Why does Relationship OCD attack good relationships?
The other day, a course member raised a very important question:
This specific post raised a large discussion in the community. Many members chimed in to say that they, too, seem to have felt safest and most comfortable in unhealthy—at times, even toxic—relationships.
This might come as a surprise to you. But it is usually in the healthiest, most stable relationships that we experience true ROCD.
Why is it that we experience so many of these obsessive thoughts in what are otherwise good, healthy, and beautiful relationships?
Why is the brain driven to attack something so stable, loving, and safe?
Why do we want to return to our exes who hurt us and who caused us so much pain?
Why do we feel inclined to sabotage perfectly good relationships?
Here are a few of my theories.
1. If a relationship is toxic/unhealthy, it can sometimes—paradoxically—give us a sense of comfort. This is true particularly if you were raised in a chaotic environment, to the point where stability and safety might now feel foreign, uncertain, and boring.
Our brain seeks familiarity and comfort. Not happiness.
Read that again.
Our brains are wired for us to move toward what’s familiar and comfortable, even though it can be destructive and toxic to our spirits. Our brains are wired to seek certainty and the “expected”—i.e., a situation that feels comfortable.
Ever heard of the saying:
“We marry our parents?”
Why is it that we tend to gravitate toward people who remind us of our past?
We do so because it is comfortable.
The brain tends to reject that which is unfamiliar. If you grew up in an unpredictable or chaotic environment—an environment that forced you to scan your environment, asking yourself what might “go wrong” at any given moment—then it’s possible that you’ve come to equate instability with a sense of “comfort” and “safety,” given that it’s so familiar to you. You may even feel uneasy when faced with healthier, more stable relationships.
Some of us may push stable relationships away out of fear, simply because those dynamics are so unfamiliar to us. In the same way our brains scanned for things that could “go wrong” in unhealthy childhood environments, it might now scan for problems where they don’t exist in the first place. We’ve become so accustomed to the unpredictability of chaotic environments that our brains have evolved to question “What is wrong with my relationship?”—even when there is no obvious threat.
Our brains might struggle to adapt to stable relationships. Stability may feel stale, predictable, or even boring. You might even find yourself asking—consciously or subconsciously, “Where’s the thrill?”
It’s strange how our brains can become so accustomed to chaos.
Likewise, though, we can wire our brains to thrive in stable and healthy relationships. Our brains have the potential to grow, heal, learn, and evolve. We mustn’t depend on the false comforts of chaos; rather, we must embark on a healing process that enables us to find comfort—and even joy—in all that stability brings.
So, yes—your stable, healthy relationship might feel foreign and anxiety-inducing to you. The child brain inside might think, “Where’s the drama? If there is no drama, then I will create it myself, to feel the familiarity and thrill I know so well from my past. Either by seeking someone else, or creating it within our relationship.”
The beautiful part of growing up and healing ourselves is that healthy, stable relationships force us to face and heal the wounds of our past. A healthy relationship shifts our view of the familiar—the “norm”—by replacing it with a healthy sense of what love is and should feel like. Rather than craving drama and suffering, we begin to create magic within ourselves, reshaping our own narratives on what comfort looks like. In place of chaos, we begin to embrace safety, good health, and stability.
2. A toxic relationship can sometimes be thrilling. Yes, there is pain—but on the other side of that pain is occasionally a roller-coaster, addicting feeling.
Is it strange to think that an unhealthy relationship can be thrilling? Is it strange to think that there could be temporary highs you may be addicted to in this toxic thrill?
Why do so many people stay in toxic relationships? (Note: In this context, I’m not talking about emotional and/or physical abuse that make you feel unsafe and in danger.)
When I say toxic relationships, I’m referring to the (sometimes-) playful mind-games; the continual lies; the back-and-forth; the ghosting and then reappearing; the sending of teasing messages and pictures; the desire for more at all times; and the feeling of being left hanging, confused, alone.
The lowest points in these dynamics feel like an ultimate low.
But the attention—them coming back, texting you all of a sudden, sending you notes? These can all lead to ultimate highs, thrills, and excitement. It’s interesting how such a shaky situation can feel so exhilarating—but remember, if we seek out toxicity, then this dynamic may feel predictable and even comfortable to us. If our partner is continually cheating, mistreating us, or the relationship is an up-and-down battle, then we will most likely put all of our attention toward our partner instead of tending to our own fears and insecurities.
3. If a relationship is toxic or has a red-flag issue, we tend to focus on our partner’s issue instead of our own insecurities, fear, and traumas.
