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.

  • 31 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • 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.

  • Zuzile

    Zuzile

    November 7th, 2020 at 12:36 AM

    My husband is the same. He’s much older than me and I moved into his house when we married. Whenever I call him out on his need and unreasonable desire for perfection, he kicks me out of his house. 😭. The sad thing is he doesn’t see a need to get help because of course he’s right and what’s wrong with me for not seeing that his way is the best way 😭. It’s a constant cycle of wondering from the time he wakes up, what I’ve done wrong this time that has caused his mood to change. I say wondering because he’ll never tell me, because of course I’m supposed to know what they are thinking. Is this a way to live though?

  • Alona

    Alona

    January 3rd, 2021 at 11:07 PM

    I am at a loss how to deal with my partners OCPD / he won’t acknowledge that he has a problem yet I can see all the traits / he has a convoluted answer for ever And everyone else is wrong – I’m a mess and am sad all the time – I love him so much but I can’t do anything right anymore-how did he hide this for so long

  • OwlJulie

    OwlJulie

    January 10th, 2021 at 11:13 AM

    My 79 year old father has run tyranny over my weak mother who never stands up for herself. He is a dominating man and always believes he CANT be wrong, because then the universe would melt. He is insane part of the time and illogical, yet cant be told anything. He is a nightmare to deal with. He believes everything is my mother’s fault, not his. He is like a bull in a china shop every day! He is highly aggressive. It helps me to know that all of this is just his anxiety, now I know his secret- normally he acts domineering and blaming but now I know he is just a scared little rat but because of his big voice he sounds like a monster.

  • Grant

    Grant

    February 13th, 2021 at 3:19 AM

    Married 40 years.
    My wife can’t stand the teaspoons being out of position in the cutlery drawer and obsessively rearranges them to suit her.
    Or for me to buy some extra teaspoons that I like….or for me to buy anything little thing for us on my own. More silent treatment ensues from her.
    Or the sugar bowl to be left on the kitchen bench with the coffee etc..
    She also obsesses over the pantry door being left ajar to a point where she slams the door hard enough for it to come off its guide rails…..yet she regularly leaves kitchen cupboard doors and drawers open.
    And once spent nearly two years fighting and punishing me with passive aggressive behaviour and silence because I wanted to leave an extra roll of toilet paper out for our regular guests.
    To control me she would take all the spare rolls of toilet paper with her to work to stop me from putting an extra one out. Weird!
    If I don’t agree with her on any particular point she often starts punching me hard….even when we are together in the car…and I am driving it!
    She also insists that she is the only one that knows the best route to take on any journey and pesters me until we are disagreeing loudly.
    She also sees fit to leave me notes about my little failures but never admits that she has any….she just criticizes mine regularly.
    She has never said sorry for anything….but demands that I do under threat of loosing my allowance of mutual conversation and pleasantries.

  • Nancy

    Nancy

    April 3rd, 2021 at 5:09 PM

    This article really hit home with me. My husband hasn’t been diagnosed yet and refuses to go to counseling, but he sure seems to have the majority of the characteristics of this disorder. I’ve been struggling with my husband’s ever evolving list of house rules, and his frustration with those people (even our young grandchildren), who don’t follow the rules. I’ve tried an endless number of approaches with him, to help try to see that breaking one of his rules isn’t the end of the world, and that it continues to negatively impact our relationship and other family relationships. But, he insists that he is right, and that his expectations are not unrealistic. Some of the things we’re fighting about are so minor, but to him, they are extremely important and he won’t drop it until we agree to do things his way. There are other things that trigger this behavior, but the frustrating thing about living with someone like this is they really believe they are right! It’s SO stressful living like this…..I hope I can find a counselor that will help me cope better with his behaviors. Thank you for the information presented!

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    April 5th, 2021 at 4:58 AM

    Incredibly helpful article, validating. I can see a shred of hope and realize that responding to a person who has OCPD must be modified. I cannot expect my spouse to respond as any other person would. It is a sad realization that they might never completely change but maybe improve. Also reading other’s comments and experiences, while heartbreaking, is very comforting to know as a spouse, we’re not alone. Others are out there dealing with this in their marriage.

