Imagine if you had a soundtrack of terrible thoughts and urges playing in your head on repeat or an ever-present fear of germs or hurting others. Doing things in a certain order or checking the stove 15 times before leaving the house would be the norm.

Now, imagine the affect these constant thoughts, urges, and compulsions – also known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) –   would have on relationships with a romantic partner, family, friend or work colleague?

The challenges on both sides are real, but with the proper tools and information, those with OCD can engage in positive and healthy relationships personally and professionally.

All about OCD

OCD impacts nearly 2.2 millions American adults each year and is defined by The National Institute of Mental Health as “a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.”

OCD is characterized by three features:

  1. Obsessions: Unwanted thoughts or urges
  2. Compulsions: Repetitive behaviors or thoughts used to neutralize a negative feeling
  3. Anxiety: Excessive uneasiness or apprehension

Difficulties on both sides:

OCD is so disabling and distressing (it’s ranked as one of the 10 most handicapping conditions in terms of lost income and decreased quality of life according to The World Health Organization), and can add tremendous emotional strain on both sides of the relationship.

The video below showcases comedian, actor and television host, Howie Mandel, his struggles with OCD and how it’s affected his family and life:

The impact on relationships:

Taking the features of OCD into account, how does this disorder typically affect relationships?

With romantic partner/spouse:

LuAnn Pierce, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, says,

“Many who have OCD and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) choose not to date and avoid intimate relationships. There are many reasons people resort to this choice; chief among them is the desire to prevent or lessen their anxiety through avoidance of stressful situations.”

OCD sufferers have a heightened sense of fear and lack of security, which can manifest itself in the need for constant reassurance from their partner or spouse.  On the other side of OCD, you might find yourself incessantly saying things such as, “Yes, I love you.” OR “Yes, you look beautiful”.  The need to constantly validate feelings or intentions have the potential to be exhausting and feel futile.

Relationship OCD also exists. Because close relationships are so highly emotional, they often become the primary focus of a person’s OCD. In other words, their thoughts and anxieties will center around their loved one.  This subtype of OCD in which a sufferer constantly questions their relationship with their partner often sounds like: Do I really love my partner? Is he/she the right person for me? I don’t like how their laugh sounds, does that mean we should break up? Whether it’s security, compatibility, or intimacy, with OCD sufferers, there’s heightened anxiety about these relationships.

“Most people experience occasional doubt about relationships, but for people experiencing relationship OCD, anxiety, and doubt hijack their relationships,” says Misti Nicholson, PsyD, director and clinical psychologist at Austin Anxiety & OCD Specialists to Health.com.

Depending on the degree of a sufferer’s OCD, it’s possible that their affliction can become the primary focus of the relationship, which may result in resentment on the other side.

Fears about contamination, germs, and cleanliness are very common with OCD, which may lead to problems with physical closeness, being touched and overall affection.  That said, those with OCD are prone to intimacy issues.

According to Owen Kelly, Ph.D., research suggests that people with OCD report higher than average levels of problems with sexual functioning.  It is not uncommon for sufferers to experience:

  • Trouble becoming sexually aroused
  • A low sex drive
  • Dissatisfaction with their sexual partner
  • A fear of having sex
  • High levels of disgust when thinking about sexual activities

As a result, partners may battle feelings of rejection, inadequacy, and resentment if their physical and sexual needs are not being met.

With family & friends:

Depending on the severity of their condition, OCD sufferers’ compulsions can often be a challenge for family members or close friends.  They need to allow time, space and energy for someone with OCD to carry out these rituals and may find themselves deeply involved in these behaviors.  Participating in these compulsions can be difficult, demanding, tiresome and continuously test one’s patience.  These loved ones may also struggle with having to assume responsibility and care for many daily tasks that the OCD sufferer is unable to manage, leading to distress and disruption for everyone.

People with OCD can also be very depressed because of their extreme fears, thoughts, and anxiety.  These feelings can weigh heavily on others, especially close family and friends.

According to Owen Kelly, Ph.D., “Depression in people with OCD most often occurs after the onset of OCD symptoms. What this suggests is that the depression may be related to the personal stress of living with OCD or troubles that have developed at home or work as the result of the disease.”

OCD sufferers may struggle with self-esteem issues or feelings of shame, embarrassment, and insecurity, which may result in a lack of interest in being around other people.  This may leave friends and family grappling with their own feelings of isolation and sadness.

With work colleagues:

Due to anxiety and compulsions, an OCD sufferer in the workplace may have trouble with things such as productivity, performance, and punctuality.  Severe symptoms can take up many hours of a person’s day, making normal work tasks a challenge. As a result, strained relationships with management and colleagues may be common.

Many OCD sufferers choose to suffer in silence and not disclose their condition out of fear of discrimination.  In fact, only 1 in 4 people share their disorder with their employer, as many worry that promotion opportunities will be hampered and their boss will think it’s an excuse to get out of work.  This suffering in silence may result in feelings of isolation, separation and a lack of interest in participating in office culture.

Here are a few other ways OCD can impact work relationships:

  • The avoidance of certain people or tasks because they trigger anxiety or negative thoughts
  • Constant worry about how coworkers view you and your OCD behavior
  • Feelings of discrimination from colleagues
  • Resentment from colleagues due to the need for breaks and time disruptions to allow for rituals or compulsion

The video below addresses the difficulties an OCD sufferer may feel in the workplace and with colleagues:

Tips for maintaining a positive relationship with an OCD sufferer

Despite their feelings of frustration and distress, those suffering from OCD can lead happy, highly functioning, productive lives, full of healthy relationships.  When spouses/partners, family members, friends, and colleagues are more informed about OCD, it is easier to be supportive and understanding.

If you have someone with OCD in your life, here are some tips to handle these often complicated and delicate relationships:

  1. It starts with connecting with the OCD sufferer, acknowledging that OCD exists, respecting the pain it may cause on all sides, and bringing communication, education, and compassion to the forefront
  2. Stay focused on understanding the difference between the behavioral symptoms of OCD and the person in your life.  Continuously remind yourself of this statement, “I know this is not you, this is your OCD.”
  3. Encourage the OCD sufferer to seek professional help, as it is treatable with options such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Exposure and Ritual Prevention.  Offer to participate in a session so that you can learn how best to support their treatment program
  4. It’s just as important for the loved ones of those suffering from OCD to seek support as well. Whether it’s a support group, therapy, meditation or stress-relieving outlets like exercise or a favorite hobby, it’s imperative that you make yourself a priority
  5. As difficult as it may be, don’t reinforce and participate in OCD compulsions, as these behavior patterns may obstruct the person’s recovery.  Involvement in rituals should be reduced in a very gradual way as part of an agreed-upon treatment plan
  6. Try to be patient, non-judgmental and supportive, as this will enable the sufferer to focus their efforts on recovery versus dealing with anger and resentment

OCD sufferers don’t need to feel paralyzed by their symptoms and can go on to engage in healthy, fulfilling relationships.  On the flipside, it’s with compassion, patience and the right type of support that people on the other side of the relationship can feel more at peace and able to face the challenges that may arise.

*Content published by the United Brain Association (UBA), such as text, graphics, reports, images, and other materials created by UBA and other materials contained on unitedbrainassociation.org are for informational purposes only. The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on the unitedbrainassociation.org.

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