The term “relationship obsession” is used to describe fears that center on the possible loss of a valued relationship. In my experience, the obsessions most often involve the physical appearance of one’s self or one’s partner. For instance, Linnie, a 33-year-old woman in a good marriage, was struck almost every hour of by the obsessional fear that her husband would ‘”let himself get flabby.” Her specific concern was that if he did, she would find him so unattractive that she couldn’t enjoy sex with him, and that would lead to the downfall of their marriage and the destruction of their children’s’ lives. As a result, Linnie spent hours a day compulsively planning and counting her husband’s caloric intake, eyeing his appearance in order reassure herself that she still found him attractive, and “subtly” reminding her husband about the importance of exercise and personal health (her husband, unfortunately, did not find her reminders very subtle). “I know it sounds stupid,” she said, “but I can’t stop it. It just seems completely real.”
Relationship obsessions are treated just like all others. We aim to tolerate the fears, and not act on them (e.g., prevent compulsions). Linnie has made excellent progress. Most days she is free of the concern. Her life is much better. She’s happy. What worked? She made herself do difficult ERP exercises. She developed written scripts, and exposed herself for lengthy times to the worst of her fears by imagining them coming true. She also forced herself to stop bothering her husband about personal health issues. One technique that she found especially helpful was recognizing that her fear, realistic or not, did not have to be addressed immediately. She promised herself that in six months she would review the situation, and at that time (but not before) decide if she needed to take any action. What is most helpful for Linnie at this point? She shares some good advice for OCD sufferers:
I’ll get the thought that he needs to eat healthier, or he needs to start jogging again. The key is recognizing that there is a good chance this is OCD. It feels insanely real, but if I buy into it I will do compulsions. I tell myself, “I’m pretty sure this is an obsession. It’s okay to experience it. If I say ‘stop it,’ it’s going to get worse, so I’m going to let it in my mind if it wants to be there.” I invite the Lord in to give me strength. Then I make myself move forward right now.