Do you obsess over your partner’s flaws? Does thinking about the future of your relationship leave you imagining the worst-case scenario? When it comes to navigating the world of romantic relationships, some feelings of anxiety, doubt, and fear are to be expected. But if your fears so extreme that they threaten to destroy an otherwise healthy relationship, you may have relationship OCD.

Obsessive Doubt About Relationships & The Fear Of Commitment

Do you obsess over your partner’s flaws? Does thinking about the future of your relationship leave you imagining the worst-case scenario? When it comes to navigating the world of romantic relationships, some feelings of anxiety, doubt, and fear are to be expected.

Relationship OCD—a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that causes chronic obsessive doubt and anxiety in relationships. So, how can you free yourself to discover deeper intimacy and security?

Relationships are the ultimate unknown. If you’re ready to let go of needing to know for sure, this book will help you find satisfaction and thrive in your romantic relationships—in all their wonderful uncertainty.This is the description for a new book called Relationship OCD by Sheva Rajaee. When I read this I reached out immediately to invite the author to be my guest. 

I’ve worked with clients so stuck in ambivalence about their primary relationship that the dance of doubt goes on for years; the obsessive self torture of “Is this partner THE ONE ? When the dance of doubt lasts for years both people suffer so profoundly; one in not being able to risk a choice & the other by not feeling chosen. This is a painful place for both partners.

Lucky to have Sheva with us today so let me tell you about her. Sheva Rajaee, MFT, is founder and director of The Center for Anxiety and OCD in Irvine, CA, where she manages a team of clinicians specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

Rhoda: So, Let’s begin by exploring what is OCD & how does it relate to anxiety?

Sheva Rajaee: What we do in our work at the Center for Anxiety & OCD, is we really hone in & specialize on anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, & not sort of what you’d consider your run of the mill. This is at a point where maybe your anxiety has gotten you really dysfunctional. So, whether that’s at work or in your relationships, or in your quality of life, your anxiety has really taken over. 

Our core specialty is OCD, which is this presentation of anxiety that includes obsessions, & they can be about really anything: am I a good person? Am I truly in love with my partner? Am I dangerous? Am I harmful? & then accompanying compulsions. So, for example, ruminating for hours on end to figure out the answer to that question, or as we know it, you know, maybe a concern with am I clean enough? & then compulsive cleaning, for example, or organizing, which is all in an attempt to manage the anxiety caused by these difficult, painful & oftentimes, taboo thoughts. 

Rhoda: When you said that, it may be wonder if Maria Kondo has OCD. She’s famous for the whole organizing thing. I’m not casting aspersions, I just wondered, because she seems it. What is ROCD, & how is this different from relationship anxiety?

Sheva Rajaee:  Yeah, so what are the things that we see with obsessive compulsive disorder & just high levels of anxiety, is that, our primary relationships are really important to us. As you were saying Rhoda, right? It’s like people can get caught in these dynamics for years of ambivalence or inability to commit, & some of that, of course, it’s typical, relationships are really important that we want to get them right. But a lot of times what we end up seeing that we call ROCD, is this really exaggerated preoccupation with; Am I in the right relationship? Do I have the right feelings? Do they love me enough? Am I going to regret this decision in the future? & the intense preoccupation with that gets a person really stuck. You can see how when the stakes are that high, I need to make the right decision or else. There’s going to be a ton of discomfort, & there’s probably going to be a lot of paralysis. 

So, ROCD describes that presentation of a person who spends oftentimes hours a day checking their feelings. Do I have the right feelings, enough feelings? Do I attract enough? Do I want them enough? Do they want me enough? & we’re not talking about your typical doubts, we’re talking about really debilitating levels of doubt. 

Rhoda: Really a level of self-torture, as I mentioned earlier, it’s like being in a washing machine just going round & round & round. 

Sheva Rajaee: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, very distressing. 

Rhoda: What is struggling with a fear of commitment, which is something we hear about in popular culture, all about in terms of ROCD. 

Sheva Rajaee: Great. So that’s kind of segwaying off what I was just saying there, this idea of the paralysis that we feel when we think, hey, not only do we have to find a partner, but they have to be “the one”, which means they have to fulfill me intellectually, emotionally & sexually, they have to be my best friend. The role of our partnerships has recently, & I say recently, as in sometime in the last 200 years, sort of evolved to be impossible. 

