Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is often downplayed as an endearing idiosynchronicity. For example, people may talk about liking things clean and tidy as “being OCD” (as in: “I’m totally OCD, I can’t go to bed until the kitchen’s clean.”) In contrast, OCD is a serious mental health condition where a person experiences persistent unwanted thoughts and repetitive behaviors. The symptoms can vary greatly from person to person, but often interfere with everyday life and may create challenges in relationships. If your partner has OCD — or if you suspect that they might — you may be wondering how you can help them. While you aren’t responsible for your partner’s well-being, there are things you can do to help. We spoke with five experts to learn how you can best support a partner with OCD. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Educate yourself about OCD
Learning more about OCD can help you to be more understanding about what your partner is experiencing and can give you insight into behaviors that you might find confusing or distressing. Kristel Roper, LMFT, a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety disorders, including OCD, tells O.school: “Someone who likes to have their house clean gets a sense of satisfaction or even joy from cleaning and organizing, while someone with OCD is trying to get rid of their anxiety and make sure nothing terrible happens to them or their loved ones.” Therapist Jessica Frick, LPC, adds that “We all have preferences, but someone with clinical OCD often feels completely powerless to their obsessions and compulsions.”
2. Learn how OCD specifically affects your partner
People’s OCD symptoms show up differently and involve a variety of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. Learning about your partner’s specific symptoms and triggers can help you to better understand their individual experience so you can support them most effectively. Ask them what helps when they’re struggling, and whether they have any special requests for the type of communication or support that feels best for them. If they are having a repetitive, anxiety-inducing thought, for example, they may have a special request for you to simply listen, provide a comforting object, help them talk through it, etc. Asking your partner their needs can help you navigate their symptoms better and know what to expect in the future.
3. Don’t take it personally
Your partner’s OCD symptoms may show up in a way that affects you directly: Excessive cleaning, for example, might make you feel like your own household contributions aren’t valued or “good enough.” If your partner spends a lot of time organizing, arranging, or checking, they may be less available to do activities that you enjoy together. Sometimes, people with OCD avoid physical intimacy because of anxieties associated with sex. This might feel hurtful, and it can be a challenge not to take it personally. “If your partner has OCD it can be very frustrating for both of you,” Roper tells O.school. “OCD has been called the ‘family disease’ because it often affects everyone in the family to some extent.” But understanding that their symptoms have nothing to do with you can help you to stay grounded and be more objective when it comes to responding to their behavior.
4. Know you can support your partner — but not cure them
When someone you care about is struggling, it’s normal to want to help in whatever way you can. But it’s important to keep in mind that it’s up to your partner to take the necessary steps to manage their OCD. Feeling like you need to “fix” them can put unnecessary pressure on yourself, the relationship, and your partner. Instead, accepting them as they are, actively listening, and standing beside them while they work towards wellness can help to ensure that the relationship is supportive and healthy. Instead of jumping in with advice, ultimatums, or demands, Dr. John F. Tolen, author of Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind, suggests showing care by saying something like, “I can see that you are upset and having trouble controlling your actions and I’m very concerned about you. I don’t understand exactly what you’re going through, but I want to help in any way I can. I want you to know that I’m here for you and I believe we’ll get through this together.”
5. Be patient and compassionate, especially when your partner’s struggling
“The inability of someone — especially someone we love — to control irrational behavior can be extremely difficult to understand,” Dr. Tolen tells O.school. “We tend to project onto others the same capacity for self-control we have and to suspect that they are just making poor choices or not trying hard when they perform irrational acts.” But understanding that your partner’s symptoms aren’t a choice can help you approach them from a place of compassion. Even if you don’t understand what they’re going through, actively listening to their experience can help them feel supported. Therapist Kaileen McMickle, LPC, tells O.school: “One way to support a partner is to validate what they are feeling in a difficult moment. While the thoughts and fears that accompany OCD may not appear logical or real, their pain absolutely is.”
Sebastian, 33, has a fiancé with OCD. He tells O.school that patience has been key in his relationship, especially when his partner is experiencing vocal tics. "Sometimes, people with OCD can get stuck on a loop. To someone without OCD it can appear to be really annoying, so the patience I'm referring to is an understanding that it will pass." Sebastian adds, "The more you get frustrated, the more it gives them an incentive to keep going with their tics. But if you treat it as something that will pass, it eventually will.”