  • Nancy

    Nancy

    April 15th, 2021 at 8:22 AM

    I’ve just figured out from my own counseling, that my husband has all the symptoms of OCPD and it was like a light bulb went on. This article and all the comments are exactly what I’ve been dealing with for 33 years. He is always right, goes from happy to rage in minutes and I’m left wondering “what just happened here”. He has finally agreed to go seek help from a counselor and I now that I know its not all my fault, I can start to process and deal on my own, decide whether I want to stay or not. When things are good they are awesome and when they are bad they are shit. It is comforting to know we are not alone….

  • Tim

    Tim

    April 23rd, 2021 at 9:00 AM

    I recently went through a divorce, and it has broken my heart. I still love my wife, however her OCPD traits belittled me, and made me feel worthless for 26 years. She still loves me as well, however the thought of getting back together triggers so much stress for me. I wish I had seen this article many years ago.

  • Becky

    Becky

    April 23rd, 2021 at 2:25 PM

    I also have a spouse with OCPD. It has been the hardest thing I have ever had to deal with in my life. We have been married for 20 years and luckily have two great kids and , (thank goodness), my husband is a good Dad. It is mind boggling because he receives numerous awards at work, has friends, decent relationships with his family, but I get the brunt of his controlling, perfectionistic, judgemental, self righteous ways. Having an intact family is so important to me but it has come with a cost. My friends and family have often urged me to consider divorce but the thought of seeing my kids half time, (he would not settle for anything less), just about kills me. So, I hang in there and do my best to set boundaries and assert myself but even that has consequences because as soon as i do, (and I mean minimal self assertion-I am a soft spoken, gentle person)-will cause him to shut down and detach in a way that makes it seem he could care less if I existed or not. There is so little out there to help the OCPD spouse. But this author has been life saving-he is so knowledgeable and helps me feel understood and also helps me not take my husband’s detached judgmental dismissive ways so personally. I know my husband was shamed by his Mom so I’m pretty sure that is why I get the brunt of his discontent. As much as I feel for all you spouses out there-I take some comfort knowing I’m not alone in this.

  • Jackie

    Jackie

    April 30th, 2021 at 11:16 AM

    I’m so glade I came across this website. My husband and I have been married for 10 yrs and together longer. The thing is for years off and on our jobs would have us living in different separate locations. But every time we live under the same roof for 1- 2 years, I would become drained from what I now know is his OCPD behaviors. I had no ideal what was going on at first. Therefore I would be trying to figure out what have I done to deserve the silent treatment for weeks or months. I would continuously ask what is wrong, what is going on. Then he would wake up one day speaking to me like he had not gone the couple of weeks not communicating with me, unless I asked him a question which he would only give me a head nod or one word answer. I’m not a passive, people pleasure type person. I’m a person that likes to discuss issues and listen to others points of views. I’m a Gray thinker when it comes to things not a Black & White thinker. So constantly being told or treated like I’m always wrong n he is always right has not sat well with me. The trying to figure out what have I done now to get the silent treatment has not sat well with me. Me not always agree with his point of view on things from important to unimportant causing him to yell and tell me my thoughts n conversation are stupid have not sat well with me. His Jekyll and Hyde personality moments over the years have not sat well with me. Him never admitting that he is wrong when it is bold n obvious that he is has not sat well with me. So after being with him for 8 years during one of his silent treatments I decided that I was not going to keep asking him what was wrong and I only spoke to him when I needed a questioned asked. Well this didn’t set well with him. After about 3-4 months of this he wanted to talk bout our living situation. He said us living like this was unhealthy. I said “oh it’s unhealthy when both of us are walking around here not speaking to each other but it’s healthy when it’s just you walking around here for weeks n months not speaking to me”. Of course that was not the point he was making. He said the situation was not working for him and he wanted a divorce. I said ok. I eventually moved out of the house and he told me I left him SMH! He had drawn up divorce papers and all. I signed them before I had moved out. He never filled the papers. He told me bout a year later that Everything was my fault because I’m the one that left. He said he asked for a divorce to see if I would fight for our marriage so it was my fault. We got back together but things eventually started looking like there old ways.
    Living with someone with OCPD has aided in me developing anxiety and having moments of depression.
    So for my own mental health I told my husband I want a separation. I Love my husband dearly, but at what cause.

