Dating Someone With OCD? Here’s How You Can Help
The world of romance is never an easy one to muddle through; from ghosting to endless boasting about accomplishments, it’s hard to find the ideal partner in a sea of not-right-for-you fish. Of course, dating someone with OCD or having it yourself can complicate things further, throwing a wrench in the works and some worrying into the wooing.
But don’t fret just yet: This doesn’t mean that OCD will turn a relationship into a ship bound to sink; all relationships come with unique challenges, whether it’s a mental illness or something else. And it’s often not the challenges themselves but learning how to navigate those challenges that can mean the difference between a passionate partnership and a crushing breakup.
So, what do you do when OCD has turned a couple into a throuple?
Learn About It
The first thing partners must do is form a united front against OCD; consider it the enemy, the jezebel determined to wreak havoc on your happily ever after. The best-united fronts are made of people who understand what they’re dealing with. Like with everything else, knowledge is power when it comes to OCD.
There are several ways to learn about OCD. You can check out books, surf online resources, and read articles like the wonderful one you’re reading now. You can join support groups (either as someone with OCD or as someone who loves someone with OCD), attend conferences or conventions, participate in online forums, and follow relevant social media accounts. If your partner has OCD and you want to understand it, you can ask them to be candid with you. If you have OCD and want your partner to understand you, you can be candid with them.
Doing any of the above typically requires starting from a clean slate (especially if you’re not the one with OCD). This is due to the fact that OCD is exceptionally misunderstood by society and most people assume that it’s something it’s not. It’s usually painted as a somewhat harmless condition marked by a penchant for organization, the desire to have things a certain way, or a hyper-focus on cleanliness.
In reality, it’s much different. So, grab the eraser; let’s dive in.
OCD in Real Life
OCD is much more life-interfering than most people believe. It’s typically labeled a quirk that occasionally annoys people and many individuals have a habit of declaring themselves “so OCD” when they don’t truly have it.
Those who do have it know this: OCD is not a disease that bothers its sufferers; it’s one that tortures them. It’s a disorder that brings a great deal of disorder to the sufferer’s life and interferes with virtually all aspects of existence. It’s marked by cycles of intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that go against the sufferer’s values and rituals (compulsions) the sufferer engages in to control the anxiety the intrusive thoughts cause.
OCD is quite varied in terms of subject matter and goes far beyond the “germaphobe” stereotype attached to it: While some people have obsessions about germs and subsequent compulsions that involve handwashing, the majority of people with OCD have intrusive thoughts about other subjects and don’t care about cleanliness more than what would be considered normal. Some people may not even care about cleanliness at all because their OCD has viciously latched onto something else.
OCD simply knows no bounds in terms of content.
People can suffer from scrupulosity OCD where they fear they’ve offended God or done something blasphemous. They can suffer from pedophilia OCD where they’re afraid they’re going to molest children or have done so in the past. They can suffer from harm OCD where they’re afraid they’re going to intentionally or unintentionally hurt others. They can suffer from relationship OCD where they’re afraid their partner is going to cheat on them or they’re going to cheat on their partner.
People can have OCD about anything……anything. Some people even have OCD about whether or not they’re really alive.
If you begrudgingly have to pay OCD a compliment, you could give it props for creativity. It’s an inventive monster but a monster, nonetheless. And learning as much as you can about this monster can help arm you with the tools to defeat it.
Recognize Where it Shows Up in Your Relationship
The question isn’t if OCD will show up in your relationship; it’s how: Ready or not, here it comes! The manner in which OCD will appear largely depends on the type of OCD involved. Because OCD comes in all sorts of flavors, or subtypes, it can rear its ugly head in completely different and unexpected ways.
For example, if someone in the relationship suffers from relationship OCD, they may come across as needy, jealous, and unfairly suspicious. They may regularly ask for reassurance from their partner regarding the solidity of said partnership. They may check their partner’s phone messages or read their emails to reassure themselves that their partner is not cheating on them or communicating with another love interest. They may ask their partner not to speak to ex-flames or anyone they could be attracted to. They may engage in sexual relations with their partner far more often than what feels normal, believing that the key to their partner’s heart is through their zipper.
None of the above is because the sufferer is insecure. It’s not because they don’t trust their partner or they enjoy drama. It’s not because they might have been hurt in the past and are afraid of history repeating itself. While all those factors can play a role in the dynamics of a relationship, someone with relationship OCD is not driven by these factors; they’re driven by OCD. OCD is in the driver’s seat, steering the sufferer down various roads they don’t want to travel.
If someone in the relationship suffers from contamination OCD, they may come across as rigid about their things and particular about how their partner acts inside their home. They may ask their partner to take off their coat before entering the home or to take a shower before coming over. They may get upset when their home becomes dirty or refuse to visit their partner’s apartment if it’s not tidy enough. They may refuse to share drinks or utensils with their partner and decline to be intimate, including kissing, until their partner’s been tested for STDs.
