How to Improve a Relationship with a Partner Who Has OCPD

Couple looking at plant roots while putting plants into potsEditor’s note: Gary Trosclair, DMA, LCSW is a private practice psychotherapist and Jungian analyst in New York City and Westchester County, New York. His continuing education presentation for GoodTherapy, titled “The Healthy Compulsive: Treating Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder,” will take place on March 27, 2020 and is eligible for two CE credits. This event is available at no additional cost to Premium and Pro GoodTherapy Members (Basic Members and mental health professionals without membership can view this event live for $29.95). Learn more and register here.

If your partner is controlling, rigid, perfectionistic, and preoccupied with work and orderliness, they may have OCPD, or obsessive compulsive personality disorder. While even many therapists are unfamiliar with this diagnosis, it’s the most common personality disorder found in the United States, at a rate of about 7.9% of the population (Sansone & Sansone, 2011).

But it’s also the most unrecognized (Koutoufa & Furnham, 2014).

OCPD vs. OCD

Many people, even clinicians, confuse OCPD with OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder. While there is some overlap in symptoms, OCD is significantly different and is characterized by more specific problems such as repetitive hand-washing, locking and unlocking doors, the need to have everything clean and orderly, and intrusive thoughts.

People with OCPD, on the other hand, have issues that affect the entire personality. And this can have a more devastating impact on relationships.

One of the defining distinctions between OCD and OCPD is that people with OCPD tend to be good at delaying gratification—often too good.

One of the defining distinctions between OCD and OCPD is that people with OCPD tend to be good at delaying gratification—often too good. To understate the case, they’re not typically known for being fun-loving.

The Continuum of Compulsive Personality

Many people have just traits of OCPD, not full-blown OCPD. That is, they may struggle in some of the ways that people with OCPD do but don’t meet all of the criteria for the diagnosis. In fact, compulsive traits are found on a continuum—from healthy and adaptive to unhealthy and maladaptive, from conscientious and productive to rigid and destructive.

Partners with a compulsive personality style can be loyal, hard-working, reliable, productive, meticulous, conscientious, and dependable.

Still, even people who have just some traits of OCPD can be difficult to live with. They may insist on having things their way because they’re convinced their way is the right way. They can be very critical and domineering. They may emphasize work over relationships. And they can get so caught up in rules and schedules that they lose the point of whatever they’re doing.

For instance, they may often forget the point of a vacation. They tend to keep working the whole time and are prone to getting upset when things don’t go exactly as planned.

OCPD and Relationships

The same can be said for how people with OCPD handle their relationships. Doing things right can become more important than being happy together. As someone who frequently writes about OCPD, much of the correspondence I receive comes from partners of people with OCPD asking desperately for advice about how to live with them.

You can’t always work out relationships with people who have full-blown OCPD. If they refuse to go to individual therapy or couples therapy, if they are unwilling to acknowledge that their life is out of balance, and if they don’t take responsibility for how they treat you, there may be little you can do but protect yourself.

Improving a Relationship with an OCPD Partner

Some relationships with OCPD partners can improve. Their compulsiveness can be enlisted in the service of the relationship.

But in this article, I want to focus on what partners of individuals with OCPD can do to improve the relationship.

In order to jump-start that process, you may need to consider that they don’t cause all the problems on their own. Conflict in relationships is most often an issue of fit and chemistry. And there are two sides to every story. As people with high levels of compulsiveness can become very adamant about being right, it can be hard not to get caught up in the same approach. This can lead to defending yourself rather than seeing what you might do differently to help the relationship get back on track.

Getting out of “right and wrong” thinking will probably take initiative on your part. And if you see that you have some role in the conflicts, you have more power to start the process of change.

Even if you don’t have a role in the problems, you may be the one who needs to instigate change. It’s not fair. But it just may be the reality of your situation.

Keys to Change in OCPD Relationships

Here are some things you can do if you want to stay in the relationship and try to make it work.

I will address these in three separate categories: how you see and treat your partner, how you communicate with your partner, and how you take care of yourself. Any one of these keys will probably not be enough in itself to initiate change. However, the three together can make a significant impact on the quality of your relationship.

Perspective

  • Despite how they come across, your partner likely wants to do the right thing. When they become mean and rigid, it’s often because their anxiety is very high. This insecurity can lead them to be defensive. Work, perfection, control, and rules may be their way to try to protect themselves against shame.
  • Do what you can to lower their anxiety, which could in turn help them lower their demands.
  • Ask yourself if you play any role in their anxiety. If they feel they have to be responsible for getting everything done, they are likely to become angry and resentful because they may fear they won’t get it right, and they will be blamed.
  • Reflect on whether you’ve allowed a situation to develop in which you allow them to do most of the work or take most of the responsibility because it’s easier for you. This would not be obvious, conscious, or intentional on your part. But it may still be part of the equation.
  • Appreciate what they do well and tell them about it. Notice what their temperament contributes to the relationship, such as being loyal, reliable, conscientious, and hardworking.

While it may have become skewed, the original intention of their rules was likely to make things safe for people.

Communication

  • Reassure them that they don’t have to be perfect, and point out how their perfectionism is hurting them.
  • Let them know the effect they have on you with “I” statements (not “you” statements). People with OCPD tend to be so consumed with getting projects done and with doing them in a particular way that they may lose track of the effect they have on others.
  • Ask them to attend couples therapy with you. Remind them that therapists are cheaper than divorce attorneys.
  • Encourage them to go to individual therapy for their own benefit. They’re probably hurting themselves living the way they do. Find a way to describe this that will not raise their defenses. (Hint: Telling them they have obsessive compulsive personality disorder or that they are a “control freak” probably won’t help. Telling them they are “driven,” a “workaholic,” or “type A personality” might work.)
  • Set appropriate boundaries. Just because they feel that the house should be vacuumed every day doesn’t mean you have to do it.

