A partner with OCPD (obsessive compulsive personality disorder), can be really difficult to live with. They usually aren’t aware how extreme their rigidity has become and are often convinced that they’re right all the time. Their perfectionistic, controlling and workaholic tendencies can leave you feeling criticized, run-down, and abandoned.
But with intention on their part and support from others, people with compulsive tendencies can change and become great partners—loyal, hard-working, dependable, and conscientious.
I’ll suggest seven steps to help you and your partner deal with the challenge. But first here are two key ideas to keep in mind as you consider all these steps:
- Appeal to the part of your partner that really wants to do the right thing. That’s at the core of the compulsive personality, however skewed it might have become. Their rules were originally meant to protect people, but they’ve put the cart before the horse. Once they recognize that nurturing their relationship is also the “right thing” to do, they can channel their energy into the project. This appeals to those with compulsive personality, and can help them move to the healthier end of the spectrum.
- Still, you’ll need to sort out what is and is not within your control. In very severe cases of OCPD there may be little you can do to help them change other than urge them to get professional help. And you should not tolerate abuse of any sort. But in all cases you’ll need to focus on what you can do to improve not only your relationship, but also your own life, rather than waiting for your partner to change. As we’ll see below, this can actually help your partner change.
1. Foster Communication With Your Partner with OCPD
Compulsives don’t always communicate well. They’re often too busy to bother saying what they feel, and their behavior implies that they feel indifferent or critical. Worse, since they’ve spent much of their life “doing” rather than feeling, they may know little about what they feel. None of this means they don’t care; it means that they’re consumed with getting things done—ironically, maybe even getting things done for you.
None of this justifies bad behavior, but don’t assume that they don’t care or that they can read your mind. If you do, it will make matters worse. You can break this cycle by starting with curiosity: “Do you know how that makes me feel? Did you mean to make me feel bad?”
Strike while the iron is cold. If your partner is reactive or over-sensitive, it’s best not to try to have a discussion when they’re upset. Their rigidity and perfectionism probably get worse when they’re under pressure. Tell them you want to work it out with them when they feel calmer. Find a time when they’re less upset to engage. There will never be a perfect time, but if they’re overwhelmed with fear or anger, they may not be able to communicate well. If you can ask them about their intentions when they’re calm, you might be able to enter into a constructive dialogue.
2. See the Intentions Beneath the Surface
Extreme compulsiveness is the way some people who are naturally driven try to cope with their anxiety. When they’re upset their energy and good intentions get hijacked by their fear that they won’t meet expectations and that they will feel shame. Even when they look like they have it all together, underneath they’re probably feeling very vulnerable. It may be hard to imagine how disturbing this is for them. If you can keep this in mind, rather than taking their behavior personally, it will be easier to break the cycle and to find creative solutions to your disagreements.
3. Appreciate the Good
Perspective determines the quality of all relationships to some extent. You can choose whether to focus on your partner’s shortcomings or their strengths. If you can remember the good things they bring to the table, it will help you immensely.
It will also be helpful–to both of you–to tell your partner you appreciate it when they do something that feels good to you. If they do let go of control, spend time with you, say something nice, or slow down and listen, tell them that you noticed it and that you value it. That makes it more likely to happen again.
I find it helpful to understand people with OCPD as “driven,” which is far less pathologizing and can help them be more receptive to feedback.
4. Encourage Your Partner with OCPD to Get Help
People who have OCPD usually don’t think that they have a problem and resist getting help. It can be hard to get them to go to counselling or therapy, but here are some suggestions for framing it in a way that may appeal to them.
•Explain that the reason to get help is not a matter of their under-functioning, but of their habitual over-functioning. This is not a matter of weakness, but of excessive strength. They need someone professional to interrupt that pattern.
• Convey that you know they want to do the right thing.
• Recommend other articles on this blog to help them see their strengths and challenges so they might feel less criticized and more open to change.
• Help them understand the impact they have on others.
• Point out the impact their lifestyle has on their own physical and mental well-being. They may be oblivious to how they’re treating themselves, and that they could be happier than they are.
• Point out how their control actually gets in the way of their goals.
And now let’s focus a bit more on you.
5. Avoid the Division of Labor
Be wary of the division of labor in which one person is serious and demanding while the other is easy going and accepting. One brings responsibility, self-restraint and reason, the other brings joy, emotion and spontaneity. If you expect your partner to do all the organizing, providing, and limit-setting, don’t be surprised if they get very grumpy.
Imagine a spectrum from extreme compulsivity to extreme casualness. Imagine that the further one person in a couple goes toward either end, the other person automatically moves toward the opposite end. Now imagine that one person moves toward the center. The other will usually also move toward the center.
It’s also not fair to you to be cast into a limited role; your own psychological well-being is compromised if you’re supposed to stay in the less driven end of the spectrum. Are they living out your ambition for you? Is it possible that you feel uncomfortable with your own strength and anger and you have them express it for you? Or, on the other hand, are you expressing all the anger for them?
You might find it rewarding to allow yourself some ambition and pursue your own accomplishments. And you might find it empowering to own your own anger in a constructive way. If you can resist the division of labor, it can help the compulsive to move more toward the center of the spectrum.
Another danger is that you could take a victim role in response to their hostility, control, or over-working. Ask yourself honestly if there is anything you get out of the situation. Has it been safer or more comfortable to have someone else making all the plans and decisions and taking all the risk? It may have allowed you to avoid responsibility that you’d rather not have to deal with. Also, for some people, tolerating egregious or hostile behavior may feel like a virtue, when it doesn’t really help either of you.
Still, it will be important for you to value what you bring to the relationship: don’t forget the good things you do offer that are very different from what they offer. Their demeanor may lead you to underestimate what you mean to them.
6. Set Boundaries
But even after communicating, understanding and appreciating, it will still be important to set boundaries. If your partner has been diagnosed with OCPD, that should not be used as an excuse for offensive or oppressive behavior. If they want to be perfectionistic, workaholic or controlling that’s their choice, but they should not impose their standards on you. Seek compromise that takes into account what’s hard for both of you. Try not to give in to unrealistic demands.
Don’t let their condition become the focus of your life. It could become a distraction from your own challenges and happiness. If you find yourself talking and thinking about them all the time, set an intention to focus on what is within your control: change either the situation or your attitude toward it.
7. Create Your Own Support System
Having friends, a therapist, or a support group is particularly important if the compulsive person in your life is demanding. A support network can help you to keep track of what’s reasonable. Ask your friends for true reality checks. If you simply want to be validated, it won’t be much help. But asking trusted friends for honest feedback about what your partner can reasonably expect of you can help keep you grounded.
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Being close to someone who is compulsive has its challenges and rewards. Appealing to their deeper, positive inclinations, and keeping the focus on what is within your control, may help you enjoy more of the rewards.
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