Editor’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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
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