It's Valentine's Day, the annual event where we celebrate the bond shared between couples. While some will be displaying their love with flowers and dinner, others may be rethinking their relationship. Some levels of doubt can be normal, but when doubt crosses over to the point where it causes more than ordinary distress, impairs your daily functioning or damages your relationships, it becomes something completely different.
Psychologists categorize pathological jealousy and self-doubt in a relationship as relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder (ROCD), one of the many forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD, which is listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is an anxiety disorder that causes unwanted or repeated thoughts, feelings or ideas that causes the patient to behave in a certain way.
"The hallmark of OCD is that they (patients) know this is irrational or has no basis, but they can't stop themselves," Dr. Stephen Brodsky, a psychologist who specializes in OCD treatment, said to CBSNews.com. Brodsky is the clinical director of the OCD, Panic and Trauma Center of N.Y. and N.J.
For patients who are suspicious of their partner, ROCD symptoms can include constantly checking their significant others phone or online history, stalking them or constantly wanting to know who they are speaking on the phone or hanging out with. Patients may constantly need reassurance from their partner that they are attracted to them.
Others whose ROCD manifests itself in relationship insecurities may constantly set up "tests" for their partner to determine compatibility. They often question why they are attracted to other people if they are in a relationship. They may also pore over their partner's photographs and pick out every minute flaw or disseminate all their personality flaws. They could be tempted to end the relationship because it doesn't make them feel the way they idealized it would, but can never fully go through with it.
In both of these forms of ROCD, patients may often compare themselves to their partner's exes and play "mental gymnastics" over what love really means, Brodsky emphasized. In both forms, the patients are extremely anxious when they think about breaking up.
"It's not just 'Gee, I wonder if he's for me or this is Mr. Right?'" Brodsky explained. "They will lose sleep over this. It's a very ongoing thing: No amount of reassurance will bring closure to it."
There are no statistics that look specifically at ROCD, but the National Institutes of Health estimate that 2.2 million Americans a year have OCD. In Brodsky's practice alone, at least one-fourth of the patients he sees for OCD have ROCD, and he sees multiple cases each day.
"OCD can take hundreds of thousands of different forms but this is a very common one," he said.
Many people with ROCD overanalyze every bit of their relationship, causing them to imagine things that aren't real. Triggers can include anything as little as a phone call, a certain tone of voice or how the partner leaves the room. Previous relationship experiences, such as being cheated on in the past, may also be a trigger, but it's not the ultimate cause of ROCD. No one exactly knows what causes ROCD -- or any form of OCD -- but scientists suspect it may have a genetic basis. It could also be caused by social learning, meaning that the patient saw someone else like their parents behaving like this.
Brodsky added that social media has made it harder to gain closure from a past relationship, which can cause problems for people prone to ROCD. The end of one relationship and the beginning of another one have become less clear because people still remain connected online. For example, people can still keep tabs of exes on Facebook which can lead to even more doubts if that relationship was better than the one they have now.
The biggest problem with ROCD is that it can destroy relationships or push the other person away. Brodsky often sees couples where one person has ROCD breaking up and getting back together multiple times a week. Patients also describe feelings of guilt.
"A lot of people will say, 'I've never had this before. I know my partner loves me,'" Brodsky said of those with ROCD. "They may be engaged or married, [but] they can't say they would have married somebody else. They themselves know it's irrational."
For patients who may have ROCD, Brodsky recommends getting help. Treatment includes small gradual steps of learning to trust your partner by stopping yourself from checking in on them constantly -- beginning with texting them less frequently, for example -- or learning to stop pointing out the flaws in their partner and find the good.