I can back-squat over 250 pounds. I still sleep with a baby blanket. I’m bisexual. These are a few things I make sure people know by the third or fourth date. One more? That I have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
OCD is an anxiety disorder that can affect people of all ages, genders, and sexual orientations. It has two parts: obsessions and compulsions. “Obsessions are unwanted thoughts or images that are intrusive to an individual,” says psychotherapist Stephanie Woodrow, LPCP, who specializes in OCD and anxiety disorders. “In an effort to reduce this mental distress, someone with OCD may engage in physical or mental behaviors to reduce the distress, which are called compulsions or rituals.” While these rituals offer (very) short-term relief, they’re not a long-term solution.
Fear of germs and contamination are well-documented manifestations of OCD, but these intrusions and obsessions vary greatly person to person. For example, one of my intrusions is that I’m going to consume something that could make me sick (e.g. spoiled food, a drink with roofies, a weed brownie instead of a regular brownie). Before beginning treatment I’d do things like take Pepto Bismol after every meal, check and re-check the expiration date on food packaging, or ask the chef over and over and over again if they were certain the meat was cooked through.
“My most persistent intrusion is that I’m going to get pregnant,” says OCD advocate Genevieve Kales. For her, this manifested in a ritual of asking her boyfriend if he thought she could be pregnant, taking 25 pregnancy tests within a single week, and researching pregnancy symptoms.
While everyone’s obsessions and compulsions vary — and thus everyone’s journey with OCD is different — if you’re dating someone with OCD, keep the following in mind.
We want to be reassured, but it’s better for us in the long term if you don’t do it.
My partner and I started dating before I was officially diagnosed with OCD, and anytime I thought I might have consumed something that could make me ill, I’d tell him. He’d say something like, “This salad isn’t going to make you sick. Look, I’m eating it, and I’m fine.” While well-intentioned, this is actually not the best course of action. Reassuring a person with OCD makes you a participant in the obsessive ritual, and it can reinforce the urge to keep checking or asking. “It adds fuel to the OCD fire,” Woodrow says.
Since beginning treatment, my partner and I have both learned how to better handle my rituals. Now, he’ll say something like, “I can’t possibly know if this salad is going to make you sick,” or “I could answer that if you really want to know, but are you sure it’s not your OCD talking?”
“The best thing you can do as a partner for those of us with OCD is to let us live with uncertainty and sit in discomfort, even when the only thing you want to make us feel better,” says Kales. Because while reassurance is great in the moment, it will not help us gain freedom from OCD.
Many of us all have specific triggers, but you don’t need to avoid them.
Trigger words, also called “hot words,” are associated with our specific intrusion and can propel us into an OCD spiral. For me, it’s “stomach bug,” “stomach virus,” or “food poisoning.” For Kales, it’s “pregnancy” and pregnancy-adjacent phrases like “your skin is glowing.” But that doesn’t mean we need or expect you to avoid these words. On the contrary, exposing ourselves to things that propel our OCD is part of treating it. “Avoiding certain words for your partner actually reinforces the OCD,” says Woodrow.
Talking about our OCD with you can actually strengthen our relationship.
Getting diagnosed with OCD and learning more about the condition while dating my partner has forced us to be better communicators and increased our patience with each other.
Francine F., 27, also found that her OCD diagnosis took her relationship to the next level. “My boyfriend’s ability to empathize really came out once I told him about my OCD,” she says. “It showed me I could be comfortable sharing other intimate, vulnerable things with him – and vice versa.”
Clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., says this is common. “Sharing another person’s challenges — whether that’s OCD, a death in the family, depression, or something else entirely — on an intimate, supportive level, can benefit the relationship as a whole, because it expands the levels of trust and amount of love.”
There are some wonderful resources out there.
“One of the best things you can do as the partner of someone with OCD is to try to truly understand OCD, rather than operate based on myth and misconception,” says Manly. “In addition to talking with your partner about what their OCD looks like for them (and empathetically and patiently listening), it’s important to investigate OCD symptoms and treatments, as well as what-not-to-dos.”
“When A Family Member Has OCD” by Jon Hershfield, “Freedom from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” by Jonathan Grayson, and “Loving Someone With OCD” by Karen Landsman are all good resources. Woodrow also recommends considering attending national conferences like The Annuel OCD Conference or local programs specifically for loved ones.
We are capable of being loving, supportive partners in healthy relationships.
So many of us living with OCD feel like a burden to our partners. But as Manly says, “even when it feels enormous, like any other mental-health condition, OCD is just a tiny part of the entire, beautiful person who has it.” I have OCD, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m also my partner’s biggest cheerleader, the best big spoon, and really good with parents.
Jimmy B., 25’s, boyfriend of three years, Scottie, has OCD. “Scottie is the most supportive, funniest, and most humble person I’ve ever dated,” he says. “Sure, he has OCD, but that doesn’t affect how well he treats me, how well we work together, or his ability to help me through my own baggage.”
Kale says it best: “The reality is all people have issues that they deal with behind closed doors. [We] have OCD, but everyone has something that they’re working through, too.”
For more information about OCD, call the OWH Helpline at 1-800-994-9662. And if you are experiencing mental illness and are in need of support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-8255.