So I think that commitment phobia makes a lot of sense, when you think about how much we’re asking of our partners. It’s not just, hey, I’m going to die at the age of 50, because that’s the average life expectancy, & I need to find somebody kind of good enough to live my life with. Now relationships, you know, what we’re asking of “the one” is almost spiritual, we’re really asking for transcendence, & that pressure paralyzes us. 

Rhoda: Absolutely. I think you can see that even in the dating show,  New Friend, I can’t remember quite the name of it. But she really bounces around & is looking for someone perfect, & the ideas of perfection really have gotten exaggerated. & I’m constantly saying to people, nobody is the end all, be all. You really have to understand you’re going to choose to live with things that aren’t available & get them met in other ways. 

Sheva Rajaee: Absolutely.

Rhoda: That’s it, really. So how would someone know they are experiencing the kind of relationship anxiety that warrants treatment, & what are the symptoms? 

Sheva Rajaee: Yeah, so oftentimes, what we’re looking at here, the people who come in for treatment, they’re in what we’d call like a fundamentally healthy relationship. So, this isn’t a relationship where there’s toxicity or abuse, or chronic disrespect, this is generally someone who comes in & they’re in like a pretty good relationship, & they cannot, for the life of them, find a way to relax into that connection, to relax into the vulnerability that that relationship is asking of them. & so it’s not that we are, you know, think about it, if you have doubt, & you happen to be with somebody who is unwilling to treat their alcoholism, that’s not something we would call ROCD. That doubt makes sense, doesn’t it?

Rhoda:  Yeah, absolutely. Yes. 

Sheva Rajaee: You know, we’re really talking about someone coming in going, “We have the same values. I enjoy spending time with them, they’re loving & caring towards me, & I can’t stop obsessively thinking or worrying about whether I’m making the wrong decision.” 

Rhoda: & can I do better?

Sheva Rajaee: Absolutely.

Rhoda: That lethal comparison that goes on in your head about what it is, what it could be or what it should be or what you imagine it. I also think people that have more childhood issues of disconnection, is the way I would put it, struggle with it far more, because there’s an unfinished quality to that disconnection. Would you agree? 

Sheva Rajaee: Yes, I would. & I devote some time in the book to talking specifically about the way that insecure attachment styles, which I’m sure, Rhoda, you’ve done work on this on your podcast & probably with your clients. But if we had an unsafe relationship with a caregiver, we either felt unloved or we felt smothered, or we felt like our needs couldn’t be met, so sort of childhood traumas, that that makes us much more reticent to trust these adult relationships, & to take the risk of love, because there is nothing that we can do to eliminate that risk. & a lot of anxiety around getting involved in relationships comes from this desire to find somebody so darn perfect, that there’s no risk involved, but that person doesn’t exist. 

Rhoda: No, I would agree that completely, absolutely. Please tell my audience, how would they know they’re experiencing ROCD versus just being in the wrong relationship? Which you partly answered with, there’s not a pattern of disrespect, there’s not a toxicity. Is there anything else you want to add to that list? 

Sheva Rajaee: Yeah, I mean, what’s tough about that question is that that question in & of itself can be something people get really compulsive around, right? Like, how do I know this is really my OCD, & this isn’t me just in denial. But I think that if we take away this idea that, you know, there is even such a thing as a right relationship, you know, so to your listeners, they’re going to be like, “What is this lady saying?” But you really are looking for somebody who meets your fundamental value system with whom you can have a shared vision for the future. & then you kind of go, if this person’s good enough, right? I don’t hate that word. I don’t mind that word at all. If this person’s good enough, then what comes next is up to you. & so if you actually take away the question of, am I in the right relationship? am I settling? Am I not? & you essentially just ask yourself, is this the person I’m choosing? If you’re choosing this person, & you still can’t relax into that relationship, you probably want to consider your anxiety & see if it could be that your anxiety is actually what’s keeping you, not their imperfections, or the mismatch. 

Rhoda: Absolutely. & certainly, there’s times where very important aspects are missing, that the person may not, you know, that expression, “They get me, they don’t get me,” but it’s probably more a specific, they don’t get me about this, but they do get me about that. It’s really a more complicated picture than they just get me or they don’t, would you agree? 