It’s hard to take care of ourselves when some of the pain in a relationship is caused by our partner. If our partner is continually cheating and mistreating us, or the relationship is an up-and-down battle, then we will most likely put all of our attention toward our partner instead of tending to our own fears and insecurities.
This is especially true, again, if you’ve grown up in a chaotic household. In this environment, taking care of yourself and tending to your own needs with love was foreign—a secondary consideration, even. You were most likely accustomed to taking care of your parents or your siblings, mending their pain instead of mending your own.
This was certainly true for me. I grew up in an unstable household where my father was drinking continually. My focus and internal anxieties often centered around checking to see if my father was drinking. Checking was my common “go-to”: his breath, the way he talked, the way he was acting. Was he drinking now? Would he embarrass me now? Would my mom get upset and leave now? Would he die of alcohol poisoning now?
I didn’t have the mental energy to pay attention to my own needs, my wounds, or my pain. In retrospect, most of my attention was placed on how my father was doing and if he would hurt us again.
Once I grew older and immersed myself in therapy, I recognized that I had intense inner wounds and struggles that were never seen because I didn’t have time to focus on anyone except for my father—what he “might do,” or how he could “slip up” again.
The same dynamic can occur if you were in a toxic, unhealthy relationship prior to your current relationship. If we’re not conscious of our own pain and attuned to what we deserve, we tend to focus on our partners rather than focusing on ourselves.
Many find that once they have a safe, healthy relationship, their pain begins to resurface and become all the more apparent.
Why? For one thing, there is no chaos. It’s almost as if we are looking for chaos—if the chaos isn’t there already, we create our own problems by trying to mirror what we were familiar with in childhood or adolescence. Additionally, in the context of a stable relationship, our pain and wounds feel safe to come out. There’s finally a safe, loving container that can hold our pain, our anxieties, and our struggles.
This is why so many specialists and psychologists talk about how safe and loving relationships are our key to healing our pain.
3. Fear of abandonment/loss.
A good relationship is a threat to the reptilian brain—along with the understanding that we have something good, comes the understanding that we can lose it. If the relationship is healthy and we are treated well, there's a profound, wounded part of us that is afraid we will be abandoned or the relationship will go away. The ego may even try to sabotage the relationship to prevent us from being hurt. It's easier for the ego to walk away and "protect itself"—to end or destroy the dynamic on its own terms—so we don't feel the sense of abandonment we would otherwise.
Beyond ROCD, this is why we see many people leaving perfectly good, healthy relationships despite nothing “bad” happening. The individual leaving is afraid that they will be hurt by their partner, or that their partner will find out something unworthy about them and leave of their own accord.
The ego would rather leave...than be left. With ROCD, the ego would rather leave than to love, because love has the possibility of loss.
I have noticed this pattern often among course and community members. For me personally, it tends to manifest in one of two ways:
1. When I was happy, I was afraid that I would lose that happiness. It it easier to be unhappy, I reasoned, than to be happy and then lose that happiness. “Happy” was unfamiliar; I craved destruction. Some people go so far as to create that destruction within themselves, causing the suffering that they believe they “deserve.” This is especially true if they’ve experienced abuse. As children, if abuse occurs, we tend to blame ourselves which in turn becomes habitual until worked through.
2. I noticed—and continue to notice—that when my husband and I are doing very well, when we are very close, when we are very connected, I experience feelings of deep fear. A sense of terror. I latch on, I attach, I become frightened. “What if this is all taken away from me, just like my father?”, I ask myself. “What if I lose him?” I notice my inclination to obsess over such questions, seeking ways to protect my own heart.
Ultimately, I have two options: I can acknowledge this connection with my husband and leave it behind out of fear, abandoning the deepest form of love I know and the best thing that has ever happened to me.
OR...I could choose to continue to love—despite the fear, despite the terror. To lean into the terror and fear, and to hug him a little tighter.
4. Cravings for the infatuation and thrill of the “Honey-wood” phase.
Perhaps your relationship has moved past its honeymoon phase—or what I call the “Honey-wood” phase, due to the idealized, simplified versions of romance often depicted in the Hollywood media.
In dealing with and managing the everyday realities of a romantic relationship, you might pine for the excitement, lust, and infatuation that accompany the early stages of a relationship. You may think back to earlier days with your current partner, or even reflect on “exciting” relationships from your past.
If you find yourself dwelling on an ex-lover, ask what it is about your ex that you’re craving. What are you longing to feel?