6. Know how to stop enabling OCD
Each of the professionals we spoke to emphasized that, while it’s vital to be compassionate and stay away from blaming or criticizing your partner for their compulsive behaviors, it’s also important to avoid enabling or reinforcing them. Clinical psychologist Dr. Adam Haynes-LaMotte tells O.school: “It can be helpful to walk the line between, on the one hand, dismissing a partner's fears as irrational (which can be hurtful), and on the other, accommodating their fears (which can strengthen their OCD symptoms).” McMickle agrees, telling O.school that “Oftentimes, people have the instinctual urge to give their partner reassurance that nothing bad will happen or that they are OK. This tends to enable the obsessive-compulsive cycle, as they seek out their partner to alleviate the anxiety they have trouble enduring. It’s equally important to avoid minimizing the distress they feel via shame-based or dismissive comments.” Roper says that “constantly trying to reassure the person with OCD that their worries aren’t logical or won’t happen can actually ‘feed’ the OCD and make it worse in the long run. I recommend giving support instead, validating what they are feeling and how hard that can be, rather than discussing the fears themselves.”
7. Don’t be the only person your partner relies on for support
For many people with OCD, seeking support from a mental health professional can be key in learning how to cope with symptoms. Helping them find a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders or OCD, taking them to their first appointment, and even being actively involved in the therapy process (if both of you feel comfortable with that) can be helpful. Frick tells O.school that your partner’s “therapist can guide you on the best ways to respond to their OCD symptoms to support their recovery.”
Sebastian tells O.school that therapy has had a positive impact on his relationship. "I think a huge help for my partner is that he sees a therapist and an OCD therapist so he has an outlet specifically for his OCD that’s not my responsibility. That was a huge relief for me to think 'Okay, this isn’t entirely falling all on my shoulders.’"
8. Have compassion for yourself
Even when you’re committed to the relationship and to supporting your partner, living with someone who struggles with a mental health condition can be challenging. And it’s normal to experience occasional frustration, hurt, or annoyance in any relationship. Making space for your own feelings and acknowledging the challenges is an important part of staying balanced and caring for yourself. Spending time with people you care about outside of the relationship, prioritizing hobbies and activities you enjoy, and even seeking out a mental health professional can be good ways to tend to your own well-being.
9. Help spread awareness and destigmatize OCD
Learning about OCD can help you to be an advocate for OCD awareness, which can in turn help your partner realize that they’re not alone. Sebastian tells O.school that he’s become passionate about working to destigmatize OCD. He says, “There was so much shame around my partner having OCD, and I think it’s important to talk about it more with people. I encourage my partner (at his own pace) to provide conversation and honesty around this topic, too.” He adds, “The interesting thing is that most people have experienced [a] mental health issue, but haven’t identified it as such.”
10. Know where your own limits are
It’s normal to struggle occasionally when your partner is dealing with a mental health condition. Knowing your own limits and setting appropriate boundaries can help you to support your partner more effectively in the long run. Sebastian tells O.school that learning to let his partner know when he’s having a hard time has been helpful: "I tend to change my body language if I'm hitting a limit to show I won’t engage with whatever OCD symptom my partner is presenting. If that is ineffective, I’ll say something [like]: ‘This is getting a little intense for me.’ Anything too demanding of my time or energy, I’ll say ‘I’m reaching my limit here.’ My partner is usually pretty good at listening to that and giving me space."
If your partner isn’t willing or able to respect your boundaries or work towards managing their symptoms, or you find that your own mental health is suffering, the relationship may not be sustainable. If this is the case, it’s ok to walk away. Choosing to end a relationship doesn’t mean that you’re unsupportive or don’t care about your partner; rather, it can be a way to let each of you focus on your own wellbeing.
The bottom line
Having a partner with OCD can present a unique set of challenges. But learning more about the condition, communicating effectively, prioritizing your own well-being, and seeking outside support can help you to navigate your relationship in a way that helps both of you thrive. And taking time to consciously acknowledge and celebrate what’s going right in your relationship can help you feel more connected to them and bring joy to your partnership.