Even though you may hear people loosely throw around the term “OCD,” the reality of actually being diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder goes much, much deeper than just being a neat freak or liking your desk organized a certain way. (And for the record, using it casually in that context is actually super offensive to people legitimately diagnosed with OCD.)
So if you are currently dating someone with OCD and want to be a supportive partner, good news: You’re in the right spot. Let’s start with the facts first.
A person who is diagnosed with OCD will “get caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions,” according to the International OCD Foundation. The obsessions are categorized as “unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings.” The compulsions are “the behaviors an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and/or decrease their distress.”
And to put it into perspective for you, 1 in 100 adults suffers from these obsessions and compulsions, which adds up to more than 2 million adults in the United States alone, according to the International OCD Foundation. So yeah, consider it a very common disorder.
Another thing to realize: Every person with OCD looks different. The disorder is not solely related to cleaning or organizing, as some people think. Maybe someone with OCD is excessively double-checking to see if they turned off their straightener (even though they know they did so). Maybe someone with OCD repeatedly checks in with a loved one to make sure they are safe. It can show up in a number of ways.
So if you want to know how you can help your person, we’ve sourced a ton of helpful tips from actual mental health experts on how to better be there for someone with OCD.
Before we dive into all the details, remember: It’s great to do your own research and even ask your partner what they need from you. The most important thing is not to judge them for behavior that can sometimes be out of their control.
What To Expect
When you’re dating someone who has been diagnosed with OCD, it’s important to remember and understand that your partner will have habits or routines that might come off as excessive and repetitive to you, says Bianca Walker, a licensed professional counselor in Atlanta, Georgia, and owner and psychotherapist at The Self Care Institute of Atlanta, LLC.
A behavioral compulsion might look like excessive handwashing, which comes from the obsessive thought of germs. They might also suffer from mental compulsions, which can look like them asking for reassurance from someone they love, overanalyzing a situation, or unproductive problem-solving and planning. (An example of this would be if someone repeats a phrase, prayer, or mantra in order to convince themselves that if they say it enough times, their dog won’t get sick or their lola won’t die.)
With that being said, dating someone with OCD requires patience and support as they try to navigate dealing with the disorder while also navigating a romantic relationship, says licensed professional clinical counselor Paula Muro.
How to Build a Healthy Relationship When Someone Has OCD
In order to have a healthy relationship with someone who has OCD, communication is vital. Walker suggests that you familiarize yourself with your partner’s OCD. Ask yourself: What are some of their most intrusive thoughts? How do they respond to those thoughts? And how can I help reassure them without exacerbating those thoughts?
“Knowing what to expect can help you prepare to respond in a way that supports your partner’s OCD recovery. It can also help you identify your own needs and boundaries,” says Walker. Because, yes, while you’ll want to support your partner, you can’t forget your own self-care.
You’ll also want to provide a safe and nonjudgmental space for your partner to be exactly who they are. “Having OCD can produce feelings of shame and frustration,” details Walker. This means that you should comfort your partner and reassure them that you’re there for them and it’s okay.
Oftentimes, people with OCD will suffer from anxiety as well, so don’t place any blame on them or even suggest they aren’t trying hard enough. Recognize that they will have ups and downs, and expect to see moments when they have positive results from treatments but also moments when they might relapse into obsessions and compulsions.
And if your partner is not seeking help for their OCD and you sense it’s become disruptive to their life, you may want to encourage them to find a therapist and a medical authority who could provide some proper coping mechanisms.
How to Support Someone With OCD
The best thing you can do to support someone with OCD—whether that’s a partner or even a family member or friend—is to educate yourself on the disorder, says Brenda Wade, PhD, relationship adviser to Online for Love. “And not just yourself but also the person you’re dating who has OCD,” she explains.
This starts by being knowledgable of your partner’s treatment plan suggested by their psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist. Once you’re familiar with their treatment plan, you can dive into some reading.
You could also look for support groups (either in your city or online) that bring together the loved ones of OCD sufferers. Additionally, it would be beneficial to follow some of the leading OCD organizations, such as the International OCD Foundation and Made of Millions, on social media.
“This is not something either of you is alone in. These are opportunities to connect with the one you love and allow for a greater understanding of each other.”
Here are a few other tangible things you can do to support someone with OCD, according to Magdalena Cadet, MD:
- Be patient and don’t dismiss or minimize their pain. Make sure to acknowledge what your partner is feeling and offer empathy, especially because it can be hard for someone with OCD to open up about what’s going on in their head. If this is the case, encourage them to share a story about a character or an event that resembles what they’re feeling. You could say something like, “I’m all ears and I’m not here to judge. You can be honest with me.”
- Understand their obsessive thoughts, their triggers, and anxieties that make up a particular OCD episode. Dr. Cadet suggests creating a secret code word or signal to let your partner know you are noticing their triggers.
- Practice self-care and keep strong, healthy boundaries in place so that OCD doesn’t dominate your lives entirely. You might feel like you need to look out for your partner at all times, but it’s just as important to keep yourself mentally and physically healthy. Don’t sacrifice the things you like to do, whether that’s going to the gym or reading a book. As for boundaries, it’d be good to talk to a professional on just how you can help your partner overcome an episode. For example, if you notice that your partner is having a particularly bad day, you might need to back off if that person is not in any danger. But if you notice your partner is having a good day, you can encourage them to continue resisting their compulsions as much as possible.
- Try to destigmatize OCD with your partner or family member. Help them acknowledge that many individuals live with some form of illness and they aren’t alone.
- Allow your partner to perform the compulsive behavior and rituals even if there is a feeling of shame and discomfort. But as always, consult with your partner’s therapist on how you should respond to your partner’s OCD episodes, as it all depends on a person’s treatment course.
- Be aware of your partner’s treatment if they are willing to share it with you. Sometimes you can’t try to completely control your partner’s environments because allowing them to be exposed to the trigger is part of their treatment. Other times, constantly reassuring a person that their compulsions are okay may not be the best thing to do, as that can help reinforce the behavior. For this reason, it’s best to consult a professional.
- Love your partner and make sure they know you are there for them. As in every other relationship, use your actions to let them know how much you care. Schedule a date night and be flexible if they need to change it up. Try to remember the reasons you fell in love and discover brand-new ones every day. Most importantly, understand that your partner has a disorder that is out of their control and you shouldn’t blame them whenever their intrusive thoughts or compulsions act up.
Although there is no one specific formula to what your relationship with someone who has OCD should look like, the foundations of communication and being understanding are key—just like any other relationship.
Be mindful when your partner reveals their diagnosis, and try to learn as much about OCD as possible. If you have no idea where to begin researching, check out resources like Peace of Mind or the International OCD Foundation.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.