Like with relationship OCD, the above behavior isn’t what it seems. It’s not because the sufferer is anal-retentive or neurotic about their belongings. It’s not because they want to control their partner or their partner’s behavior. It’s not because they like things immaculate or because their partner lacks hygiene. It’s because they have OCD.
If someone in a relationship suffers from harm OCD, they may decline to go out in public places. They may be most unlikely to go anywhere with vulnerable people, such as children or the elderly. They may decline to go to stadiums, malls, county fairs, or anywhere with a police presence. When they do go out, they may insist on their partner driving or opt to take a cab or Uber.
None of this is because the OCD sufferer is a homebody (although that may be another aspect of their personality). It’s not because they don’t want to be seen with their partner out and about or because they don’t enjoy spontaneity, adventure, and fun. It’s not because they’re boring or lazy. It’s not because they don’t want to pay for gas or put miles on their vehicle. It’s because they have OCD.
No matter the OCD flavor – germs or harm or something else – the disorder is based on fear. In the above examples, it’s fear, anxiety, and stress at the root of the behavior. Someone with harm OCD who turns down their partner’s invitation to a Denver Broncos game, for instance, may be afraid of walking past one of the stadium’s police officers, grabbing their gun, and shooting a bystander.
That’s why the manner in which OCD shows up in a relationship is greatly determined by the type of OCD the sufferer has. Someone with contamination OCD won’t seem irrationally suspicious of their partner the way someone with relationship OCD might. And someone with relationship OCD won’t insist that their partner shower before coming over (unless the OCD sufferer is suffering from co-current subtypes, which is always a possibility).
However, other things are universal, or nearly universal, among those with OCD. This means that OCD can show up in ways not determined by a subtype’s specifics.
Someone with any type of OCD is likely to display one or more of the following behaviors:
- Time-consuming compulsions (such as repetitive behaviors) that don’t make sense to onlookers but make sense to the sufferer (while the type of compulsion is influenced by the intrusive thought, all OCD sufferers engage in visible or invisible compulsions)
- Disappearing for periods of time (often to perform compulsions)
- Anxiety that goes beyond everyday stress
- A lack of focus (OCD demands the sufferer’s full attention, leaving them less attentive to other areas of life….including their partner)
- Periods of high stress or anxiety where a partner may seem short or on edge with others
- Irrational fears and worries
If the OCD sufferer is open about their OCD, they may also encourage or ask their partner to engage in their compulsions with them or as a proxy. This opens a can of very aggressive and slimy worms and should be avoided at all costs. We’ll talk more about this below.
When Your Partner Has OCD
When you’re dating someone with OCD, there are things you can do to support them and act as an ally and other things that can inadvertently make their condition worse. Your level of involvement will likely depend on how serious your relationship is. If you’ve only gone on one or two dates with someone or you’re casually dating each other, the below might not apply until and if you become more committed.
If you’re serious about the person you’re dating, then you must understand that OCD is part of the package; the sufferer can get treatment and improve their life dramatically (even living a relatively normal life) but it’s a persistent and pestering condition that can resurface repeatedly. In other words, the struggle is both real and lifelong.
To help your partner as much as possible, consider doing the following:
- Stay calm when your partner discusses their OCD thoughts or engages in their compulsions
- Encourage your partner to comply with medical advice, whether this be weekly therapy or daily medication
- Attend therapy with them if they want (a therapist can provide guidance on how to be an ally)
- Encourage the OCD sufferer to avoid their compulsions and rituals, as these always make OCD harder to manage
- Continue learning about it (while a lot is known about OCD, a lot is still being discovered, which means the information is continually being updated and expanded upon)
- Remind your partner of their worth (people with OCD aren’t more insecure than others yet they are often ashamed of having a mental illness or ashamed of the content of their intrusive thoughts (especially if they suffer from pedophilia or harm OCD))
- Join a support group for partners and family members of OCD sufferers (you can find these online or in person)
- Recognize that some OCD medications can lead to a low sex drive or problems with reaching orgasm
It’s important to know what to do when your partner has OCD, but it’s equally important to know what not to do. Doing or saying the wrong thing, either intentionally or inadvertently, can cause all sorts of harm to the OCD sufferer and worsen their illness. Therefore, the following should be avoided:
- Shaming them (as noted above, OCD sufferers already tend to carry shame inside of them and hearing others shame them will only compound their internal embarrassment)
- Using guilt as a weapon (while fear drives OCD, guilt often acts as a sidekick, which means partners should not use guilt as a way to manipulate someone with OCD (or someone without, for that matter))
- Getting mad at them for engaging in compulsions or worrying about things (OCD sufferers do not want OCD and it’s not their fault they have it – they have no control over their intrusive thoughts and often feel that they have no choice but to engage in compulsions)
- Competing with OCD (some partners resent OCD sufferers for focusing on OCD more than the partnership – the OCD sufferer would RATHER focus on you but feels they have no choice but to give OCD the attention it seeks)
As mentioned earlier, partners should not engage in ritualistic compulsions for the OCD sufferer, either. This is not applicable to all types of OCD, but when it is relevant, it can compound the condition. Compulsions, whether performed by the OCD sufferer or someone they solicit as a proxy, make OCD worse as a rule (which is why treatment is focused on avoiding compulsions). Each compulsion validates OCD and reinforces the false idea that intrusive thoughts have meaning (when they are really meaningless).
