Confessions of a relationship OCD sufferer: could you have it, too?

Sophie Foster
Charly Clive stars as Marnie in 'Pure' - Television Stills

Watching Channel 4’s newest drama Pure, I was both cheered and immensely sympathetic. A fictionalised adaptation of Rose Cartwright’s acclaimed biography, the lighthearted drama details a young woman’s experience of living with ‘Pure O’ – a form of OCD.

Pure O is similar to traditional OCD, where a person is consumed by obsessions (unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images or urges) which manifest as compulsive behaviours. However, in Pure O these compulsions take place predominantly in the mind. The condition has  been ignored in most media with shows like Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners taking precedent.

In Pure, 24-year-old Marnie’s OCD manifests as extreme, intrusive sexual thoughts, including visions of her father performing a sex act on a woman at his anniversary party, Marnie snogging her own mother, an orgy on the tube and … you get the picture.

With its lack of constant hand-washing or excessive bleaching, Pure shows the reality of living with an alternative expression of OCD. For the 750,000 OCD sufferers in the UK who have heard a friend or colleague describe themselves as ‘a bit OCD’ for liking things clean and tidy, this is a breath of fresh air.

Marnie and I have a lot in common. In Pure, she moves to London and gets a job as an intern at a magazine while attempting to discover ‘what is wrong with her’. In 2017, I moved to London to be with my boyfriend of four years, Adam, and snagged a job on the magazines desk at The Telegraph. I was referred for an OCD diagnosis a few months later.

I don’t have Pure O, nor do I have issues with germ contamination, or visions of my loved ones getting it on (breathe, Mother). So, when I began to experience the torturous cycle of obsessions and compulsions of my particular subset of OCD I was clueless about the cause.

My OCD manifested itself as Relationship OCD, also known as Relationship Substantiation or ROCD. Dr Steven Phillipson, a clinical psychologist speaking to OCD charity Intrusive Thoughts, describes it as a subset "where a person is preoccupied with establishing whether their feelings for their partner are sufficient to maintain the relationship or be in the relationship.”

These sound like normal relationship doubts, right?

But with ROCD the doubts are not ‘normal’: the sufferer becomes obsessed with achieving perfection and falling short leads to catastrophic relationship beliefs – so despite wanting to be with Adam, my brain would tell me that we couldn’t be together because he hadn’t wanted the same dinner as me that night and so it wasn’t ‘meant to be’. Or, I would grow irritated talking to him, because my brain was constantly scanning for imperfections in the conversation.

OCD identifies the most precious thing in your life: your children, your partner, your parents – and threatens it by hijacking your mind.  In my case, it tried to sabotage my relationship by making me believe that it wasn't 'right', that one day I would leave him (even though I  absolutely didn't want to), that he would eventually walk out on me, or that my actions would somehow result in his death.

I obsessed over a ‘fantasy bond,’ believing that I should be able to feel a physical pull between us when we were apart to prove our love. In turn, I feared that every bad thought or doubt that I had was contaminating the relationship. I constantly checked the iron, or the hob in the belief that the house would set on fire and burn him to death and would have to get off of the bus on my way to work to go back and check. Unable to stop this cycle of negative thoughts, I also developed trichotillomania, a habit where I pull out my eyelashes, to distract myself.

I tried to counter my ROCD with research and reassurance seeking, which meant calling my family for confirmation that my fears were normal while crying down the phone, and constantly googling for answers. According to Dr Phillipson, these are common compulsions with this subset of OCD, alongside endlessly comparing your relationship to other people's. I would spend parties grilling my friends for details of their relationships and sex lives, to check whether mine passed the bar.

Adam and I don’t keep secrets, so I told him why I was so miserable – he had noticed that I was colder, less outgoing and less physical – and he asked me to consider counselling. I went to the GP and told him that I was going insane and he slowly uncovered more traditional compulsions, such as the checking and irrational anger when certain things at home (I have a particular hatred of messy drawers) aren't a certain way.

Rose Cartwright, author of 'Pure' Credit: John Nguyen/JNVisuals

Eventually, I tried exposure response prevention (ERP) therapy, which you can pursue without a medical professional: “you voluntarily expose yourself to the source of your fear over and over again,” it explains on the Intrusive Thoughts website, “without acting out any compulsion to neutralize or stop the fear.” For me, this meant no more googling, or analysing and just letting myself sink into the fearful thoughts such as, "What if I don’t love him?" and seeing that my relationship wasn't ruined when I did.

I also tried a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) style method suggested to me by a counsellor to ‘retrain’ my brain: I combat every intrusive thought with a good thought. So when I thought "we’re falling out of love" I’d remind myself of a wonderful picnic we had shared in Hyde Park, or the drunken bathtub chat from the weekend before. Over time, your mind finds it easier to flow into the good thought pattern, rather than the obsessive one.

Now six months on, I am in a much more positive place and feel secure in my relationship. But with sufferers of OCD being ten times more likely to commit suicide than the general population, shows like Pure are vital to helping others identify their condition and seek help, without doubting their diagnosis because they're not obsessed with ‘being clean’.

Pure begins at 10pm tonight on Channel 4