When I first started writing and talking about relationship anxiety over seventeen years ago, the term ROCD (relationship obsessive compulsive disorder) was barely a blip on the psychological radar screen, and it certainty hadn’t hit the mainstream cultural lexicon. As I hadn’t encountered anything like the symptoms I had myself experienced when I met my husband and then heard about daily in my work with clients, I coined the term “relationship anxiety” to describe the following:
• Intrusive thoughts that one’s partner is not [social, funny, attractive, moral, ambitious, intelligent] enough.
• Obsessed with answering the question, “Is my partner right for me? Is there someone better out there? How do I know that I’m making the right decision and that we’re a good match?”
• Perseverating on whether or not there are enough “in love” feelings, chemistry, and sexual attraction; often highly focused on a sense that “something is missing” or “something is wrong.”
To be clear, these are people who describe their partner as “loving, kind, honest, we share similar values” and will often (although not always) say something like, “They’re everything I’ve ever wanted.” We’re talking about relationships where there are no red flags, a strong sense of safety, and a foundation of friendship (you like each other).
Relationship anxiety can hit on date one or can show up twenty years into a marriage, and it crosses all lines of geography, race, religion, sexual orientation, and age. In other words, you can be sixteen years old struggling with relationship anxiety or you can be seventy. You can live in the United States, India, China, Australia, or anywhere else in the world. It quickly became clear as I came into contact with a worldwide cross-section of clients and course members that relationship anxiety, like all forms of anxiety, is a great equalizer.
Then I started to hear the term “ROCD.” I first came across it on the early version of the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety forum (which was the Conscious Weddings message board at the time) when a course member began discussing this diagnosis that she had received from her therapist. I must admit: I was turned off by the diagnostic term and spent many years veering away from it. But the more I learned about ROCD the more I realized that, in terms of symptoms, it was actually exactly the same thing as relationship anxiety.
In other words, when you look up a list of symptoms for ROCD you’ll find the same list I’ve shared above.
But most of the similarity ends there. And this is why, while I fully support many of the tools that CBT teaches and incorporate some of them into my work -and I know that it’s helped countless people find more peace and acceptance with their symptoms – because I come from a depth psychological perspective my work with relationship anxiety has always taken a deeper and more holistic approach. And because I’m frequently asked both here and on Instagram what the differences are between relationship anxiety and ROCD, I’m outlining them below.
The differences between relationship anxiety and ROCD are multilayered:
The first difference is in the name. As I’ve written about many times, I hesitate to label a collection of symptoms as a “disorder” as it can create a stigma, which can then lead to the belief that there’s something wrong with you. There isn’t anything wrong with you if you’re struggling with relationship anxiety. In fact, as I talk about frequently in my work and especially in The Wisdom of Anxiety, there is everything right with you as anxiety stems from being exquisitely sensitive, highly conscientious and moral, deeply intelligent and analytical, and profoundly empathic. In other words, the people who find their way to my work blow me away every single day and are what this world needs. To label a highly sensitive-anxious-creative/spiritual person as “disordered” is a failure to acknowledge the immense gifts and messages embedded in anxiety. Furthermore, starting with a mindset of compassion and even reverence facilitates the healing process.
The second difference is in the treatment protocol. While CBT relies primarily on working to correct cognitive distortions then slowly desensitizes the mind by exposing it to the thing it’s most afraid of without engaging in compulsions (Exposure and Response Prevention or ERP) with the sole intention of eradicating symptoms, a depth perspective is more interested in identifying root causes and healing at the root. While it’s essential to correct cognitive distortions, especially the panoply of faulty messages we’re all fed growing up about love, attraction, and sex, and it’s essential to take action regarding fears – both tools and mindsets that I teach in my work – it’s also critically important to explore what is embedded inside these symptoms.
Once root causes are identified, depth psychology draws from its vast and time-honored toolbox to establish inner safety between the scared child now manifesting as relationship anxiety who is asking, “Is it safe to love?” and the inner loving parent who can start to respond to the distorted thoughts with truth and create inner safety by accompanying the child through their fears. Depth psychology also recognizes the critical importance of learning to meet one’s emotional life with compassion, for it’s often when a highly sensitive child is overwhelmed by their emotions that they travel up to their head (intrusive thoughts) to try to gain safety. Without working both emotionally and spiritually to create safety, the scared inner child will continue to project onto various sources – primarily one’s partner in the case of relationship anxiety – as a way to avoid taking the risk of loving and being loved.
