Kimberley: My tummy already hurts from laughing too much. I’m so excited to have you guys on. Today, we are talking about thriving in relationships with OCD and we have Rev. Katie O’Dunne and Ethan Smith. I’d love for you both to do a quick intro. Katie, will you go first?
Katie: Yeah, absolutely. My name is Reverend Katie O’Dunne. I always like to tell folks that I always have Reverend in my title because I want individuals to know that ordained ministers and chaplains can in fact have OCD. But I am super informal and really just go by Katie. I am an individual who works at the intersection between faith and OCD, helping folks navigate what’s religious scrupulosity versus what is true authentic faith. I’m also an OCD advocate on my own journey, helping individuals try to figure out what it looks like for them to move towards their values when things are really, really tough. Outside of being a chaplain and faith in OCD specialist and advocate, I’m also an ultramarathon runner, tackling 50 ultramarathons in 50 states for OCD. As we get into stuff with Ethan today, Ethan is my biggest cheerleader throughout all of those races. I’m sure we’ll talk all about that too, running towards our values together.
Ethan: My name is Ethan Smith. Katie is my fiancé. I’m a national advocate for the International OCD Foundation, a filmmaker by trade, and a staunch advocate of all things OCD-related disorders. Definitely, my most important role is loving Katie and being her biggest cheerleader.
Katie: Since you said that, one of my things too, I am the fiancé of Ethan Smith. Sorry.
Ethan: Please note that this is an afterthought. It’s totally fine.
Kimberley: No, she knew you were coming in with it. She knew.
Ethan: Yeah, I was coming in hot. Yup, all good.
Kimberley: Thank you both for being on. I think that you are going to offer an opportunity for people to, number one, thriving in Relationships with OCD, but you may also bring some insight on how we can help educate our partners even if they don’t have OCD and how they may be able to manage and navigate having a partner with OCD. I’m so excited to have you guys here. Thank you for being on. Can you first share, is it easier or harder to be in a relationship with someone with OCD? For you having OCD?
Ethan: I’ll let Katie start and then I’ll end.
Katie: Yes. No, I think it’s both. I think there are pros and cons where I think for so long being in relationships with individuals who didn’t have OCD, I desperately wanted someone to understand the things that I was going through, the things that I was experiencing, the intensity of my intrusive thoughts. I was in so many relationships where individuals felt like, well, you can just stop thinking about this, or you can just stop engaging in compulsions. That’s not how it works. It has been so helpful to have a partner through my journey who understands what I’m going through that can really say, “I actually get it and I’m here with you in the midst of that.” But I always like to be honest that that can also be really, really challenging where there are sometimes points, at least for me, having OCD with a partner with OCD, where if we are having a tough point at the same time, that can be really tough. It can also be really tough on a different level when I see Ethan struggling, not reassuring him even more so because I know how painful it is and I want so badly to take that away. There are times that that can feed into my own journey with OCD when I see him struggling, that my OCD latches onto his content, vice versa. There’s this amazing supportive aspect, but then there’s also this piece I think that we have to really be mindful of OCD feeding off of each other.
Ethan: I was just making notes as you were-- no, go ahead.
Kimberley: No, go ahead, Ethan. I’m curious to know your thoughts.
Ethan: Katie made all great points, and I agree. I mean, on the surface, it makes a lot of sense and it seems like it’s fantastic that we both can understand each other and support each other in really meaningful and value-driven ways. I always like to say that we met because of OCD, but it by no means defines our relationship or is at the heart of our relationship. It’s not why we work. It’s not what holds us together. I think Katie brings up two good points. First of all, when I would speak and advocate with parents and significant others and things like that, and they would say, “I’m having a really hard time not reassuring and not enabling,” I’d be like, “Just don’t, you’re making them sicker. Just say what you got to say and be tough about it.” Then I got in a serious relationship with Katie and she was suffering and hurting, and I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t say hard things to her.” I became that person. I suddenly understood how hard it is to not engage OCD and to say things that aren’t going to make her comfortable. I struggle with that. I struggle with standing my ground after a certain amount of time and wanting to desperately give in and just make her feel better. I just want her to feel better.
