A Spouse’s Pivotal Role

(Note: The use of the term “spouse” in the article below is meant to include any two individuals who are in a relationship.)

Being the spouse of an individual who is struggling with OCD can be extremely difficult, for so many different reasons. Perhaps you’ve had to take on what feels like more than your fair share of household responsibilities. Maybe you now have to do all the cleaning and laundry due to your spouse’s contamination fears. Or perhaps your spouse has fears of certain numbers and can no longer write checks, pay bills, or balance bank statements. And those responsibilities have fallen squarely on your shoulders.

Your social relationships and social activities may have taken a hit, as well. The rituals your spouse has to complete before leaving the house make it difficult, if not impossible, to attend social events. Or due to irrational fears, your spouse can’t even go out in public. You feel guilty if you go to parties or engage in other activities by yourself. You may also find yourself feeling lonely and isolated from people who once held important places in your lives. And you end up feeling frustrated, angry, or even betrayed. Rest assured that this reaction to your spouse’s OCD is not unique. Loving partners who find OCD invading and taking over their lives experience a wide range of emotions.

In engaging with resources like this one, you’ve already taken a positive step toward helping your loved one overcome OCD. Don’t stop now. Remember that no one wants to live a life ruled by OCD. You can be highly influential and effective in helping your spouse gain control over this oftentimes heartbreaking disorder. However, your health matters too. OCD is not just unpleasant for the individual affected. Loved ones often feel distressed and upset too. For this reason, it’s important not to rule out the possibility of professional and/or peer support for yourself and not just your spouse.

Why Me? Why Now?

Those are good questions. But not surprisingly, they have no easy answers.

In some cases, people who develop OCD symptoms as an adult had OCD at some time in their past – before they met their spouses – but were successful in getting control over their symptoms. It’s also possible that your spouse was genetically predisposed to the disorder, and it was triggered by stress or an illness after you got married. Traumatic brain injury can even trigger OCD or OCD-like symptoms. It’s even possible that your spouse hid his or her OCD from you because of embarrassment or, worse yet, because the thought of losing you – if you came to know about the OCD – would be too difficult to bear.

In any case, OCD is neither the fault of the person who develops it nor the fault of a spouse. It’s no one’s fault. OCD is an anxiety disorder that, like all anxiety disorders, is neurobiological in nature. (You can remind each other of this by refreshing your understanding of the physiology of OCD in the OCD Facts or Individuals sections of this web site.) So it does no good to blame each other for the presence of OCD. In fact, blaming can be counterproductive, if not harmful.

What’s most important is that you avoid dwelling on negative thoughts and concentrate on finding a cognitive behavior therapist who can treat your spouse. Many doctors are not familiar enough with OCD to recommend Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). But since CBT, sometimes in combination with medication, is the only scientifically-supported treatment for OCD, don’t let anyone talk you into another alternative. While psychotherapy, couples counseling and other treatments may help individuals with issues they’re experiencing because of the OCD, they do not treat the OCD itself. Nor do hypnosis, herbal or homeopathic remedies, relaxation therapy, eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) or dietary changes. With OCD, urge (don’t nag) your spouse to seek and participate in CBT.

What Can I Do to Help?

Some very important steps to help your loved one can begin with you:

Learn about OCD

You will need to understand what your spouse goes through with this frequently debilitating disorder. We recommend that you visit the OCD Facts or Individuals section of this web site for more information about:

You can access the OCD Facts or Individuals sections through the Home page of this web site, or through these links:

Go to OCD Facts section

Go to Individuals section

Become a Catalyst for Change

We urge you to follow these guidelines:

  • Help your spouse find appropriate treatment for OCD and encourage him or her to actively participate in the therapy process. An extensive body of research supports Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), which is comprised of Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and Cognitive Therapy, as the most effective behavioral treatment for OCD. Medication is sometimes prescribed in conjunction with CBT.
  • Stop enabling OCD in your home or your relationship. Participating in rituals with your loved one or accommodating avoidance behavior actually does not help. In fact, the effect can be just the opposite. Learn more.
  • Try to openly communicate with one another about OCD stressors. The challenges related to OCD situations, OCD’s potential challenge to emotional and physical intimacy – as well as all the other daily stressors couples face – may harm a relationship if not shared.
  • Try to establish a positive emotional climate in the home. The importance of how you communicate with your loved one as well as the level of support you provide cannot be overemphasized. Learn more about how you can manage emotions and attitudes as you interact with the person who has OCD.

If this sounds easier said than done, we understand your skepticism. Beyond OCD’s mission is to help people with OCD get relief, help their families and friends develop the key skills to become agents of change and help initiate dramatic improvements for everyone in the life of an OCD sufferer. The following sections will help you get started:

Take Care of Yourself

Research has indicated that trying to adjust to a loved one’s OCD can result in some – if not severe – distress. And yet they seldom seek the professional help they need; instead, they usually focus on the individual with OCD. Living with or caring for a spouse can be extremely stressful, and it’s critical that you take care of your own physical and psychological needs. Be sure to seek out help when you need it; it’s a sign of strength, not weakness. And when you’re less overwhelmed by frustration, guilt, and other negative emotions, you are in a better state of mind and will actually be more effective in helping your spouse.

You may need to talk with your loved one’s cognitive behavior therapist for guidance or seek help on your own. Don’t be afraid to bring up sensitive issues such as physical and emotional intimacy. OCD can make you and your spouse vulnerable in ways that can be very painful, and it’s normal to protect emotions by building barriers to intimacy.

You may also want to consider attending a local OCD support group that is open to spouses and family members. Talking with others who have had similar experiences and learning about how they have approached family difficulties can be extremely helpful, if not therapeutic.

Can We Ever Be Like We Were Before?

Life is filled with uncertainty, and life with a person who suffers from OCD is no exception. But there is certainly hope for recovery from OCD. With proper treatment, it is possible to navigate the emotional maze you’re experiencing and rebuild a solid relationship with your spouse.

Choosing a Therapist

Stories of successful recovery from OCD

Back to Information for Families

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