For the first time since high school (first time in almost seven years!), I’m dating. And by dating, I mean I have a boyfriend. Like a real, adult, committed relationship kind of boyfriend. And it’s mostly amazing. Mostly, because of course, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is involved.
I’ve written a great deal about being in recovery from OCD and what recovery means to me. Recovery doesn’t mean I never have an intrusive thought or I never do a compulsion. Recovery means I have the tools to deal with the less frequent intrusive thoughts and urges to do compulsions.
I’m not surprised OCD is involved in this new relationship. OCD often attacks what we care about or value because it’s easy fuel. What I am surprised by is how little writing I’ve seen about actually telling your partner about OCD, in particular, relationship OCD (ROCD).
What is ROCD?
Simply put, ROCD is a subtype (or flavor, as I like to call them) of OCD in which the obsessions revolve around a relationship. It can sound like:
“What if I don’t actually like this person? What if we’re not compatible? What if they’re not the right one for me? What if I have feelings for someone else or am attracted to someone else? What if they don’t really love me?”
Sound familiar? Of course, everyone has occasional intrusive thoughts; the difference is people with OCD get stuck on these thoughts in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions.
It’s one thing to tell my partner I have OCD and sometimes I fear I’ve left the stove on and accidentally caused a fire. It’s another thing to tell my partner I fear I don’t actually have feelings for him. How do I tell my partner about this kind of OCD without hurting them?
General OCD Psychoeducation
I felt the need to create context first before sharing thoughts that might be taken so personally by my boyfriend, so I started with general education about OCD. Since I’m already so open about OCD with just about anyone on the internet, it was easiest to begin with my blog. Having so much of my journey with OCD already written out is a huge resource. I simply sent him the link to my blog; he began at the beginning and has started reading.
I understand, though how others may not want to share their exact OCD thoughts with their partner, at least not at the beginning of the relationship. It may feel more comfortable to initially share others’ thoughts and experiences that are similar. For that, there are countless blogs, articles and videos out there. My boyfriend and I also sat down to watch a documentary about OCD, called “Extreme OCD Camp.” Simply put, several years ago, this documentary changed my life. It was how I truly figured out what I was struggling with was OCD, and it was how I first learned about exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP).
We watched this documentary together, and it was incredibly helpful. My boyfriend said it helped him ask the right questions. He learned about the OCD cycle and about OCD being egodystonic, or that we typically know the thoughts and compulsions are illogical. He was also able to see exposure therapy in action. Not that I want my boyfriend to act as my therapist, but if we’re going to be spending a lot of time together, it’s important that he knows about exposure and not responding to my thoughts with reassurance, which is just another form of compulsion.
Talking About ROCD Specifically
Because my boyfriend seemed to understand OCD so well after watching the film and talking, I felt comfortable sharing some of my ROCD thoughts with him the next time they came up. In true OCD fashion, this didn’t take long. I started by saying, “My brain is doing that thing again.” Granted, that wasn’t the kindest way to talk about my brain, but it helped me start a conversation. Gradually, I shared more of the thoughts. They sounded something like this:
“What if I don’t really have feelings for you? What if we’re not really compatible? What if this relationship ends, and I’ve been vulnerable for nothing. What if I end up hurting you?”
Sharing these thoughts was incredibly personal and scary. I’m open about my OCD, but opening up to a new person can still feel frightening. There is always some risk they won’t “get it,” and I especially didn’t want that when the thoughts were about him.
Thankfully, he didn’t take these thoughts personally. He responded not with reassurance about OCD, but he assured me I have the tools to deal with these OCD thoughts. This made me feel confident in my skills and well-supported.
“What if…” Is Not Morgan Talking
While sharing these thoughts, I also had a realization I’ve used to explain OCD to close friends before. Almost always, when sentences begin with, “What if…,” that is not Morgan talking. That is OCD talking. I mentioned this to my boyfriend, and he caught on immediately.
With that in mind, and in the spirit of the “Extreme OCD Camp” documentary teaching about exposure therapy, I changed my questions to “maybe” statements.
“Maybe I don’t really have feelings for you. Maybe we’re not really compatible. Maybe this relationship will end, and I’ve been vulnerable for nothing. Maybe I will end up hurting you.”
This was difficult to say aloud, and if I’m being honest, it may have led to some tears. But I was able to pretty quickly work through the thoughts and move on. For me, crying is a natural, healthy release of stress and other emotions. It’s just part of feeling feelings and working through them.
To Share or Not to Share?
I think the main reason saying these thoughts was so hard for me wasn’t because I was worried about causing myself pain. I know I can handle strong emotions. It was because I was worried about hurting my partner. I don’t want to cause someone else pain. This fear can lead to shame and secrecy that will only cause OCD to grow. Brené Brown talks a great amount about dealing with shame, and how sharing and vulnerability are often the solutions to resolving that shame.
The other question that comes up is this: By sharing ROCD thoughts with my partner, am I giving the thoughts weight and feeding the OCD? And the answer is, kind of. With OCD, the more we react to the thoughts, the more we are training our brain these thoughts are, in fact, dangerous and we need to do something about them (i.e., compulsions). I’m saying, “Hey brain! Pay attention! This is real danger! Do a compulsion!” When we allow, and even welcome, the thoughts, they will pass sooner like leaves floating by on a river. Instead, we’re saying, “Hey brain. I’m cool with these thoughts. They may make me uncomfortable, but I can handle that feeling. Bring on the discomfort.”
For this reason, I don’t think I should tell my partner about my ROCD thoughts every time they come up. Otherwise, I’m adding fuel to the fire of OCD. Nonetheless, I do think it can be useful to sometimes share when I’m having thoughts, or to still share in a more general, less moment-specific way. It helps him understand what I’m going through and what it’s like in my brain. And to me, that is important for a relationship.