The Little-known Disorder Tearing Romantic Relationships Apart

“The Lovers,” by René Magritte (1928).
“The Lovers,” by René Magritte (1928).Credit: Artepics / Alamy

Psychologists are increasingly convinced that there’s an obsessive disorder associated with romantic relationships. How can ROCD – relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder – be treated, and why are religious Zionists particularly susceptible to it?

by Dani Bar On

What cause would you donate $50,000 to? Faced with this dilemma, most people would probably choose to aid cancer research, help Syrian orphans or establish a shelter for animals. But when Leonardo, a multimillionaire American tech entrepreneur, took out his wallet, he chose to inject $50,000 into development of a website that would help people experiencing with a controversial form of a wily psychological disorder that plays havoc with romantic relationships. An exceptional decision of that scale can only be made in exceptional circumstances. And such, indeed, were the circumstances of Leonardo’s love life.

“We had been dating for four years before we got engaged, and were obviously very much in love. I was really thinking that this was going to be my life partner,” Leonardo says, recalling what ended up being the most traumatic relationship of his life. (The names of the interviewees for whom only the first name is given have been changed to protect their privacy.)

“As soon as I got engaged,” he continues, “the anxiety started and then it went through the roof. It was about crazy things that make no sense. You worry about: Is she tall enough? Is her hair long enough? What if she believes in different things than I do – will that ruin our kids? [I was afraid that] I would be miserable because of certain of my partner’s traits and would therefore break off the relationship, which would hurt her, so maybe it would be best to break off already now.

“At first I would have these thoughts dozens of times a day, and afterward hundreds of times. It sort of progressively becomes the elephant sitting on your head, and then it gets worse. I would wake up at night with the same panicky feeling. You can’t function. For a while I was afraid to leave the house, because other people would see me in this debilitated state. You are like a walking zombie.”

Leonardo was in his 40s at the time, educated and very successful, well known and highly regarded in certain circles. But this time his money and his connections didn’t help. It was him against himself, and the adversary was about to win. Two psychiatrists who had been recommended to him for therapy only made matters worse.

“It was 2013,” he relates. “The therapeutic community in the United States had no real understanding of my problem. They told me, ‘Respect your feelings, trust your feelings.’” 

Leonardo laughs bitterly on the Zoom screen: “The more you are coached by professionals to think about why you might not be compatible, it has the opposite effect: You have more anxiety and are more confused.” 

Leonardo and his partner went on suffering for another year and a half, and then broke up. The wedding they had planned was canceled; he remained alone. His disquiet dissipated within a few weeks, and this, in retrospect, seemed to justify his apprehension about making the relationship permanent. But something continued to bother him. In 2017 he entered therapy again, with a third professional.

“I wanted to get a perspective on what had happened, because obviously it was very painful. He told me it might be something new he’d read about, called ROCD.” What followed was an explanation that Leonardo could relate to.

“If only somebody had told me that at the beginning,” he says. “My experience was that it ruined my life, blew it up. It should not have ended the relationship.” His voice suddenly trembles. “It was unfair that it ended.”

ROCD – relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder – is a relatively new phenomenon, which first appeared on the mental-health map eight years ago. The concept was formulated by two clinical psychologists, Prof. Guy Doron from the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, and Dr. Danny Derby from the Israeli Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, while discussing similar problems that they had diagnosed in their patients…


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