A partner engaging in rituals on behalf of the OCD sufferer may lead to more compulsions than if the sufferer were on their own. This is because the act of performing compulsions can cause anxiety in the sufferer (although it leads to relief as well).
For example, if someone with harm OCD fears that they’ve run over a group of children playing kickball near an elementary school, their OCD may tell them to go back and check for dead bodies and emergency vehicles. But the sufferer may refrain from doing this because of the anxiety more driving will cause. If their partner is willing to drive back and check for them, that anxiety decreases. And this opens the door for the OCD sufferer to ask their partner to check more and more, giving OCD increasing control over the sufferer’s life……and harming the partnership in the process.
When You Have OCD
Playing the field when you have OCD may feel like playing with fire, yet you deserve happiness as much as anyone else……even if OCD has a way of telling you that you don’t. So, how exactly do you date when OCD keeps insisting on a threesome? It starts with not avoiding the world of romance.
OCD is great at making sufferers avoid things. They might avoid situations directly because of their OCD fears or because of the possibility of those OCD fears surfacing. For example, an OCD sufferer with contamination OCD may avoid dating because they’re afraid of eating off restaurant silverware while another person with contamination OCD may avoid dating because they’re afraid their potential date will be a former IV-drug user who could have HIV.
But avoidance is similar to a compulsion in that it gives OCD more power; technically, avoidance is a compulsion. Thus, avoiding things because of OCD is never the answer; it will only make OCD thoughts more potent and more frequent.
This means that the first step in dating with OCD is to actually date: Go out and see what’s out there. Once you find someone you click with and your relationship becomes more serious, there are other things you can do to help keep your OCD in check.
To begin, try to be open and honest with your partner about your OCD struggles. While this may be TMI at the beginning of a relationship (my hobbies include long walks on the beach, Zumba, and checking the hood of my car for the blood of pedestrians), revealing your vulnerabilities to your partner as that relationship develops is the foundation of intimacy. And don’t worry: Your partner has their own baggage, too.
Doing the opposite and not revealing your challenges with OCD sets the stage for all sorts of misunderstandings, which is why communication is key. For example, if you suffer from relationship OCD and your OCD repeatedly tells you that your partner is texting sweet nothings to their ex-lover, you may come across as controlling, unreasonably suspicious, and insecure if your partner is unaware of your disorder. Informing them of what’s going on in your head helps foster empathy rather than resentment or confusion.
In addition to the above, hiding your OCD aligns it with shame when you have no reason to be ashamed of a neurobiological disease you did nothing to get. You probably wouldn’t be ashamed of having high blood pressure or hyperthyroidism and this should be no different.
Other things you can do to help your relationship are about helping yourself, which bolsters your partnership in the long run. Ways to do this include the following:
- Make an effort to refrain from your compulsions (ignore OCD and it WILL go away)
- Stick to the treatment recommended by your therapist or doctor
- Take your medications when prescribed and attend therapy when scheduled
- Talk to others when you’re having a rough day and be open and honest about your challenges
- Join a support group or online group for people who have the same type of OCD that you have
- Continue to learn about your disorder
- When OCD seems dormant, stay vigilant as it has a habit of returning for act 2 (or 3, 4, and 5!)
You should also strive to minimize everyday, non-OCD stress (as non-OCD stress amplifies OCD stress). Engaging in regular exercise, eating healthy, and refraining from too much alcohol or tobacco can help. So can going to bed at a decent hour (don’t worry, Hulu will still be there in the morning). Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, taking a break from work, and regular massages can make a huge difference in your overall emotional health as well.
Can a Relationship Survive When OCD is a Factor?
You may fear that a relationship can’t survive when OCD is involved; that’s what OCD wants you to believe but OCD is a giant liar walking around with its pants on fire. This isn’t to say OCD doesn’t affect relationships (it does!) but so do other health conditions, exes, in-laws, pasts, kids, pets, a difference in values, spending habits, personal routines, small living spaces, timing, and everything else. I once broke up with a guy because he didn’t get a joke I made about Star Wars. His failure to laugh reinforced my fear that we didn’t share the same sense of humor, which was a dealbreaker for me. Yep, understanding sarcasm also affects a relationship.
The point is that all sorts of things influence whether a relationship can and will survive and OCD just happens to be one of these. That doesn’t mean you’re not relationship material if you have OCD or that any union involving OCD is destined for destruction. Yet it does give you more reason to get OCD under control and keep it there. OCD might want to be the third wheel in your partnership but, remember, you have the power to slash its tire.