Self-Care

  • Partners of people with OCPD often have a sense of being “under” the person with OCPD, of being dominated by them. While this is often an accurate assessment, if you can recognize that it is their anxiety that leads to their need to control and that they actually need what you have to offer them, you may be able to get out from “under” them and forge a more equal relationship.
  • Reflect on whether your own personality style (e.g. easygoing, people-pleaser, or submissive) makes it difficult to be on more equal terms. If you don’t own your power, your partner will.
  • Remember that despite the way they act, they still have a need for love, and probably a need for a connection with you. There is likely something you have that they lack and need from you—humor, kindness, sensitivity, generosity, or the ability to loosen up and play.
  • Protect yourself and find support with family, friends, groups, and a therapist. If your own personality style makes you vulnerable to their domination, it will be especially important to get support in shifting the balance in the relationship.

While some relationships with partners who have OCPD may not be viable, others can improve with psychotherapy and a different approach from you, their partner. This will take heroic initiative on your part, but it may be worth it.

References:

  1. Koutoufa, I., & Furnham, A. (2014, January 30). Mental health literacy and obsessive–Compulsive personality disorder. Psychiatry Research, 215(1), 223-228. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2013.10.027
  2. Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2011). Personality disorders: A nation-based perspective on prevalence. Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, 8(4), 13–18. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21637629

© Copyright 2020 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Gary S. Trosclair, LCSW, DMA, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 14 comments
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  • Dawn

    Dawn

    February 18th, 2020 at 10:46 AM

    Looking forward to this presentation!

  • David F

    David F

    March 21st, 2020 at 12:48 PM

    Gary Trasclair article is the best advice and the only one I have found that speaks to my [our] condition. Without some outside help I get in a very poor mental state. Gary’s advice has been uplifting!

  • Jamye

    Jamye

    June 1st, 2020 at 5:01 PM

    Just diagnosed. Not sure what to think or say yet.

  • Lisa W.

    Lisa W.

    June 25th, 2020 at 12:12 AM

    My spouse has this pretty severely, and I wonder what effects it will have long-term on our children. I hope to find more articles like this addressing these things specifically. This is the easiest read on this subject I’ve seen to date. Thank you!

  • Celeste

    Celeste

    June 27th, 2020 at 10:08 AM

    Good read!

  • Melissa

    Melissa

    July 9th, 2020 at 1:14 PM

    This was extremely helpful as my spouse was just diagnosed. This is the best article I have found that helps me, help him. Thank you!

  • Zand

    Zand

    July 21st, 2020 at 2:02 AM

    This is an eye opening article. very helpful thank you for sharing.

  • Teresa M.

    Teresa M.

    August 2nd, 2020 at 3:56 PM

    My husband is extreme. For example, I was just now making supper, and he came into the kitchen, felt salt grains on the countertop with hand, became upset, and reprimanded for the umpteenth time about “making a mess” and asked why I can’t I take the salt shaker over to the sink so that it doesn’t “get everywhere.” We’ve been married 11years, and I have tried to talk rationally and sensible to him about relationships being of more importance than clean surfaces. I have been unsuccessful. He tries to con in e me that he is normal and that everyone lives like him, and I am just a slob. I go out of my way to conform to his household desires of cleanliness, but tonight I’m having a really hard time. He apologized after I stormed off to the bedroom, but I know enough after 11 years of it, that nothing is going to change. I am so sad and feel hopeless. I’ve asked him to get help, but he won’t. He also gets frustrated over the smallest things. I think anti anxiety medication would help.

  • Nikki

    Nikki

    August 4th, 2020 at 7:42 AM

    My brother has been staying with me for over a year (I’m a single mum with adult children who have left home, he’s single). Since lockdown, things have gotten worse, he tries to control how I spend my money, and i feel lie I’m not allowed to have my own opinions. I’m generally easy going, the people pleaser and peacemaker of the family, but I’m at the end of my thether. I feel trapped in my own home, and I’m feeling fed up and resentful. I don’t know where to go from here – I can’t walk on eggshells forever.

  • Kathryn

    Kathryn

    August 19th, 2020 at 2:57 PM

    Helpful read.

  • Yolanda

    Yolanda

    September 7th, 2020 at 12:35 PM

    I know exactly what you mean! I can’t even cut the onions like he wants them, wow, 11 years??!! I’ve only been with him over 4 and don’t like the sound of nothing changes…..

  • Colin

    Colin

    September 18th, 2020 at 1:27 PM

    A helpful read. After 12 years I learn that my partner has many of these traits and the diagnosis mostly fits the behaviours. One of the hardest things is that she is very dominant socially to the extent that I feel I’m disappearing, I’m not getting many words in, and this impacts negatively on relationships outside the family. Is this common?

  • Michael

    Michael

    September 19th, 2020 at 8:02 PM

    I have been married for about a year and a half now to a woman who is SOOO amazing….90% of the time. It’s the other 10% that is draining me. It seems like a Jekyll and Hyde type of thing. When things are good (going the way she wants) she is the woman of my dreams, but when even the littlest of things is not done right she becomes Mr. Hyde and can’t even see it. Our therapist is starting to question me about me tolerance and if I am part of the problem by staying with her with the effects that she might be having on me and the boys. I love her and desire to stay by her side to hopefully help her improve for us and herself. Am I weak for trying to make this marriage work? Should I simply worry myself with my boys and self?

  • Jamye

    Jamye

    September 24th, 2020 at 9:37 AM

    I’ve always done everything to dishes to roofing a house. Made me feel on top of the world. However, didn’t realize how wrong I am.

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