Help for Families Living with OCD

When someone in your family has OCD, everyone is affected. It’s natural to have strong emotions about this intruder in your home.  Feelings can include frustration, resentment, anger, embarrassment and exhaustion from trying to live in a household where OCD seems to be in control.

If you are at a point where you only suspect that OCD may be the problem, it’s important for your loved one to have a thorough evaluation and get an accurate diagnosis so treatment can begin – whether for OCD or another mental disorder that may be causing distress.  If your loved one is undergoing OCD treatment, you can play an important role in supporting his or her recovery.  If he or she is diagnosed with OCD but refuses to get treatment, it will be important for you to learn why some people avoid treatment and how you may be able to encourage your loved one to seek help.

You already know there are no quick fixes for OCD.  But even if you think you’ve already tried everything possible to get rid of OCD, there are some changes you can make now that may help bring relief to the whole household.  And once you see some of these strategies working, you’ll be able to experience more positive emotions, including optimism, hope and feelings of success.

What’s Behind The Problem of OCD

It’s extremely important to realize that people with OCD arent performing rituals and engaging in other behaviors deliberately to frustrate, upset or annoy you or others.  Individuals with OCD experience obsessions, which are persistent, uncontrollable thoughts, impulses, or images that are intrusive, unwanted and disturbing.  Obsessions cause anxiety or discomfort that significantly interferes with their lives. To relieve the distress caused by obsessions, people with OCD feel compelled to perform repetitive actions called compulsions, or rituals.  For example, a person with an obsessive fear of intruders may check and recheck door locks repeatedly to ensure that no one can get in.

OCD is a disorder that has a neurobiological basis.  Your loved one’s brain isn’t functioning in the same way as the brain of an individual without OCD.  The brain of people with OCD is constantly sending “error messages," leading to constant uncertainty, including worries and fears that go well beyond what most of us will ever experience.  Their anguish is real.  Individuals with OCD are no more at fault for having the disorder than those who have other medical conditions such as diabetes or asthma.

Regardless of how frustrating it may be for you to watch your loved one perform rituals, repeatedly seek reassurance or even bark orders at you or other family members, he or she doesn’t do this on purpose.  And people with OCD can’t stop just because you want them to.  In fact, if they could just stop their behavior, they’d be the first ones on the face of the planet to stop!  When OCD is present, the person isn’t in control anymore – OCD is.  

One of the most important ways you can support your loved one is by learning about OCD.  You can learn more about OCD in the OCD Facts, Individuals or Parents sections of this web site.

Your Role as Change Agent

There are a number of other ways you can help a family member with OCD.  First and foremost, you can help your loved one find appropriate treatment for OCD and encourage him or her to actively participate in the therapy process.  Effective treatment is the most important step in gaining relief. 

Learn how to find the right therapist.

It’s also very important that you try to establish a positive emotional climate in the home.  How you communicate with your loved one as well as the level of support you provide cannot be overemphasized. 

You can also help the person with OCD when you stop accommodating the disorder.  Family members sometimes participate in their loved one’s rituals, provide constant reassurances or help the person with OCD avoid feared objects, places or people.  In other words, you accommodate OCD behavior.  Sometimes you do it just to “keep peace in the family” or because it seems like the only way you can help the one you love.  You may desperately want to stop being involved in the OCD behavior your family member has drawn you into.  But you’ve stayed involved, fearing that stopping would make the OCD worse.  OCD is a master at manipulating the person who has the disorder and, in turn, his or her family.

Today, OCD treatment experts know that it is important to involve families in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT).  Family members can greatly enhance their loved one’s chances for recovery by not accommodating OCD.  You can’t stop all at once, of course. But a cognitive behavior therapist can help you gradually change the way you respond to OCD.

Learn more about how to stop accommodating OCD behavior

Another very important facet of your role as a change agent involves taking care of yourself.  Research has indicated that family members report some – if not severe – distress adjusting to a loved one’s OCD.  And yet they seldom seek the professional help they need; instead, they usually focus on the individual with OCD.  Living with or caring for a family member with OCD can be extremely stressful, and it’s critical that you take care of your own physical and psychological needs.  Be sure to seek out help when you need it; it’s a sign of strength, not weakness.  And when you’re less overwhelmed by frustration, guilt, and other negative emotions, you are in a better state of mind and will actually be more effective in helping your loved one.

You may find it helpful to talk with your loved one’s cognitive behavior therapist for guidance or seek help on your own.  You may also want to consider attending a local OCD support group that is open to family members or an online group.  Talking with others who have had similar experiences and learning about how they have approached family difficulties can be extremely helpful, if not therapeutic.

The CBT Therapist’s Role in Restoring Family Life

When you stop accommodating OCD, you will maximize your loved one’s opportunity to gain control over the disorder and help your family return to normalcy.  But family members usually need guidance on how to stop reinforcing and enabling their loved one’s OCD.  

The cognitive behavior therapist who is treating your loved one should be able to help spouses, siblings, parents or extended family members learn to respond more appropriately to the person with OCD.  In fact, many cognitive behavior therapists work with families to develop a written agreement known as a “family contract” or “behavioral contract.”  It’s a “roadmap” you follow when you agree to work together as a team to fight OCD.  When all members of the family agree upon the specific OCD behaviors they’ll stop accommodating, the chances of reducing symptoms of OCD can dramatically increase.

Learn more about family contracts

No one said making changes would be easy.

Managing Emotions

Living with and/or caring for a loved one with OCD can be extremely stressful.  When OCD seems to have control over a household, emotions can fly high.  And when your loved one is undergoing Cognitive Behavior Therapy – which involves a great deal of hard work – it’s very common for anxiety levels to increase not only for the person undergoing therapy but also for family members.  And increased anxiety may lead to heightened stress, frustration, conflict, exhaustion and feelings of failure for everyone in the family.  Fortunately, there are some strategies you can use to help keep emotions in check.

Learn more about managing emotions at home

Risks and Rewards for Couples

When you or your partner has OCD, it can place an enormous strain on your relationship. Instead of enjoying the strong emotional bond of a loving relationship, you may find yourself in the throes of confusion and disappointment.  Unfortunately, some partners find the stress caused by OCD simply too much to bear, and the relationship does not survive.

The risk of emotional pain or exhaustion, as well as the potential risk of irreparable damage to the relationship, make it imperative that the person with OCD be evaluated and treated as soon as possible.  With appropriate treatment, the chances of your relationship getting back on track are greatly improved.

Learn more about the spouse’s role in overcoming OCD

Behind Relationship Troubles

OCD in and of itself can have a devastating impact on a relationship.  But OCD can present many other challenges in a relationship, as well, including threats to physical and emotion intimacy, and interference in social activities and relationships with others, not to mention fears about the future.  You may also be experiencing any other number of daily stressors in your relationship that all couples face (e.g., financial difficulties, job-related concerns).  Therefore, if your loved one has OCD, and you’re experiencing relationship troubles, it’s a good idea for you to have a conversation with his or her therapist, as well.  By taking a step back and looking at the whole relationship – not just the OCD – the therapist can teach you strategies for rebuilding your relationship.

Learn more about getting to the cause of OCD-related relationship difficulties

Go to OCD Facts section

Go to Parents section

Read personal stories of successful OCD treatment

Contact Beyond OCD for more information

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