Updated: Oct 4, 2021
Don't believe the movies, love is never a simple concept.
Neither is OCD and the combination of both can be messy and unwieldy.
There are three themes of love which crop up most frequently in relation to OCD and they are:
1. Do I love my partner? (Relationship OCD)
2. Loving others when you have OCD (OCD & relationships)
3. Loving yourself when you have OCD (self-acceptance)
For those with relationship OCD, the nature and definition of love is an ever present preoccupation leading to obsession. It starts with the simple question, “Am I feeling love towards my partner?” and quickly becomes a neurotic quest for clarity against a cultural background of misinformation, romanticism, sentimentality, subjectivity, idealism and conjecture. Throw in some physiological responses such as racing heart, breathlessness and sexual attraction and a whole host of online surveys, relationship ‘experts’, well-meaning friends & family, books, videos & movies and you have the perfect environment for an OCD obsession. So much information and so little certainty.
Working therapeutically with relationship OCD means shifting my clients’ focus away from an idealised ‘feeling’, or a definition, and towards an active, present & acceptance-based existence with another human being. There is much to be said for the phrase, “love isn’t a feeling, it’s a commitment to do loving things, day in and day out, to another person, regardless of feelings”. Love can’t be a goal but it can be part of a daily process towards building a meaningful connection with someone else. If ‘loving’ was a spectrum and at one end were the consistent, unconditional, unselfish acts of a parent towards their child, regardless of reciprocation and their own discomfort, and the other end was zero, then love towards a partner is likely to be a dynamic point between the two.
This brings me to the idea of loving others when you have OCD. Outside of the struggle of those with relationship OCD, relationships can be tough when one person has OCD. Studies have shown that OCD can manifest practically as emotional hypersensitivity resulting in rejection, sadness, jealousy, anger, shame and anxiety being felt more acutely in those with OCD. This phenomenon tends to polarise communication with partners which can be either volatile and aggressive or suppressed and passive. Either of these extremes can be accompanied by chronic feelings of low self-worth and self-recrimination. All relationships, regardless of OCD, are challenging and once clients are managing their OCD, I encourage them to work on communication as a crucial foundation for their relationships. To investigate approaches like Non-Violent Communication (NVC) where they can learn to state their needs, observe & not participate in feelings and make solution-based requests to their partners. It also helps considerably if a chosen partner is willing to educate themselves about OCD, set appropriate boundaries and learn guidelines to avoid collusive behaviour.
Finally, dealing well with relationship OCD or being in a relationship if you have OCD, is almost entirely dependent upon the most important love of your life. Your love for yourself. When you have OCD, loving yourself doesn’t come naturally but it is necessary if you want a fulfilling relationship with others and a functional future with OCD. As a therapist, I tend to see a timeline for self-acceptance which starts with accepting you have OCD, accepting you need to do something about it and coming out and sharing this with significant others.
There are many more steps in this process and the commitment is more important than the order. I remember many years ago when I first started as a therapist, a journalist persuaded a reluctant me to commit to an interview about OCD. The result was a double page spread in the London Evening Standard about my own OCD and barely anything about my clinical opinions or work. Pre-Instagram, Facebook or blogging, the journalist rightly assumed that a human interest storyline was much more engaging to readers. Annoyed at the time, this one event shifted my self-acceptance forward by years. My very public ‘outing’, left me no choice other than to accept myself with OCD. Much later, OCD and I are life-long friends but I respect that this friendship will take time for many of my clients and it remains a major component of our OCD treatment.
Worthwhile friendships are based upon unconditional compassion, care, understanding, listening, learning, failure and wiping the slate clean and starting again. During this Valentine’s week, in the midst of these difficult times, there is no more worthwhile and endearing love than that which you give yourself. Try it and see how the other loves in your life suddenly make so much more sense.
With love to you...............