  • Dr. M

    Dr. M

    May 25th, 2021 at 4:02 AM

    i am little bit relaxed to know i m not alone .i m married for 7 yrs my husband is diagnosed with OCPD since 1 yr .he took medication for few days but he was good when he was taking medication .now he stopped medication . he refuses medicines counselling he gets irritated on even very small things his behaviour is unpredictable.he needs perfection in everything but his all anger frustration is on me and now he shows it on kids even.this article was helpful looking for few tips how to protect our mental health in managing such people because its very hard n stressful

  • Becky

    Becky

    May 25th, 2021 at 10:03 AM

    In addition to great articles like this and this author, I have found attachment theory to be very enlightening and comforting. My spouse definitely falls in the avoidant attachment style and realizing how so much of his dysfunction started way back in his earliest years with his mom- really helped me remember not to take his dismissive personality so personally. It’s almost impossible not to be hurt by an ocpd spouse because they tend to value perfection and achieving or intimacy. Marital intimacy takes vulnerability and conflict resolution and meeting each other half way. That rarely happens in my house. But knowledge is power and when I read this personality type from an attachment theory ( Diane Poole hellers work), it was like a comforting light bulb went off!

  • Niki

    Niki

    May 28th, 2021 at 7:28 PM

    My husband also got diagnosed with OCPD ,4months now. I recently got married. But it’s very stressful living with this personality. I feel good after reading this article. All comment section is really inspiring. Looking for some more information on this.

  • Yolanda

    Yolanda

    May 29th, 2021 at 12:06 PM

    These comments are invaluable. I’m just married too after 5 years of dating. I wonder if I made a mistake sometimes. It’s hard to separate the thoughts of him just Neón a good old fashioned manipulator and someone with undiagnosed OCPD.

  • Taylor

    Taylor

    June 7th, 2021 at 11:45 AM

    I’ve been in a relationship with someone who has been diagnosed with adhd, depression and anxiety. Recently she switched psychiatrists with the help of her counselor (who is amazing) and they brought up OCD and also want to start her on anger management as part of her treatment plan. After reading this article I believe it’s more OCPD than OCD. I know the depression and anxiety are there too. She already goes for individual therapy and I’ve mentioned the idea of couples therapy which she is open to. The problem for me is that these behaviors have damaged our relationship a lot over the last 10 months, every little argument and she’s trying to end the relationship. I’ve always tried to hold us together because when things are good and she’s feeling good…she’s amazing! But when things are bad they get really bad. I’ve never been and would never be physical with her but she has been physical with me a couple times (mostly just hard shoving) but I don’t react. I’m a very easy going person which I fear has led to me being more of a pushover than I should’ve been. I do love her and only desire to see her improve and be happy because she deserves it so much coming from the childhood that she had and dealing with all the people in her family (all with their own mental health issues). I’m just not sure if the best thing for both of us isn’t to break up so she can concentrate on her healing and not our relationship, and also I’m getting to the point where I feel very beat down. She keeps getting mad at me when I don’t talk or if I don’t respond to her texts within a few minutes, if I’m not being upbeat and high energy then something is wrong with me and I don’t know what to say I’m those moments to not set her off. I feel weak for even writing some of these things but I know that’s wrong. I guess I’m just at the point in this post where I don’t know if I should stay or go. My friends (who have very limited knowledge of what happens in our relationship) are all seeing the effects on me no matter how I try to hide it and even though she claims she doesn’t mind if I spend time with them or play video games with them, in those moments she’s constantly trying to interrupt or get my attention. It’s domineering to say the least. I fear that this relationship is not salvageable but I also fear that if I call it quits that she may hurt herself (because of her depression) and I couldn’t live with myself if that happened. I don’t know what to do.

  • ak

    ak

    June 11th, 2021 at 2:11 PM

    so I read up some comments…im a med student and my boyfriend is dealing with the same…but to save our relationship I have let down my self respect and blamed it all on me…still he gets too frustrated and behaves so arrogantly..mentally im drained…just that I saw people posting about their life happenings…I thought so to do so as well….instead of protecting myself…I mean I really couldn’t do it…still can’t move on because that would be harder than staying with him.

  • ak

    ak

    June 11th, 2021 at 2:13 PM

    typically that’s my situation.

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