One way to recognize OCD is to look for excessive efforts to get reassurance. This can take many forms, and in my experience often comes up as questions asked to a spouse. “Did you check the locks on the door?” “I’m feeling a little ill, do you think I have lupus?”
The function of OCD reassurance
Reassurance functions as a compulsion in OCD. In the cycle of OCD, an obsession starts the process, creating anxiety. (e.g., “I don’t remember turning off the stove, maybe I left it on!”) Anxiety follows. Then comes an effort to quickly relieve the anxiety — these efforts are called compulsions.
In the example above, if the person went back to the house to visually check the stove, that would be a behavioral compulsion. If they tried hard to convince themselves they turned it off, that would be a mental compulsion. Asking one’s roommate or partner, a third possibility, is known as seeking reassurance.
If the roommate or partner responds by saying, “yes, don’t worry about it, you definitely turned it off” then the person with OCD feels reassured. Their compulsion has succeeded in producing the desired relief. Further, next time they feel similar anxiety they will be a little more likely to ask for reassurance again — after all, it was so effective this time.
A problem for couples
Unfortunately this can become a more and more frequent behavior for the person with OCD, frustrating their romantic partner if they cohabitate. Partners often ask, “well what should I say when she asks me for reassurance?”
A 2011 interview with Dr. Wayne Goodman correctly suggests that the best way a spouse can respond to such questions, in cases of OCD, is to try to avoid providing that reassurance that only strengthens the compulsive tendency. Arguments over such requests for reassurance can sometimes become a problem for couples. In that case, consultation with an OCD specialist is appropriate.
In romantic relationships the most important thing is to make sure that the partner doesn’t take on responsibility for soothing the OCD anxiety of the person suffering from OCD. This basically has the effect of expanding the unhealthy aspect of OCD from one person to two. If you have OCD, the best thing you can do is not ask your partner to always reassure you (or never reassure you). It’s not their job. It’s your job to try to tolerate the anxiety rather than letting it get the best of you.
Even if you lose the battle with anxiety, you’ll be better off if you don’t drag your romantic partner into it by asking them for reassurance for your OCD-related concerns.
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