It wasn’t until years later that my partner (now married 13 years) told me she’d considered leaving me. For one day. At that time in 2006, we were newly engaged and backpacking Peru together, but I’d become an awful hypochondriac. I was terrified of everything: stray dogs, water, cats. On the day my fiancée actually got a real parasite, I was too engrossed in my own obsessions to be the support she needed. It was only after the trip that I would be diagnosed with OCD, after which followed months of intensive therapy and medications.
OCD can wreck a relationship, even a good, long-standing one. After 13 years of marriage (and therapy and medications and intensive mental health “tools”), my partner and I have found some ways to balance my symptoms with the needs of our relationship. Here’s a few tips:
- Do your best not to judge: Honestly, a good starting goal if you’re married or partnered with someone with OCD is do your best not to judge. Well, you can’t always help judging—that’s human—but do your best not to communicate that directly to them. Sure, good relationships depend on honest communication, but good relationships also depend on knowing when to say something, and when not to.
Look, being with someone with OCD means sometimes things are gonna get weird, like really weird (for me weird was digging through my own crap), and, when those moments happen your partner is going to be at their most vulnerable. So, support them however you can and try to rein in any judgement (save the frustration for a trusted loved one or a therapist).
- Treat them like the equal partner they are: Just because your partner has OCD doesn’t mean they are any less rational most of the time. Yes, they have triggers that can lead them to what is irrational and spiraling behavior. But they are still full adults, just as intelligent, wise, and funny as anyone else—sometimes, honestly, more so. Just because someone struggles with mental illness does not make them any less human.
In calmer moments, if you have legitimate concerns about the impacts of their mental health on your wellbeing, this would be the time to share and discuss. Speak in “I statements” and come to the table with a lot of empathy.
- Share a list of tools for tough times (hopefully one made with a therapist): When I’m having a bad day, my wife now knows how best to help: suggest I do something to interrupt my inner obsessions. For me this might mean a nap (I sleep… a lot), a bath with a book, yoga, or a walk outside. Maybe for your partner its woodworking or biking or glassblowing or a favorite movie or beheading dandelions. I don’t know your life. But having a list of things that can help them break from their wheel of anxiety is very helpful. T
- Do not try to fix of over-sooth: This does not mean that you are your partner’s therapist! Far from it. You don’t need to fix them or listen to them rattle off all their fears daily. OCD cannot be “fixed” even by the best therapy and meds we have on hand. OCD is a disorder, or perhaps an evolutionary trait, that is simply a part of who your partner is. What you can provide is what any good partner does: love, support, and grace. These are invaluable.
- Therapy for you, therapy for you, therapy for everybody: Along with this, if your partner has OCD and is not seeing a therapist, they probably should get one. OCD can require an often-exhausting amount of management and mitigation. Sure, they may have their symptoms managed well now (difficult to imagine with the pandemic, but not impossible), but symptoms can flair at any time for any reason. A therapist, even one seen for rare check-ins, is someone to have immediately on hand if things get worse.
Moreover, a therapist is a doctor not only for your partner, but for you—to take some of the burden off of your shoulders. My wife loves my longtime therapist even though she’s never met him.
You may also want to consider getting your own therapist. Living with someone with chronic mental illness adds a whole new layer to one’s partnership. My wife, who does not struggle daily with mental illness like myself, started seeing a therapist over the last few years and it’s been helpful for her to have someone to talk to who understands the nuances of mental illness (friends are great and supportive, but OCD and other mental illnesses can still be tricky navigating in some circles). We also see a marriage therapist as well, just to keep the wheels running. See a pattern here? And please don’t forget that there are resources out there for you both: NAMI is a great place to start.
All relationships have their challenges, but those with the chronically mentally ill present distinct and unusual ones. That doesn’t mean, however, it can’t work. Just because I have OCD, doesn’t mean I have any excuse not to be a loving, supportive, kickass partner—it just means we both have to adjust to get me there. It means my wife has to be flexible if I’m having a bad day, and on good ones, I need to pick up the slack and try and give her some extra attention.
In the end, I’d argue that some of the things you love about your partner may stem, in part, from their OCD. People I’ve known with mental illness are often deeply empathetic, compassionate, funny, enigmatic and engaged, especially when their symptoms are well-managed. It’s strange, I know, but you might really love the OCD in your partner. Not the bad bits or the bad days, but the kindness, empathy, and understanding the disorder has given to them over the course of their lives.