The third difference is in the mindset. While the CBT literature explicitly states that OCD is incurable, that you’re wired this way for life, and the best one can hope for is to manage symptoms with medication and strategies, the depth psychological mindset takes a vastly different approach as it recognizes that when we identify the root causes of anxiety we can heal at the root. You are not incurable or beyond hope. In fact, it’s the very symptoms of your relationship anxiety that offer a doorway and roadmap into healing from early pain.
We know from multiple studies both in Western medicine and in psychology that the therapist’s belief in the client’s capacity to heal plays a significant role in their healing, as does the loving, warm, and compassionate relationship between therapist and client. In other words, when your therapist believes you can heal and approaches you and your symptoms with compassion and reverence, you’re more likely to heal. This may be the most important and unsung aspect of healing, as I wrote about here.
Embedded in this mindset is also a recognition that finding meaning in our anxiety plays a critical role in the healing process. In other words, if we’re solely focused on eradicating symptoms we miss the opportunity embedded in a dark night of the soul – which often occurs when relationship anxiety hits – to grow and heal through multiple layers of our beliefs, habits, and mindsets that are preventing us from loving and being loved. The pain of anxiety is not random or a punishment; it’s your psyche’s ways of helping you grow as you learn how to work with fear and enlarge your capacity to love.
There’s also a significant difference in terms of the overarching mindset about intrusive thoughts. Much of the CBT literature talks about anxiety and obsessions as “monsters” and “bullies”, with the action being to “fight back and show the bully who’s in charge.” While I understand the thinking behind this language, it runs counter to the depth psychological and contemplative mindsets that view these unpleasant symptoms as messengers from the unconscious inviting us to heal and grow.
For depth psychology is predicated on a profound curiosity about the human psyche and the ways in which it compensates for early pain and trauma through the constellation of complexes (what CBT calls obsessions and compulsions, depth psychology calls complexes). For me, as for many of my clients, shifting from viewing symptoms as enemies to viewing them as messengers creates a softer starting point from which to approach them. After all, a bully is a scared child in disguise, so only to view symptoms as bullies without becoming curious about what’s embedded inside the character limits the healing and immediately creates a combative internal environment where we’re at odds without ourselves in a scary and violent situation. This isn’t usually conducive to healing.
The bottom line is that relationship anxiety touches on every aspect of our being – heart, body, mind, and soul – and attacks what matters most to us: our relationship.
To attempt to work with relationship anxiety only from the top down by managing symptoms misses the profound opportunity to address the wounds around love, sex, attraction, and safety that arise when relationship anxiety takes hold. Working with relationship anxiety from a depth perspective is an opportunity to learn how to work with your thoughts, to learn about the critical concept of projection, to recognize the ways in which you resist taking responsibility, and to receive the roadmap you should have received in school for what it means to attend to your emotions with compassion, care for your body, and fill your inner well of self and soul.
Here’s what I know:
There’s nothing wrong with you.
You’re not broken or disordered.
You are fully capable of finding wholeness, fulfillment, clarity, peace, meaning, and love in your relationship without being saddled with anxiety.
You are fully capable of healing.
I’ve witnessed and guided thousands of people through the material that helps them break free not only from relationship anxiety but from the lifelong anxiety that has had them in its grip since childhood, for it’s unlikely that this is the first time you’ve struggled with anxiety. (If you’re curious about what I mean when I say “break free from anxiety”, please read this post.) And if you’re ready to do the deep work, the same can be true for you.
If you would like to receive the information, tools, and support that I offer those suffering from relationship anxiety with the benefit of working through the material with other like-minded learners and having access to six group coaching calls with me, I invite you to join us for the second LIVE round of the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course. I’ve been offering this course in a self-guided format since 2010, but it’s become increasingly clear to me over the years that I’ve done this work that an element of healing can only happen in community with active, real-time support.
Relationship anxiety is a powerful portal and an invitation; it brings people to their knees from the agony and it’s through this suffering that they’re determined to learn a better way. When people work through this material they discover a roadmap not only for relationship anxiety, but for life (please read through the testimonial on this page where people talk about the deep learning and healing they’ve done through the portal of relationship anxiety). I’m excited to be able to offer you not only this roadmap, but to connect with you directly on the group calls. These calls go deep, as people recognize immediately that they’re in the company of like-minded people who are struggling in exactly the ways that they’re struggling. This, too, is deeply healing, for normalization heals the shame layer that says, “I’m the only one.”
You’re not the only one. There’s a worldwide community waiting to take your hand and help guide you through this tricky terrain. And there’s me: I’ve been there, I know this terrain like the back of my soul, and I’m excited to meet you at the portal and help guide you through. The live course starts on November 15, 2020, and I look forward to meeting you there.
Note: If you’re already a member of the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course and would like to join the six group coaching calls, you can do so here.