Once you hit the “power-struggle” phase of a relationship and are faced with the daily realities of making a partnership work, there may be a part of you that craves that Honey-wood phase where you felt certain, connected, 100% sure. When doubts begin to creep in—the disconnection, the guilt, the shame, the sadness, the anxieties—it’s natural to yearn for the exciting times you had with a previous partner, or even your current partner in the relationship’s earlier stages.
Again, ultimately, our brain is wired to move toward what “feels good”—even if that could be “bad” for us.
The brain doesn’t know any better.
Here’s what I do with my clients:
I ask them what feelings they’re longing to feel. What are they wanting to experience?
Most of the time, they will say: “The feelings of infatuation, the lustful feelings, the endless sex drive and the ‘I can’t stop thinking about you’ texts.”
This is understandable! The Honey-wood phase is filled with thousands of feel-good feelings—chemicals, hormones, and more. Scientists claim that the Honey-wood phase can elicit feelings similar to those brought on by drugs such as cocaine. When we are on this “drug,” we forget our issues, our pains, our worries, our sadnesses, our traumas. We become convinced that we are finally complete, finally whole. And the feeling may be disrupted as we move forward into the deeper, more complex stages of a relationship.
5. You feel as though you don’t deserve goodness and true, healthy love.
I’m not worthy.
My partner deserves more.
My parents always told me I was worthless.
Everything that’s good always leaves me. (Abandonment)
I’m not good enough, my partner deserves the best me, and I’m not there.
I’ve made mistakes and have done bad things so I don’t deserve goodness.
Some of us feel that our partners are so good to us that we don’t deserve them. That if we could only fix ourselves—if we could only be a little bit more (fill in the blank), then maybe we would deserve the love and care our partners give to us.
The truth is this: Your partner loves you for you. They love you because to them, you are enough, you are lovable, you are worthy.
The list can be endless. If you’re honest with yourself, do you fall into any of those false beliefs and stories listed above?
6. You want to save your partner. You want to be the “happily-ever-after” for a person who feels broken, unworthy, lovable. You want to “rescue” them and heal them—even if their behavior is toxic and harmful to you.
This behavior is very common for people who have grown up in “broken” households where they witnessed their family members suffering. The empathetic, caring, big-hearted individual usually develops some form of “savior complex”.
This behavior can also come out through hyper-responsibility—the feeling that we can and must take on others’ pain and suffering, and the idea that we are responsible for whatever happens to those we love.
This often leads us to experience guilt when we feel a certain way, or when we believe we have “caused pain”.
This point resonated deeply in the beginning of my own relationship. It took me back to the wounds that I carried into my relationship with my now-husband.
Before I met my husband, my romantic experiences were always about “saving” my boyfriends. I remember subconsciously and consciously looking for partners to save. The boyfriend I dated before meeting my husband came from an extremely broken family—it’s almost as if I sought out these dynamics. This boyfriend, whom I’ll call M., was battling with his faith. Furthermore, M.’s father had cheated on his wife, raising a separate family behind their backs and keeping it hidden for over 20 years.
Not only that, but M.’s father was an alcoholic and his mother was in an emotionally abusive relationship. I wanted to be with M. so much. It ended because he stopped speaking to me. But my savior heart didn’t care—I kept trying.
I had a dramatic Honey-wood phase. It was a toxic relationship, but I was doing everything I knew to move it forward. My brain felt something familiar in this relationships–it wanted to save someone, and I was addicted to the honeymoon phase, which made me feel complete.
In hindsight, M. treated me like crap. He stopped talking to me and played games with me. But I felt with all my being and gut (ha!) that he was “The One.” Now I can see it was a disaster, and I am so glad it didn’t keep going.
Throughout my life, I had always been drawn to the ones who needed “saving”… until I met the man who is now my husband. My husband was different…he didn’t need saving. He was a content, happy person.
… and when I came to the realization that he didn’t need saving, there was a large part of me that wanted to leave the relationship.
”If I can’t save him, what am I even worth? Who am I if I can’t save anyone?”
”What’s the point of a relationship if I can’t heal him or save him?”
I had projected so much of my childhood pain and suffering onto wanting to save my father from his alcoholism— which ultimately led to his death.
This deep desire of wanting to save my father became projected onto wanting to save my future male partners and, ultimately, to save my husband.
It was my husband who first urged me to do the inner work of saving myself.
He forced me to confront my own darkness—to see myself as worthy without needing to be the savior for another person.