Loving Someone with OCD
No one wants to watch the people they care about suffer.
Written by Jordaine Chattaway
01 The most important part of supporting someone through recovery, is educating yourself on what they're going through. Read up on symptoms, triggers, treatment options and personal stories. Doing so will paint a picture of what an OCD sufferer is going through.
02 Don't shy away from conversation. Bring up tough topics with your loved ones. Avoiding important discussions will leave you confused, and your loved one feeling alone and misunderstood.
03 Take care of yourself. Helping someone through recovery is hard. You need outlets to destress, relax, and find peace as well.
Relationships were never designed to be easy, but being in a relationship with someone who suffers from a mental health disorder can be particularly complex, and at times, difficult to navigate.
Whether it’s your partner, parent, child or close friend, loving someone with OCD requires patience, understanding and education. It will help you substantially to know more about the challenges your loved one is facing and how you can support their recovery.
Before I jump into a simple ‘need to know’ list for loving someone with OCD - let me say this:
The person you love, the one who battles OCD, is a fighter. Whether you see it on the outside or not, the wars they’ve won inside their heads have been of epic proportions. I can guarantee you that. On paper, their fears might seem simple or even ridiculous. Hell, if I wrote down all my OCD fears, it would probably be a best-selling comedy. But for those living with OCD, it’s the silent undercurrent of anxiety, repetitive thoughts, graphic images, confusing urges and hellish nightmares that make their ‘everyday’ a battle to remember.
Love them. Tell them they are worth fighting this war. Tell them that one day they will win. They may never be able to fully leave the battlefield, but their armor will strengthen, and with you by their side, they can look forward to a calmer, brighter and happier future.
How can you help someone if you have no idea what they’re going through? Or worse, if they don’t know how to explain it to you. When it comes to recovery, education is key. Understanding the common themes and symptoms of OCD, normalizes the experience and offers insight into the daily struggles your partner is facing. For instance, if your loved one is battling Relationship OCD, you should review a list of symptoms, read up on treatment options, and ask them how they're feeling. Same goes for all subtypes — Harm OCD (fear of hurting others), Sexual Orientation OCD (fear of misunderstanding your sexual preferences), Pedophile OCD (fear of harming a child), and beyond.
Understanding the characteristics of each subtype will allow you to spot issues and triggers when they're happening, as well as offer the best real-time responses to these situations as they arise.
Allow them to tell their story through someone else’s words
One of the hardest things for sufferers to do, is describe the thoughts going on in their head. OCD attacks the things we love most. This often means its forces vulgar, upsetting thoughts about boyfriends, girlfriends, family members, and friends onto its sufferers. Don't be surprised if it chooses you. For sufferers, this can make opening up extremely hard. Who wants to tell their loved ones about the twisted things their mind does to them?
If your partner seems hesitant to share their thoughts, suggest they find someone else's story to share, like an article or video that represents their experience well. Read or watch that instead. Maybe even ask for multiple references to paint a diverse picture in your mind.
For an OCD sufferer, judgement is a huge fear (especially by those they hold most precious). Remind them you're in this together and that you're happy to accommodate their opening-up needs. Starting slow will eventually lead to bigger conversations.
Our blog is a good place to get started. You can browse a library of stories from sufferers, professionals, advocates and family members of those with OCD.
If there's one thing OCD sufferers are tired of hearing, it's the four little words "it's just a thought."
It may seem like that from the outside, but OCD has an uncanny ability to turn "just a thought" into a life-altering spiral that can throw it's victims into lengthy routines of mental and physical compulsions. Don't dismiss or minimize their pain. Acknowledge what they're feeling and offer empathy; not frustration.
It's easy to let emotions take over a conversation, especially if you've had the same discussion 500 times before. But establishing unwavering support and understanding is key. OCD sufferers know it's "just a thought." And yet, it plagues them. Shutting down the conversation will only make things worse, and "prove" to your partner that they really are in this battle alone. For every thought they do vent to you about, there have been thousands they've dealt with solo. Go lightly and know that they want the overthinking, rumination, repetition, and anguish to stop even more than you do.
Reassurance can be counter-productive
It may seem like telling your loved one that they're a good person, that they aren't dangerous, that they aren't insane, is a positive thing. But verbal reassurance can be counter-productive, and in some cases, detrimental to their recovery.
Let’s not overcomplicate this one because, unless you’re a certified psychologist, it’s not your job to know precisely when and where to offer reassurance. What we will say, is study up on reassurance behaviors and practice recognizing them at home. Keep an eye on these instances. If your partner is constantly asking you to confirm that they're okay; that their thought wasn’t bad; that they’re not capable of hurting someone - it’s probably time to visit a professional together and work on an at-home plan. You want to be a shoulder to lean on, not an obsession feeding-crutch. And while certain conversations might seem harmless to you, they can be doing much more harm than good.
Don’t be afraid to ask & don’t be scared of the answer
As we've established, intrusive thoughts can be living nightmares. The topics OCD chooses to bombard people with are taboo, vivid and extremely upsetting. So, while your loved one might be hesitant to tell you exactly what their thoughts/images/dreams look like, don't be afraid to ask. You'd be surprised how much anxiety you can relieve by having the guts to look at them and say pointblank: tell me exactly what upset you.
Of course, there are limits. This shouldn't be used as your go-to approach. If you start looking for details every time something is upsetting, the pressure to vividly describe thoughts can be as anxiety-inducing as the thought itself.
I will warn you: be prepared for some shocking stuff. OCD attacks your moral compass. You won't hear about PG stressors. More likely, it will be scenes involving violence, incest, pedophilia and beyond. OCD takes a sufferers worst fears, flips them, and serves them back in the most shocking way possible. In effect, the fears in your partners mind, are things that they will never do. Does your partner love children? They might be dealing with images or thoughts that they could harm a child in the worst ways possible. Are they an animal lover? They might be avoiding dogs because they fear picturing having sex with them. Are they happy in your relationship? They might be imagining tragedies, cheating, or even killing you.
Remember that they hate the content of their thoughts. It has nothing to do with their actual desires. Prepare for the worst, and tell them nothing is too shocking to scare you away.
Take time for yourself
My final piece of advice is to love yourself as much as you’re loving them. Being supportive may take its toll on you at times. You might get frustrated with their progress. At the end of the day, no one wants to see their loved ones unwell. If need be, look into therapy options for yourself. And be honest with your partner. They don't want to be treated differently because of their disorder. If you're down or feeling sad about the state of their recovery, tell them. It’s important they have a driving force pushing them to get better. You never know, you may be the one love powerful enough to push them to recovery.
The most important step to recovery is accessing the right information. Intrusivethoughts.org has an extensive symptoms list which can help kick-start your journey. We also have an amazing support group and blog where you can access personal stories from advocates and people who have lived with OCD or people with OCD. If you are looking for anonymity, you are more than welcome to chat to Pax, our OCD chatbot (in fact, the world’s first OCD chatbot).
About the author
Jordaine is a mental health advocate and Made of Millions advisory board member. By day, she works for a global creative agency as a senior strategist. In her free time, she blogs about fashion and champions mental health awareness and post-natal support.