way of answering this question, which is frustrating. Anxiety hates uncertainty.
One thing that helped me was to remind myself that I have worried obsessively about lots of things for most of my life. For instance, when I was single, I wanted to know with absolute certainty that I would meet someone and be happily married one day. I would seek reassurance from friends and family and worry about it endlessly. This anxiety felt similar to that.
If I’d worried unnecessarily in the past, it stood to reason I could be doing the same thing in my relationship.
Fear of Conflict
The interesting thing about healing from relationship anxiety is that it seems to uncover different wounds for different people. In this way it can be a gift, as it triggers a lot of self-discovery and growth.
For me, it uncovered a fear of conflict and losing myself.
When I was growing up, I felt like I had to put aside my feelings in order to “keep the peace.” As a result, my adult relationships sometimes feel like a choice between losing the person I love and losing myself. I have had to learn that conflict can be healthy; it doesn’t mean a relationship isn’t right.
I used to find it hard to voice my opinions and needs in my relationship. I needed to test the assumption that conflict is unsafe.
Thankfully, I found that the opposite is true. You can’t have a healthy relationship with out conflict. My partner has strong opinions, he doesn’t let me off the hook easily, and we are very different in some ways, but I have never felt unsafe when we are debating an issue.
Without conflict we are either not being honest or sacrificing our needs, which can lead to the feeling of losing oneself.
Fear of Making the “Wrong Choice”
I love my parents and I know they did their best, but there are things about their relationship that I would not want to repeat in my own.
Often relationship anxiety is related to the first relationship we were exposed to. There is a myriad of things that we may have been witnessed in our parents’ relationship: domestic violence, infidelity, divorce, abandonment. It is easy to become hypervigilant about not repeating our parents’ mistakes, at least as we perceive them. Add to this is the idea of “the one” and our fear of missing out or “settling” and we have a recipe for relationship anxiety.
When my partner says something insensitive or we have a different view on things, I still feel anxious at times. But I am able to recognize that I am triggered and stabilize myself again. Sometimes this involves talking it through with him. But often I just need to take some time to process the emotions, to see what in my past my has been triggered, and practice some self-soothing.
Recognizing your particular areas of sensitivity can help you differentiate between doubts about your partner and old wounds being triggered.
Unhelpful Beliefs About Love
Our culture’s ideas about love are very unhelpful. We are brought up on Hollywood movies showing love as passion, desire, and finding “the one.” This is not a fair reflection of the daily grind of loving someone.
Sometimes we feel in love with our partners and sometimes we don’t, and that’s okay. The feeling of love comes and goes, but we can choose the action of love every day. Life gets busy, we all have annoying quirks, and sometimes we are tired and grumpy. This is not conducive to constant feelings of passion!
I have learned to watch the loving feelings ebb and flow. To enjoy loving feelings when they arise, knowing that when they are not there they will return.
I believe there are lots of people we could be happy with, not just one single perfect person. My partner is certainly not perfect, but he is a good person who I love and respect. We have lots in common, but we are also very different in some ways, which means we learn a lot from each other. I am so grateful that I didn’t throw away our relationship, as it is now one of the most precious things in my life.
If You Think You’re Struggling with Relationship Anxiety
If you are in a generally healthy relationship and you have experienced anxiety in the past, particularly when it comes to relationships, then there is a good chance that what you are experiencing is relationship anxiety. I encourage you to look deeper. Read more about it and perhaps see a therapist who understands ROCD.
Be careful of well-meaning friends and family who may suggest that if you aren’t sure, then it means you should break up. Many people, including therapists, don’t understand relationship anxiety. I would also suggest staying away from romantic movies and TV shows, as this will most likely lead to unhelpful comparisons.
There is no way of knowing the future and there are no guarantees in life. There is no way of knowing if our partner is 100 percent “right for us” or not. And if there was, I don’t think that anyone would pass the test, as we are all flawed in some way.
Loving is a risk, and there is no way of escaping that. Of course, that is scary! But in time we can learn to manage the fears and, in the process, become better at loving ourselves and our partners.
Ella is a social worker who is passionate about mental health. She loves writing, hiking and watching movies. You can read more of her work at her blog Mind Balance Café.