How anxiety and OCD can affect relationships

Last week, BBC Stories published a fantastic video online in which people with anxiety disorders were interviewed about their conditions and how they affect their relationships with others. Two of the people interviewed for the video were couple India and Teo, who spoke about India's OCD and how they have supported one another through her ongoing battle with the condition. We wanted to hear more from India and Teo, so we caught up with them to ask some further questions about how OCD has had an impact on their relationship, and what advice they would give to others who may be struggling...

 

India, at what point in your relationship did you tell Teo about your OCD, and what made you feel comfortable doing so? Had you spoken about it before?

I knew I needed to tell Teo when my OCD was starting to have an impact on aspects of the relationship, particularly the more physical aspects. I was having lots of intrusive thoughts which made me feel particularly anxious about becoming pregnant and the compulsion was avoidance of sex altogether. I knew the thoughts were irrational but they felt so convincing, particularly on the run up to my final exams. I was also worried Teo would think my avoidance behaviour was something to do with him, which of course it wasn’t. I hoped by telling him it would provide relief for him as he would know more about what was causing my behaviour and how we could work to overcome this barrier together. It was a bit daunting for me initially as we hadn’t discussed the OCD before but having been going out with Teo for a couple of months at the time, I trusted that he would be very understanding about the OCD and would want to help.

Teo, how did you feel when India told you about her OCD? Did you know much about the condition beforehand?

I didn’t judge her or question her. I could see that it wasn’t easy for her to tell me and so I didn’t want to make it any more difficult. I just wanted to help her really. I hardly knew anything about the condition beforehand. I knew about the most well-known manifestations like hand-washing and lock-checking, but had never spoken to anyone else that I knew had OCD or done much research into it.

India, how did you feel once Teo knew about your OCD, and how he had reacted? Was his reaction what you had expected?

As I have previously mentioned, I knew it would be a relief for us both to tell Teo about the OCD. He was glad I had been honest with what was causing my behaviour and I was relieved I no longer had to keep it hidden. He was very keen to help straight from the start and asked me what he should do/say when I was struggling. Once he knew about it, I was confident in the fact we would be able to work through this together.

Teo, what support do you provide to India when she is struggling with her OCD, and from your experiences, how do you feel it is best for a partner to support someone with OCD?

When India is struggling with her OCD, I firstly just listen, without judging. If asking for reassurance is the compulsion, I try not to reassure the OCD but do reassure India. By this I mean that I don’t challenge the specific intrusive thoughts, which can make them seem more real, but instead just tell India that I’m here to help her get through this, and that she doesn’t have to do it all by herself. I remind her that everyone has intrusive thoughts and she’s not a bad person for having them, it’s just the OCD hanging onto them. I would say that the most important thing is trying to find out as much as you can about the disorder, both in general and specifically how it is affecting your partner. Asking your partner about this is probably the simplest way, but there are also lots of great resources online. Also, try to talk about the OCD as a separate thing to the person. Create a feeling like it’s us against the OCD, rather than seeing the OCD as a part of that person that they need to change, I think can be helpful.

India, for people reading this who may be worrying about telling a partner about their OCD, what advice would you give them about when to do it and how to go about it?

It is difficult to determine the right time to tell someone. I think it is highly dependent on the partner, the type of relationship, and the severity of the OCD. I think the best time would be when  our partner knows you well enough as a person without the OCD first. Telling someone about your OCD can sometimes be difficult for them to deal with so the relationship needs to be at a stage where you trust each another and there is respect and understanding. I also needed to be at a stage where I felt comfortable to talk about it as well. 

Do both of you feel like OCD impacts on your relationship at all (either positively or negatively), and if negatively in any way, how do you overcome these things together? What advice would you give to others?

India: Before I told Teo about the OCD, my behaviour was beginning to have an impact on the relationship as I wasn’t being honest about the reasons why. But once I told him about the OCD, it has become something we’ve worked on together in a positive way and something I am increasingly better at managing as a result. The more I talk about it and how it affects me, the more Teo can help and respond when the OCD is bad. I know I mustn’t allow myself to seek reassurance for the OCD at times, but Teo is now aware of this and helps me to see when worries are more rational or OCD-generated. This has been a great way to help me challenge my OCD. I think the key is being open with each other to allow for your partner to support you in the best possible way.

Teo: It was difficult at first not to instinctively give reassurance when India was struggling with obsessions. It’s a natural reaction to try and reassure someone you care about if they’re anxious about something, but this can be detrimental in the long-term if you’re constantly reassuring the OCD. However, we’ve talked about this quite often and I have learned a lot from India on how to react when this does happen. It’s not always easy to determine when it’s the OCD and the thought-process is irrational, and when a worry is completely ‘normal’ and the thought-process is rational. This can make it difficult to know when it’s okay to give reassurance and when it’s not. But India is very good at telling me when it is the OCD, and the more I learn about it, the easier it is becoming for me to determine this as well.

 

If you have OCD or are a partner of someone with the condition, there's lots of support avilable for you, including online support groups specifically for partners.