A person with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) will likely experience a wide range of life-altering thoughts and behaviors, from minor inconveniences to major disruptions.
OCD can be completely debilitating for people who suffer from it, but a person’s OCD can affect the people closest to them, as well. Because of OCD’s unpredictable nature, you may feel unsure about your ability to support your partner. You may struggle to understand their experience, wonder about what you should do when OCD flares up, and feel distressed yourself about how OCD is impacting them.
Trying to understand your partner’s OCD makes a big difference, and there are things you can do to help. While there are no perfect solutions, you can still take steps to provide support for your partner, encourage them to learn to manage their OCD, and take care of your own mental health.
Here are three ways you can help your partner with OCD:
1. Avoid creating an enabling environment
It can be tempting to try and accommodate your partner’s OCD by making big changes to your home, your routines, and your behavior.
For example, if your partner has Contamination OCD, it might seem like a good idea to maintain a perfectly clean house. If your partner has Harm OCD, you may think to hide knives and avoid violent movies.
However, these actions can do more harm than good, as they may reinforce your partner’s OCD. In the real world, it’s virtually impossible to eliminate everything that could possibly trigger OCD. Attempting to do so enables your partner to avoid sitting with uncertainty and learning to manage OCD.
Also, giving in to their obsessions and compulsions is a slippery slope. The more you clean your home in order to accommodate your partner’s Contamination OCD, the worse it will get. The same goes for Harm OCD and other subtypes. OCD can take over people’s lives as they try to pursue impossibly “perfect” scenarios.
Understanding this is key to helping your partner. Instead of attempting to avoid it, you can create a healthy environment and encourage your partner to learn to manage their OCD instead of avoiding it.
2. Prepare to help your partner with their OCD episodes
OCD can ebb and flow, spiking at unexpected times. This unpredictability can be stressful for both you and your partner, as OCD episodes may catch you off guard.
You can help your partner respond to their anxiety in more healthy ways, instead of falling back on their compulsions.
People with OCD can slip into an obsession-compulsion cycle without realizing it. Part of your role as a supportive partner is to help your significant other learn to be more self-aware. You can do this by:
- Keeping an eye on the compulsions your partner habitually performs;
- Asking your partner about their feelings and emotions;
- Encouraging your partner to regularly “check-in” with themselves and self-monitor;
- Watching out for avoidance behaviors. Is your partner avoiding specific activities and situations?
Your goal is not to control your partner’s OCD, but to accept and respond to OCD episodes effectively. By staying aware and proactive, both you and your partner will be better equipped to handle these difficult situations.
If you don’t prepare, you are more likely to react negatively when your partner needs you the most. Reactive behaviors include lashing out, making negative critiques, and even insulting your partner about their mental condition. This offers nothing in the way of support.
Instead, by preparing for their OCD episodes, you can respond positively, supportively, and more effectively. This will help both you and your partner make better choices and manage the condition instead of being totally controlled by it.
3. Avoid providing reassurance
In addition to being prepared for the effects of OCD, it’s also important to learn to communicate in a way that’s positive and avoids reinforcing their OCD.
Positive communication includes:
- Avoiding personal criticism;
- Speaking calmly;
- Encouraging your partner to share their thoughts and feelings.
Like any other skill, positive communication should be practiced in order to improve. You can do this by setting aside a regular time to speak with your partner about their OCD. This will help both of you come to the table prepared and focused, minimizing the chances for conflict and stress.
People with OCD often seek reassurance about their obsessions, even in everyday conversations. The more you engage in these conversations by providing reassurance, the more likely you are to reinforce and perpetuate your partner’s compulsions.
Instead, you can offer responses that shift the conversation away from reassurance. You can use phrases like:
- “I’m not sure. What do you think?”
- “Sorry, I can’t answer that for you.”
- “Let’s check in on this later.”
- “This sounds like reassurance-seeking. Is this really your OCD asking?”
This is where positive, responsive communication fits in. Instead of vague, endless loops, your conversations can be a helpful source of immediate, effective support.
4. Get involved in your partner’s treatment
Learning more about effective OCD treatment can help, too. Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is the gold standard OCD treatment and can help your partner conquer OCD. ERP involves a guided process in which a therapist can help the patient manage their obsessions and reduce their compulsions.
At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP.
As the partner of someone with OCD, learning the ins and outs of ERP will also be helpful for you. The more you know about how OCD is treated, the more you can help your partner improve their condition, especially if they’re doing ERP with an OCD specialist. With a solid understanding of ERP, you both can learn to effectively manage your partner’s OCD.
NOCD can guide you in supporting loved ones who struggle with OCD and related conditions. Our Family Support Sessions are specifically designed for the family, caregivers, partners, and friends of people with OCD and related disorders. If you think that your loved one may be struggling with OCD symptoms, I strongly recommend reading more about NOCD’s accessible approach to treatment.