Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

OCD and Relationships: Navigating Common Challenges

10 min read
Stacy Quick, LPC

Sometimes, OCD’s nature to attack what we value the most paints a target on our romantic relationships—and when it does, it can feel especially devastating. We look to these connections as a source of emotional and physical intimacy, support, and companionship, but when OCD impacts us in ways that make it difficult to communicate, it can drive us to distance ourselves from our partners. And without a well-developed understanding of OCD, even your partner’s most well-intended efforts to provide support can lead to frustration.

When OCD creates strain in your relationship, there are steps you can take to navigate the issues you’re facing. By educating yourself on the ways OCD can impact your relationship, you can instill a better understanding in your partner and help them support you. Empowered with knowledge, the two of you can develop new ways of facing OCD together, and strengthen your connection along the way.

How OCD can manifest in your relationship

Any aspect of OCD has the potential to cause relational issues; however, when intrusive thoughts and compulsions are specifically focused on a relationship, it can be an indication that someone is suffering from an OCD subtype called Relationship OCD (ROCD).

Everyone, whether they have OCD or not, has doubts, insecurities, and concerns about their relationships from time to time. What distinguishes ROCD from these experiences is that ROCD-related thoughts are obsessive, and often seem so overwhelming that people feel unable to think about anything else. While ROCD can appear in many ways, the following presentations are some of the most common:

  • Intense doubts about your relationship: In ROCD, intrusive thoughts and obsessions often take the form of doubts regarding the state or stability of a relationship, even when there’s little to no evidence behind the concern. These doubts may take the form of questioning if you’re in love with your partner, how your partner feels about you, if you should stay in the relationship, or whether or not your partner is “the one.”
  • Fears of a negative outcome: Similarly, ROCD-related thoughts may center around things that you fear happening in your relationship. Maybe you’re anxious that one of you could cheat on the other, that your partner could abandon you, or that you could fall out of love. Commitment is another common source of fear for people experiencing ROCD. All of these fears can bring up the intense doubts mentioned previously.
  • Issues with intimacy: Feeling overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts and obsessions can affect a person’s ability to be physically or emotionally intimate. Someone struggling with intrusive thoughts may find it difficult to share their thoughts with their partner, which can feel isolating, or to be fully present during sexual activity. If their partner doesn’t understand these symptoms, they may feel concerned. In this way, ROCD can create uncertainty on both sides of the relationship.
  • Comparing your relationship to others: Feeling a need to gain certainty about their relationship, people with ROCD may engage in compulsions like comparison. Someone experiencing obsessions around their feelings toward their partner, for example, might analyze every couple they know, compare those bonds to their own relationship. Social media, seeing or hearing about other relationships, or emotional connections or attractions to other people are a few of the many things that can trigger this behavior.
  • Asking your partner, friends, or family for reassurance: Uncertainty may also drive people suffering from ROCD to compulsively seek reassurance. They may ask friends if they think the relationship is going well, or ask their partner if they find them attractive, if they’re mad at them, or if they’re still in love. Unfortunately, while reassurance may provide a moment of relief, it will only reinforce their doubts over time.
  • Mentally reviewing your relationship: ROCD can also drive people to reassure themselves by constantly looking for evidence to prove or disprove their fears and doubts. Someone doubting their partner’s attraction to them might keep a running list in their mind of compliments their partner has given or ways they’ve behaved around them, and review this list in their mind when they have an intrusive thought.

However it manifests, ROCD has the potential to shake the foundation of a relationship, resulting in heartache for both the person suffering and their partner. The doubts and anxiety created by intrusive thoughts can prevent people from being present in their relationships, impacting both physical and emotional intimacy, and compulsive reassurance-seeking can lead to tension and arguments that create distance between partners.

The good news is that ROCD is treatable—and in addition to treatment, there are many things that both a person with ROCD and their partner can do to find support and strengthen their bond. Not only is it possible to have ROCD and be in a healthy relationship, you may even find that the process of navigating ROCD-related challenges can deepen your connection.

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Helping your partner gain understanding

In order for your partner to know how to support you, they need to know what you’re going through. Asking your partner about their understanding of OCD can be a good first step to building this knowledge. While many people will report that they know what OCD is, their understanding of the condition may be based on misconceptions. Because of how widely misunderstood OCD tends to be, your partner may not be aware of or fully understand ROCD. It can prove useful to help educate your partner and correct this misinformation, and there are multiple ways to go about doing so.

Sharing articles and resources on OCD and ROCD that are based on scientific research can be a helpful approach. If your partner is not much for reading, you can also recommend they watch videos or clips that you feel accurately depict ROCD. The personal stories of others who have suffered from ROCD can also be a source of educational content. 