Sheva Rajaee: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, sometimes I use this idea with clients of the 80/20 Rule. & the way that I say it is that you’re going to like & align maybe 80% with your partner & their qualities, but there’s going to be 20% of them at least, that you sort of, & I say hate, but can tolerate. So, look for 80% that you love & align with, & 20% that you hate but can tolerate about your partner. 

Rhoda: & it is about tolerating. I mean, I’ve been with my husband for 49 years, & there’s certainly things that still drive me crazy. I certainly enjoyed him much more when he didn’t have so many things that were important to him about decorating in the house, those were the good old days. It’s just this funny thing that has changed over time that I’ve had to grow up enough to accept. & I do think that embracing uncertainty is incredibly important about everything in life, particularly the way our culture is right now, & just really understanding that uncertainty, that is our job to make it bearable. & that when you have such a level where it’s unbearable, then you’re really suffering & you need to try to get some techniques & do some things to make it different. 

Sheva Rajaee: Absolutely. I mean, if I could add one thing in there, it’s like the one thing I would recommend to look for in partnerships & in partners, for that very reason, Rhoda, it’s like people change, circumstances change. You think you know somebody & you want them to evolve & you evolve. So, you look for somebody who’s willing to grow with you. I think that that is a key ingredient to a relationship. & again, all of this with a little side note of, “we don’t want a toxic or abusive relationship.” 

Rhoda: No, no, absolutely. I agree. I know your book talks about the role of the Myth of the One in ROCD. Could you tell us more about that?

Sheva Rajaee:  Absolutely. So, one of the things that we come up against all the time when we’re treating relationship anxiety or ROCD Commitment phobia is the “Myth of the One” & I call it the Myth of the One, & you can see I don’t believe in the idea of the one, I really believe in building that soul connection with somebody. I don’t like, “You know, I saw him across the room & I just knew that was my soulmate.” I think that that’s oftentimes us falling in love with potential. 

& so the Myth of the One, being this idea that, gosh, we are fed this story about what love & intimacy sex is supposed to look like. & we’re fed that constantly; that’s through the media, that’s through messaging. You sit down with your friends, & they’re going to ask about, “Did you feel it? Do you have the butterflies?” & to actually look at the research & see that none of that stuff correlates with long term satisfaction in relationships. & in a way, we have been duped into believing that we need to find this one savior, who’s going to white-knight all of our problems away. & I think that that really complicates our relationships, it makes us much less satisfied overall.

Rhoda: I made a book for my daughter when she was little, & one of the pages, I had a friend who’s an artist make a drawing of Cinderella carrying her shoes. & I said, “Cinderella did not need the fairy godmother & the mice to help her make it all work, she could have walked back & forth to the ball & carried her shoes.” There’s just something about that, being more practical about the idea & less enchanted. I always secretly wanted to do a research study on the people who honeymooned in Disneyland or got married there & see if the divorce rate was higher than the 50%, because there’s just such an aura of perfection & fantasy & illusions about Disneyland. I really have thought that would be a great thing to do. I’m sure nobody would help me do it, though, at Disney. So how does perfectionism play into our OCD? & the Myth of the One?

Sheva Rajaee:  Yeah, so absolutely. I mean, thinking about it as, you know, the difficult part of relationships is finding the right person. & when you find the right person, then it’s easy afterwards, & recognizing that actually, you know, matching with somebody who is aligned with you, you know, I wouldn’t say it’s easy to do, but there are a lot of people you could build a life with. & that actually what comes next is the difficult piece & the meaningful piece. 

So if we expect our partners to be perfect, “I’m going to find you, you’re the one. I have all the feelings your perfect for me,” how shocked will we be to find that the rest of our time with this person is actually difficult, & it’s meant to be difficult, & that that difficulty is a vehicle for personal growth, right? & it’s so interesting, we think, “Well, I’m going to find the right one, & that’s what’s transcendent about love.” No, it’s all the work we end up doing in relation to our partners, all the self-growth that is transcendent, right. 

Rhoda: That’s right. 

Sheva Rajaee: Right. The perfectionism is like…it’s funny, I almost think it denies us of what a relationship really has to offer, which is we fight, we repair, we grow, we learn, right? We become our best selves. But it’s not because somebody saved us from ourselves, it’s because we did all the work. 