For me personally, I lived alone for 10 years prior to meeting Katie, and those 10 years followed my successful treatment and recovery from OCD. For me, my mother was my safe person. I learned during treatment and therapy that you don’t talk about your OCD around your parents anymore. You just don’t. That’s not a conversation you have. I found myself, other than within therapy, not ever talking about my OCD. I mean, advocacy, yes, but my own thoughts, I never talked about it.
Starting to start a relationship with Katie, I suddenly had someone that understood, which was wonderful, but it also opened up an opportunity for OCD to seek reassurance. I’m an indirect reassurance seeker. I don’t ask for it as a question; I simply state what’s on my mind, and just putting it out there is reassuring enough for me. For instance, like, “Oh, this food tastes funny.” Whether she says it does or it doesn’t, I really don’t care. I just want her to know that I think that it does, and it could be bad. I think this is bad. I’m not saying, “Do you think it’s bad?” I’m like, “I think it’s bad. I think there’s something wrong with this.” I’ve had to really work and catch myself vocalizing my OCD symptoms because having a partner that understands has given my OCD permission to vocalize and want to talk about it. That honestly has been the biggest challenge for me in this relationship.
Kimberley: So interesting how OCD can work its way in, isn’t it? And it is true. I mean, I think about in my own marriage, at the end of the day, you do want to share with someone like, “This was hard for me today.” You know what I mean? That makes it very complicated in that if you’re unable to do that. That’s really interesting. Let’s jump straight to that reassurance seeking piece. How do you guys navigate, or do you guys create rules for the relationship? How are you thriving in Relationships with OCD related to reassurance seeking or any compulsion for that matter?
Katie: A couple different things. I think part of it for us, and we by no means do this perfectly, I’d have to have conversations about it even-- yes, Ethan, you might do it perfectly, but even in the last week, we’ve had conversations about this where what Ethan responds well to is very different from what I respond well to. I think that is really important to note, especially when there’s two partners with OCD, that it’s not one size fits all. It’s not because I understand OCD that I know exactly how to respond to him. It’s still a conversation. For me, I respond really well if I’m seeking reassurance or I’m struggling to a lot of compassion where he doesn’t respond to the content, but tells me, “I know that this is really hard. This sounds a lot like OCD right now, but let’s sit with it together. I know that it sucks, but we can be in the midst of this. We aren’t going to talk about it anymore, but I love you. We’re going to watch a show. We’re going to do whatever it is we’re going to do, we’re going to be in it together.” I respond really well to that.
Ethan, on the other hand, does not respond quite as well to that and actually responds better to me being like, “Hey, stop talking about that. We are not going to talk about this right now. I have heard this from you so many times today. No, no, no, no.” He responds in a harsher tone. That’s really hard for me because that is not naturally what comes out of me, nor what is helpful for me. Sometimes the compassion that I offer to Ethan becomes inherently reassuring and is just not something that’s helpful for him, so we have to have these conversations. Vice versa, sometimes when I’m really struggling, he’ll forget the compassion piece works for me and is like, “Hey, Katie, no. Stop doing that.” I’m like, “Seriously? This is really hard.” Being able to have those conversations.
Kimberley: How do those conversations look, Ethan? Can you share whatever you’re comfortable sharing?
Ethan: Yeah. Katie hit over the head, first of all. We are definitely products of our therapists when we’re struggling. For those of you that may or may not know, Katia Moritz, she is hardcore, like here’s what it is, and I’m a product of that. There’s like, “Nope, we’re not going to do it. We’re not going to have it. OCD is black and white, don’t compulse, period. End of story.” Katie is like, “Let’s take a moment.” My natural instinct on how I respond to her is very different to what she needs and vice versa. We’ve learned that. I would say that the rule in our household is we’re a no-content household. I’m not saying we succeed at that all the time, but the general rule is we’re not a content household. We don’t want a no content. You can say that you’re struggling. You can say that you’re having a hard day. You can say that OCD is really loud today. Those are all okay things. But I don’t want to hear, and Katie doesn’t want to hear the details because that inevitably is reassuring and compulsy and all of those things. That’s our general rule. I’ll talk for me, and I don’t know, Katie, I’ll ask you ahead of time if it’s okay to share an example of our conversation, but my stuff, like I said, it’s covert reassurance seeking and she does it too. We’re both very covert. We’re like well-therapized and we know how to--
Katie: It’s really funny because I can tell when he’s sneaky OCD reassurance-seeking. Nobody else in my life has ever been able to tell when I’m secretly seeking reassurance. It’s actually frustrating because he can call me on it because he’s really good at it too. There’s some level of accountability with that.