Developing a better understanding of ROCD can provide your partner with a sense of comfort by helping them recognize that the fears and doubts you’re having are a result of ROCD and aren’t about them. It can also help them empathize with you. Knowing that you don’t want to have these thoughts may help them relate to the frustration and exhaustion that you likely feel as a result of ROCD symptoms.

Facing OCD as a team

OCD is most effectively treated with exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP). If you’re in ERP therapy, you can also have your partner sit in on some of your sessions. This will be a very personal decision, but if it’s one that you’re comfortable with, it can be an excellent way for your partner to gain knowledge about the specifics of what you’re dealing with.

Becoming an active member of your treatment team can benefit your partner tremendously and sitting in on therapy sessions is just one of the ways they can get involved. In some cases, ERP can be accompanied by medication management, and if medication is part of your treatment plan, making your partner aware of this can enable them to provide support and help you stay on track with managing your OCD symptoms.

Helping your partner learn to recognize compulsions and address them appropriately can also benefit both of you. Through learning about compulsions, your partner can learn ways to respond that will be the most helpful to you in times of heightened anxiety and distress. It’s important to discuss if there are ways in which your partner may be inadvertently accommodating or enabling the compulsions. The two of you may also want to devise a clear plan of how to respond when you are triggered or when you encounter other challenging situations. A plan can be agreed upon prior to these moments occurring, so as to limit any surprise emotions that may arise.

Encouraging your partner to practice self-care

The impacts of OCD often extend beyond the people living with the condition, resulting in feelings of exhaustion or burnout in their loved ones. Partners often report feeling inadequate or helpless when it comes to dealing with OCD. They may feel frustrated about the condition and the toll they feel it’s taken on their loved one and their relationship, but can be reluctant to share these struggles. 

Not wanting to increase the guilt and responsibility that their partner with OCD is already feeling, they may hold their feelings in. This can lead them to become distant and feel alone in their situation. Encouraging your partner to practice self-care and find ways to process their emotions can help avoid these outcomes.

One way to do this is by checking in with your partner about how they’re feeling. This can open up a dialogue between the two of you, leading to more open communication in the future. They may need to know that you, as the partner with OCD, are okay with them seeking support for themselves. They may need to hear that it is okay if they are feeling overwhelmed by the symptoms, and that you are also.

Finding support for both of you

Communicating about their feelings is just one of many ways that your partner can practice self-care—it can also take the form of any activity that brings them joy, fulfillment, or self-confidence. Attending a support group for partners of people with OCD can be one of these activities. A support group can provide a safe place for your partner to share their feelings with people who’ve been through similar experiences, and gain hope from hearing how others have overcome challenges in their relationships.

As you navigate this process of finding support and working through relationship issues, it can be important to remember that your partner’s frustration is likely a reflection of the condition, and is not directed at you as a person. People living with OCD may find themselves feeling at fault when the condition creates challenges in their relationship. In these moments, it can be helpful to practice separating yourself from OCD. You are so much more than OCD, and so much more than the symptoms you’re experiencing. These things are not your identity.

Even when it feels difficult, know that you can face the challenges you’re experiencing. It is possible. Fostering this support and understanding will be a process, requiring time, effort, and open and honest communication from both partners, but by being willing to engage in this process, you and your partner can build a healthier, more intimate, and stronger relationship.

How therapy can help your relationship

If OCD is impacting your relationship, whether you or your partner are struggling, therapy can have life-changing effects. In ERP therapy, a therapist will help you learn to manage distressing thoughts. If you’re worried about discussing your thoughts and symptoms, please know that a therapist won’t judge you. You don’t have to suffer in silence. Many people find relief in sharing their experiences. With the help of ERP, you can learn how to manage OCD and regain your life.

ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. They deeply understand all themes of OCD. If you have questions or think that you or your partner may need ERP therapy for OCD, you can speak to someone on our team on a free 15-minute call.

To ensure our members are supported at every point in their treatment journey, we offer dozens of support groups for NOCD Therapy members and their loved ones at no extra charge. There are meetings nearly every day of the week, and dedicated support groups are available for partners and spouses. You can book a call with our team to learn more about gaining access to support groups as part of your OCD treatment journey.

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NOCD Therapists specialize in treating OCD

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Taylor Newendorp

Taylor Newendorp

Network Clinical Training Director

I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.

Gary Vandalfsen

Gary Vandalfsen

Licensed Therapist, Psychologist

I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist for over twenty five years. My main area of focus is OCD with specialized training in Exposure and Response Prevention therapy. I use ERP to treat people with all types of OCD themes, including aggressive, taboo, and a range of other unique types.

Madina Alam

Madina Alam

Director of Therapist Engagement

When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.

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