How OCD Affects Relationships

June 5, 2023   •  Posted in: 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, affects every aspect of your life. For most of us, relationships are an important aspect of life – and OCD affects this area greatly. When one person lives with OCD, everyone around them can be impacted. Loved ones want to make sure the person with OCD is okay, and often take on too much responsibility. The time spent doing compulsions can create tension within families.

Luckily, OCD is highly treatable. The right treatment provider can help you recover from OCD and help your loved ones learn how to support you in a way that’s sustainable for everyone involved.

 

Does OCD impact interpersonal relationships?

No two people with OCD are the same, so the way OCD affects your life and relationships depends on your unique situation.

However, it is common for people with OCD (and their loved ones) to find that their OCD symptoms affect their interpersonal relationships in negative ways. This can go for friendships, work relationships, romantic relationships (and marriage), and any other relationship.

In a recent study, the authors noted that marriages in which one person had OCD showed more signs of[1]:

  • Increased marital distress
  • Less satisfaction with partner
  • Less intimacy
  • More controlling communication styles
  • Less secure attachment
  • Jealousy

In another study, more than four-fifths of respondents said that OCD caused significant disruption to the personal life of at least one family member[2]. Around 75% of the participants said that OCD caused a significant disruption to the family’s social life. 70% reported OCD as the cause of marital disruption, and 60% reported that OCD caused hardship for siblings.

Family members of people with OCD also often report feeling embarrassed, intolerant, or annoyed with their loved one’s symptoms. In one qualitative study, some family members reported feeling invaded by compulsive rituals. Others felt that their loved one with OCD was too dependent on them.

The reasons behind these conflicts are complex, and it’s nobody’s fault. But OCD is a very disruptive disease, and it may only get more severe as time passes without treatment. What appears to be clear is when one person in the family has OCD, it’s not only that person who suffers – the other people in the family can feel the impacts as well.

On top of OCD’s effects on the family, OCD can also affect other types of relationships, such as friendships or work relationships.

 

How OCD symptoms contribute to relationship difficulties

Often, it’s the OCD symptoms themselves that cause strife within relationships.

OCD is characterized by two core symptoms: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are intrusive and unwanted thoughts, urges, images, or feelings that cause a great deal of fear and anxiety. Compulsions are repetitive or ritualistic behaviors that the person with OCD performs in order to decrease their anxiety.

Everyone has intrusive thoughts sometimes, but people with OCD aren’t able to let them go. They often lose hours of their lives performing compulsions over and over again until they feel “just right.” They may worry constantly about uncertainties in their lives. These worries, or obsessions, can revolve around anything – including their relationships.

It’s important to note as we go through OCD’s impacts on relationships that no individual is at fault. OCD is the enemy – not the person with OCD, nor their family members.

Some OCD symptoms and behaviors that could impact relationships include:

Rituals and compulsions

Again, one core symptom of OCD is compulsions – which can be any sort of physical or mental behavior that is repetitive or ritualistic.

Usually, compulsions appear to be illogical or nonsensical to other people. For example, someone may shower multiple times a day, have a ritual for closing and locking the door, or have to count to a certain number in a specific way.

These compulsions often take a lot of time. Family members may become frustrated by the delay, and others may simply feel embarrassed or confused by these behaviors.

Sometimes, family members or friends can start to withdraw support fromthe person with OCD because of these feelings. This can cause the person with OCD to feel like they need to hide their rituals from their loved ones. One qualitative study found that many participants with OCD reported mentally or physically distancing themselves from their family members in order to not “burden” them with their rituals[3].

Seeking reassurance

People with OCD often seek reassurance as a compulsive behavior. For example, they may ask others to reassure them they’re not a bad person, or to reassure them they’re not contaminated with a disease. Although the person with OCD isn’t trying to bother others by seeking reassurance, others may feel exhausted by this type of behavior.

Even if the person with OCD realizes this behavior is inappropriate, the intense fear that comes along with obsessions may make doing compulsions (like reassurance-seeking) feel unavoidable.

Dependence

Depending on the severity of the OCD symptoms, the person with OCD may require family members to support them or provide care. When this care is given in genuine support, it could be helpful for both parties to manage the effects of OCD. But sometimes, this caretaking relationship can become complicated. The person with OCD may become overly dependent on their partner or family member.

It’s important to know that the person with OCD is not the only one who can contribute to this unhealthy dynamic, and it’s sometimes not their fault (or desire) at all.

