You did it again. You didn’t fold the laundry right, you didn’t wash your hands long enough before touching the lettuce to make a salad for dinner, or you threw away what looked to you like trash, but now has your partner rifling through the garbage can to retrieve because it was “important.”
The rest of the day is ruined and your partner can’t relax until they do something to “make it right again.”
Welcome to the world of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
What people often don’t realize is that OCD is a form of extreme anxiety for the person experiencing it. They can’t stop the thought in their head that they need to do whatever the behavior is, even if they realize the thought is distorted, unrealistic, or out of control.
People with OCD have a “short” in their brain’s wiring system that controls the brakes on distressing thoughts. Like all other mental disorders, it is not something the person can just “snap out of,” although they desperately wish they could.
What must it be like to live with a brain that says you are constantly in danger, and the only way to protect yourself is to perform a certain behavior? And as the partner of this person, what can you do to help?
- The first step I always recommend is for you to educate yourself about the illness. For a firsthand perspective, “A Look Inside the OCD Mind” is an informative article written by someone with OCD.
- The next step is to encourage your partner to seek treatment. According to the International OCD Foundation, it often takes people 14-17 years to get the right treatment. Since OCD often starts in childhood, it wreaks unnecessary havoc for a long time. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and some medications have been proven to be effective in managing the disorder. Experts also recommend that partners learn about CBT so they can reinforce positive coping skills at home.
- Surprisingly, families of people with OCD often indirectly encourage the behaviors or unintentionally enable the person struggling with them. This is not helpful to the person with OCD, or the partner who is trying to live with the consequences of these obsessions or compulsions in their relationship. Again, the International OCD Foundation has great information about things you may be doing that are encouraging the illness.
- OCD can cause problems with sexual functioning. Two of the main reasons for this are the illness can cause obsessions around sexuality and sexual practices, and the medication your partner takes to manage the OCD may reduce sex drive. Since a healthy sexual relationship is often paramount to a satisfying romantic relationship, this is an area that you will want to discuss with your partner and perhaps their treatment team, as therapy specifically targeted at reducing obsessions around sex can help, as can adjusting medication dosages and types.
- Understand that OCD symptoms can wax and wane, and help your partner track the cycles. Not only is this valuable information for your partner’s treatment team, who can adjust treatment accordingly, but you both can learn what triggers an increase in the thoughts and behaviors, and put a plan in place to prevent relapse.
- Finally, seek your own support and practice self-care. Psychotherapy, support groups, or online forums are all valuable resources.
This guide from About.com regarding how OCD affects relationships might be helpful as well.
For partners of people with OCD, what have you found helpful?