Rhoda: Right. You know, when I was visiting in India, I asked everybody, taxi drivers, tour guides, there wasn’t anybody who I didn’t ask, how is your arranged marriage? I cannot tell you how many people were sincerely happy. There was one taxi guy, he was so touching. He said, “My sisters, they did all of this work for two years to help me get the right person. & I knew that they would do a good job for me, & they sure did.” & he was so proud. & I think it’s a lovely contrast to all those expectations that people have in America about, it’s supposed to be this, it’s supposed to be that, & that there’s really something like pioneer brides, that they went & they did make it work. Not everybody & not every situation, but it doesn’t work when you fall in love with every situation either. So, I like the idea of that contrast to make people think a little bit about expectations. 

Sheva Rajaee: I love that so much. & there’s actually a study I cite in the book about arranged marriages being actually equally as satisfactory, if not more, in many cases. & then I think it is because you are getting in a lot of those situations, you know, family weighs in, you’re looking at practical considerations, you’re looking at these kind of match components that do not align with the Myth Of The One, we find them unromantic. But I think it’s okay to be a little unromantic & to get it a little bit closer to the bull’s eye. 

Rhoda: Yes, yes, I would agree with you. That is so cool. I didn’t know about the research. I was doing my own. So I really like that. 

Sheva Rajaee: You’re right, yeah. 

Rhoda: Tell us why it is that good or healthy relationships tend to trigger ROCD versus casual flings. 

Sheva Rajaee: Yeah, so what’s really interesting is we tend not to have a lot of clients come in looking for ROCD specific treatment in the toxic relationships that we talk about, it happens less often. & the reason for that is, when you’re with somebody who was fundamentally unavailable, maybe it’s because of their relationship to alcohol, just to continue that exam… 

Rhoda: Sure.

Sheva Rajaee: …Maybe because they’re an avoidant attachment style, & they’re not trying to connect with you. Maybe they don’t want children & you want children, for example. But somebody who’s unavailable, doesn’t actually pose a risk for us psychologically. It sounds funny to say it this way, but the person who you’re dating, the kind of bad boy, for example, whatever it is, they’re actually a lot safer from an emotional standpoint, because it’s unlikely that they’re actually going to meet you in that risk of love. Whereas somebody who’s emotionally available, who is at a place for commitment, who wants what you want, guess what you’re going to have to do with that person, you’re going to have to take the leap. So that is why we tend to see the anxiety come up, actually with the kind of person who would be good for you, as opposed to kind of the flings or the temporary, you know, the emotionally unavailable types. 

Rhoda: What about an unfinished relationship that somebody feels they’ve got—they put it on a pedestal from the past, & then the current person doesn’t rank up on the same level? What would your advice be about that? 

Sheva Rajaee: Yeah, I mean, it’d be super interesting to think about like, an ex, for example, is that what you’re thinking Rhoda, like, you’ve got an ex…?

Rhoda: Yeah.

Sheva Rajaee: …this person was like the bee’s knees, according to you & everything, right? 

Rhoda: Yeah. Right. 

Sheva Rajaee: Yeah. I mean, I would want to work with that person a little bit more & see, hey, what was it about that relationship, that unfinished piece? Is that something from your childhood, obviously? What is that expectation? & to grieve that, because I think grief is also a big part of this process.

Rhoda: Absolutely.

Sheva Rajaee: There are certain qualities about my current relationship, that will never be like my ex. That’s okay. We are switching certain qualities for others, that 80/20, you know, there’s always going to be a 20. But to sort of recognize, you have to be looking for, again, this, what is good for me in a long-term sense? Not, can I have it all? Can I pick & choose the best qualities of this past relationship, or this ex, & blend them with all the great qualities of the person I’m dating now that doesn’t exist? So, you definitely have to, you know, there’s some giving up to do too. 

Rhoda: Yes, that’s right. I would completely agree with that. How can people improve their relationship satisfaction? 

Sheva Rajaee: Wow. So many ways to answer that question. But I found in keeping with my book, & sort of the writings in there, I think it would be to get really realistic about what the purpose of love is. I can elaborate. 

Listen to the PODCAST to hear the answer to this question!

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