Drawing family members into compulsions

Sometimes, the person with OCD projects their obsessions onto their loved ones. For example, they might not only believe that they, themselves, will die if they don’t prepare their food in a specific way – they might also start believing that their family members will die if they don’t participate in this compulsion as well.

This can cause tension among family members who don’t want to (and shouldn’t) take the time to accommodate these requests.

 

How family members can contribute to relationship impacts

Again, it’s not only the person with OCD who contributes to relationship difficulties. The partner, parent, or other family members can contribute as well.

One way this happens is through accommodation. Often, family members feel they need to accommodate the person with OCD’s obsessions or compulsions. For example, the person with OCD may be worried about being clean enough. The family member may then take it upon themselves to accommodate this worry, such as through encouraging them to shower again or buying special kinds of soaps.

In reality, accommodation only serves to increase resentment on both sides. Experts say that accommodating obsessions and compulsions actually make OCD symptoms worse.

Another way family members can contribute to relationship conflict is through behaving antagonistically toward the person with OCD. It’s easy to get frustrated with somebody when they are spending hours performing compulsions. But it’s also important to understand that OCD is a disease; even if your loved one knows their compulsions are illogical, OCD makes it impossible for them to stop.

Family members can also take too much control over the person with OCD’s treatment. For example, in one study, family members often took it upon themselves to differentiate between what behaviors were compulsions and what behaviors were “normal.”

But this can make the person with OCD feel disempowered and contribute to an unhealthy relationship dynamic in which the person with OCD is overly dependent on family members.

 

What is relationship OCD?

There is also a specific subtype of OCD called relationship OCD, or ROCD [4]. This type of OCD causes people to have obsessions and compulsions around their relationships. It can affect any type of relationship, including romantic relationships, parent-child relationships, and friendships.

Just like every person with OCD, people with ROCD face obsessions and compulsions. For them, their obsessions and compulsions revolve around relationships. They may become obsessed with the “rightness” of a relationship, and seek 100% certainty on whether or not a relationship is right or perfect for them – something that is, of course, impossible to achieve.

Someone with ROCD might have obsessions like:

  • Is this really the right person for me?
  • Am I really in love with my partner?
  • Do I feel how I’m supposed to feel in this relationship?
  • Does this flaw that my partner has mean that they’re wrong for me?
  • Am I 100% sure that this relationship is going to last?
  • What if I’m in the wrong relationship and I’m wasting my life?
  • What if this partner is the wrong choice?

People with ROCD also perform compulsions; these can be either mental or behavioral. Some compulsions that someone with ROCD may perform include:

  • Internal review: Constantly checking and reviewing your own feelings and the level of love or affection that you have for your partner
  • Compulsively seeking reassurance from other people that you are in the right relationship or that you made the right choice of partner
  • Testing your partner or asking them questions in an effort to gain certainty about whether or not they’re right for you
  • Compulsively revisiting or recalling times in your relationship when you felt the way you thought you were supposed to feel in order to try to recreate that feeling
  • Constantly comparing your relationship with other people’s experiences
  • Reviewing your feelings or level of attraction towards other people in order to check how “in love” you are with your partner

On top of all the above ways in which all types of OCD can affect relationships, ROCD – for obvious reasons – can impact relationships in even more significant ways.

If you live with ROCD, you might never be sure your partner is the right one for you, no matter how many times you change relationships. This could prevent you from staying in meaningful and fulfilling relationships because of the doubts that OCD puts in your head.

 

How to manage the effects of OCD on relationships

The best way to heal the negative impacts of OCD on your relationships is to heal the OCD itself. OCD is a treatable condition, and receiving the right treatment can bring your prognosis for a fulfilling life with loving relationships from poor to very good.

In most cases, it’s helpful for family members to participate in OCD treatment. By doing so, they can learn how to support the person with OCD without accommodating or enabling. Family therapy can also address the effects of OCD on the family relationships themselves.

Our OCD treatment program at The Center • A Place of HOPE uses a unique Whole Person Care approach. That means we intuitively look at every aspect of your health; physical, mental, relational, spiritual, nutritional, emotional, and more. We already have a deep understanding of the many ways in which OCD can impact your life and relationships, and we work to help you heal on a holistic level.

For more information about admissions or to request treatment, get in touch with us today.


[1] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33201647/
[2] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1037/h0080180
[3] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08975353.2017.1291239
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4834420/

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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