Maddie thought she liked and loved her fiancé but lately began to question whether she really did. Every time they were together she would start obsessing, “His ears are too big. Our kids are going to have big ears. They’ll resent me. Do I want to obsess about his ears the rest of my life? Maybe I should call the wedding off? But then he is a great guy! What if we end up divorcing because of that? That would be horrible!” When her fiancé would ask, “What’s the matter?” she would dismiss the question as “Nothing.” “Sorry, what were you saying?”
Her incessant thoughts brought uncertainty and anxiety. She would also review all the “good” things about him to feel reassured. She would ask her family members for reassurance as well. Everyone would tell her he was indeed a great guy. Anything she did to alleviate her anxiety were the compulsions that kept Maddie stuck in the OCD cycle (trigger -> initial thought -> obsessions -> unpleasant feelings and bodily sensations -> compulsions -> relief -> back to trigger). Her compulsions only brought temporary reprieve.
If you struggle with relationship OCD, don’t despair. ACT’s (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) defusion skills can be the first step towards creating flexibility in your thinking. Cognitive defusion is one of ACT’s six processes. When you practice these skills, you are able to recognize that the thoughts coming out of your mind are simply words. When you become fused or stuck with their meaning, you take them literally and anxiety rises. The urge to find respite will then lead you to compulsions.
Everyone can get stuck with the content of their thoughts. However, if you are challenged by OCD, your thoughts are stickier and the more you try to control them, the more you end up reinforcing the cycle. The good news is that you can use defusion skills to become an observer of your thoughts. This in turn will help you decrease the obsessions and compulsions because you won’t be fueling them with more thoughts!
Notice the Obsessions and Get Unstuck (Defused)
Remember, your mind means well, but you know more that it does. If you act on its advice, will it get you closer to who and what matters most in your life? How will you feel if you believe those thoughts? If you take those thoughts seriously, what will your behavior look like? Where will they lead you?
When you get stuck in the OCD cycle, notice what your mind is saying. Become an observer of your thoughts and defuse (create a distance) from them. Acknowledge each thought with a defusion phrase as shown below. When you believe the thought or “buy into it,” consider whether believing and acting on it will be in the service of your interests. You can develop a sense of expectancy and curiosity as each thought shows up.
Here are a few examples of how to respond to the unhelpful thoughts that get you fused and stuck. Be flexible as you notice the thoughts coming back.
Thought: “I don’t like his physical traits!”
Noticing: “I’m having the thought that I don’t like his physical traits!”
Thought: “If I marry him, I’ll be unhappy!”
Am I buying into the thought?: “I guess I’m buying the thought that I would be unhappy if I marry him.”
Thought: “His ears are too big.”
The Story “There is the Big Ears Story again! I’m not surprised.”
Thought: “Just call off the engagement!”
Mental appreciation: “Thank you, Mind. You are doing a great job worrying me right now.”
When you struggle with relationship OCD, the thoughts provided by your mind may appear to be helpful. If you heed them, most likely you’ll want to do something to decrease your anxiety. You’ve been doing that, and you know that strategy has not been effective. Instead acknowledge what your mind is saying silently, and gently shift back to the present moment. See if you can treat your mind as a separate entity. This will help you recognize how it tries to give you advice. Remember, you are the only one that can choose to believe the thoughts and act on them if they draw you closer to who and what matters most in your life.
Don’t forget that OCD will likely shift targets. When Maddie was not obsessing about her fiancé’s physical traits, she would be obsessing about his personality traits. She eventually learned to separate herself from the literal meaning of her thoughts and so can you!
Relationship OCD does not have to overwhelm you and affect your relationship. You can learn to be flexible with your thoughts as you practice defusion skills and other principles found in ACT. If you wish to learn more about ACT, see the resources below.
Don’t wait for OCD. Start living today because YOU not your OCD thoughts are in charge of your life!
Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How To Stop Struggling and Start Living. Boston, MA: Trumpeter Books.
Hayes, S. C. (2005). Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.