The effects of being in a relationship with someone suffering from OCD

What you should know if your partner has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Part 1, Part 2

Do you suspect that your partner suffers from OCD? Are you not sure what to do? You may well be starting to feel trapped and alone with it all, and wondering if the two of you can beat it.

Your partner may at first have seemed just to be a perfectionist. But, with the passing of time, you may have found him or her - and the condition - increasingly difficult to understand (to say the least).

First of all I want to reassure you that you're not alone! Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is very common and many a partner has found themselves in a very similar position to yours.

This article is for you! I know that your needs are very likely to have come second to those of your partner. Not so here!

I'm going to cover the particular problems that you, as the partner of someone with OCD, may be experiencing and what to do about it.

What do I know?

During my years as a counsellor I've treated many people who were suffering from OCD. Interestingly they tended not to talk much about what it meant to their partners unless invited to do so. Yet I knew how much their spouse or partner would have felt caught up in all that goes hand-in-hand with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

If I suggested that it may be an idea for me to see their partner too, they would - understandably and unsurprisingly - be quite reluctant.

If they came as a couple presenting with relationship problems, the OCD would often be presented as secondary to all the other issues. It was frequently minimised and at times preferably not discussed at all. I had to be really empathic - gently acknowledging and accepting their feelings of shame, guilt and helplessness.

Are you, or is your partner always (re)checking things?

What is OCD?

Always been anxious?

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Here's an explanation of what OCD is, and what its symptoms are:

Someone suffering from OCD will have an obsession. They may, for instance, be obsessed with the need to prevent some imagined ‘disaster’.

For example, they could worry endlessly about loved ones falling ill or dying, or that they themselves will be punished (religious and moral overtones), or any other - in their own eyes and the eyes of their loved ones - ‘silly’ problem.

Their obsessive thoughts, which are always at the forefront of their mind, create an enormous amount of anxiety.

To keep those thoughts and the resulting anxiety in check, the person affected by this condition develops rituals. They believe that their particular ritual will prevent the disaster from happening. The completion of a ritual brings some relief, albeit only temporarily.

Sadly, those horrible symptoms - the thoughts, the anxiety and the compulsions - return often with ever-increasing vengeance.

Definition of OCD

A psychiatric disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions, such as cleaning, checking, counting, or hoarding.*

Here's a really good explanation of what OCD is (I don't agree with the suggested treatments though)...

Now you know what OCD is, let's look at what it means in terms of behaviour...

What is compulsive behaviour?

An OCD sufferer will want to strictly adhere to their often increasingly elaborate rituals. Any deviation may mean it 'won't work' and that they'll be punished, or their loved ones will suffer.

That can mean that they need to, for example...

  • keep on top of imagined bacterial overload
  • smooth every crease in their clothing
  • touch things a set number of times regardless of whom they're with
  • avoid walking on this, that or the other, regardless of where they are
  • wash themselves or their clothes endlessly and take 'forever' to get ready
  • count or otherwise obsess about numbers, letters or signs - symmetry and order are essential for them
  • check windows, gas stoves, door locks, flick light-switches, etc
  • hoard - need I say more!

And whatever their obsession, they often feel the need to be constantly reassured. All of this compulsive behaviour can completely take over their life - and potentially yours too.

You can perhaps see now how difficult it can be to beat the OCD and what an unhappy, pointless daily fight and waste of energy it is for all concerned.

The consequences

At one end of the scale, most of us will have leant towards a bit of obsessive thinking and behaving. I remember as a child I had to avoid two steps on the stairs to prevent the witch from taking up residence under my bed and grabbing my legs as I got in and out!

At the other end of the scale full-blown OCD is an unimaginably torturous and consuming mental health problem.

Assuming that your partner does indeed have OCD, he or she is ill and needs understanding, but also boundaries. They, or rather - the OCD -  needs treatment. The OCD must not be allowed to rule the roost.

Most of all, your partner's innate resources - their talents and positive characteristics - as well as their desires, dreams, goals, aims, etc should take centre-stage again in their life! They themselves are not the problem - the OCD is. The thoughts and rituals happen in a trance-state.

You as a partner need empathy, education and understanding too. You need information and possibly help to find direction, whether that be to love that special person - or to leave. It is possible to decide that you can't do it any more; you can no longer be at the back and call of the OCD.

The length of your relationship and the severity of the problem will determine to what extent you remain committed. I can so imagine how worried and even desperate you may be feeling. And you may just recognise yourself in any of the following...

Here's how your partner's obsession becomes a joint problem

10 Steps away from a breakup? 

Here is how you may have got caught up, in order of severity:

  1. You’re beginning to notice some odd behaviour, but nothing to seriously worry you
  2. You're increasingly aware of omissions, disappearances or odd behaviours for which your partner has mildly odd explanations
  3. Your partner is slowly letting you in on their secret - that they are suffering from OCD. They may not be sharing the full extent of their problem yet
  4. You're concerned and you're doing some research to understand better and to try and help your partner, as well as to reassure yourself
  5. You're trying to get to the bottom of things and asking your partner/spouse more questions, but suspect you're getting half-truths. You’re now becoming somewhat irritated
  6. You're now getting really bothered by their behaviour and concerned for their well-being. You do all you possibly can to 'help' them (or, depending on the length of your relationship, you may be considering breaking up)
  7. Slowly you're beginning to cotton on to how serious the problem really is, and you may feel torn between doing what you're asked to do and rebelling - refusing to get involved in the 'silly' rituals. Yet the next moment you may be giving in again because it's just easier that way
  8. You’re becoming irritated because your partner's thinking is so ‘ridiculous’ that it beggars belief
  9. The two of you are arguing more and more about the endless rituals and how the obsessive compulsive disorder is affecting your lives in general
  10. Depending on the length and the general state of your relationship you may be considering breaking up. You may simply have run out of steam.

A little later on in the article, there's more about how the effects of this mental health problem may be affecting you personally. But first - are you helping or hindering?

 Are you contributing to the problem?

Being aware that your partner has OCD, you may - certainly initially - want to do all you can to help her or him.

You 'support' and 'help' them with their rituals, because they feel so much better for it. You feel good - it feels great to be needed - and your partner is happier that way. And really... anything you can do to reduce their anxiety makes life easier for you too.

Then further down the line you 'help'...

... for the sake of keeping the peace

... simply to get out of the door quicker than you might without giving in

... because you’ve tried all the arguments; you’ve ‘proven’ that the rituals don’t actually help or can be reduced, but your partner still hasn't accepted this

You are in fact 'aiding' the OCD, not helping your partner!

How do you feel?

The chances are, you'll be feeling all kinds of emotions when it comes to your partner's problems with OCD. Join me in part 2 for a look at the ways you might be suffering, and for tips to help your partner with OCD.

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Part 1, Part 2

Related articles

How to end a relationship
Breaking up without breaking down
How to build a happy relationship
How to Make Your Partner Fall in Love with You Again


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