Ethan: For sure. For me, I’ll get stuck on something and I’ll just start verbalizing it. That’s really the biggest thing I think, unless Katie has some other insight, and she may. But for me, verbalization of my thoughts, not specifically asking for a specific answer and simply saying, “Oh, my chest feels weird. I’m sure I’m dying. My heart is about to give out.” How are you going to respond to that? What are you going to say right now? And that’s my system. She’ll be like, “Okay, yup. You may.” To be honest, I’ll call Katie out, she really struggles with giving me-- she’s like, “Ethan, I’m sure you’re fine.” I’m like, “Why did you say that?” She does. She really struggles with--
Katie: It’s interesting because I work with folks with OCD all the time and I don’t reassure them, but it’s so interesting because it feels so different with my partner knowing how much he’s struggling and I just want to be like, “You know what this is, it’s fine.” But yeah, working on that
Kimberley: If he’s struggling, then you said sometimes you will struggle, it makes sense that in that moment you’re like, “You’re fine, you’re fine.” You don’t want them to have a struggle because you know it might even impact you, I’m guessing.
Katie: Well, yeah. It’s funny, all of Ethan’s stuff is around bad things happening to him. All of my stuff is around bad things happening to other people. If Ethan’s worried something bad’s going to happen to him, I’m like, “No. I can’t handle that. I don’t want to worry that you’re going to die. Let’s not put that on the table.”
Ethan: We discovered it was true love when my OCD was worried about her. She’s like, “Baby, it’s about me. It’s not about you.” It’s true love. No question.
Katie: He had never had obsessions about someone else before. I was so excited. He was like, “Am I going to kill you in your sleep? Is that going to happen?” I was like, “Oh my gosh, you do love me. So sweet.”
Ethan: But to answer your question, conversely, when Katie is struggling, she gets loopy and she directly asks for reassurance. I can definitely get frustrated at it at a certain point. I always feel like one time is appropriate. “Do you have a question or concern? Do you think blah, blah, blah?” “No, I don’t think so. I think that’s totally appropriate.” And then the second time, “Yeah, but do you...” I was like, okay, now we’re starting to move into OCD land and I stay compassionate up to a certain point and then I’ll get frustrated because it will be so obvious to me. As she said, myself is so obvious to her. I just want to be like, “Katie, can you see this makes no sense at all?” But when she’s really struggling, not just the superficial high-level or low-level OCD hierarchy stuff, when she’s really, really deeply struggling, it’s challenging. I really struggle with not giving her the reassurance that her OCD craves because I can’t stand to see her suffer. Sometimes I wish that I didn’t know as much about OCD as I do because I actively know that I’m helping OCD, but giving her that instant relief in the moment, it just pains me.
We’ve definitely changed our relationship style as we’ve gotten to know each other and been able to say things like, “I know this doesn’t feel good. I don’t want to say these things to you, but I really, really don’t want to help OCD and hurt you. I really, really want to help you get better in this moment and hurt OCD and just put it to bed, so I’m not going to answer that.” We’ve had to have those communicative conversations to be able to address it when it does cross the line.
I will say we’re pretty well., we do pretty good, but that’s not to say that there aren’t times where we can both get in a rabbit hole. To Katie’s point and to your point, it gets sticky sometimes. I literally never checked an oven in my entire life till I moved in with Katie. And then now she’ll mention it or I’ll be closing up the lights and I’ll be like, I’ve never looked and thought about it. But Katie talks about it and that’s one of her things, and like, “It latched on. I’ll take it,” and like, “No, no, no. Ethan. Everything’s going to burn down.” Yes, moving on.
Katie: Likewise, I’ve never checked my pills multiple times to make sure that I didn’t take too many or worried that there was glass inside of my glass from hitting it. I mean, there’s things that were Ethan’s that I now think about. It’s really interesting because I think we actively work to not give into those things, but that’s definitely a process to you where they were things that I never would’ve gotten stuck on before. We have these conversations too of being able to call each other out. Well, actually, comedy is a really big thing in our house too, so we also like to call it out in a way of like, “Hey, you’re stealing my themes. Stop it. That’s mine. Come on, let me have that stomach bug thing.”
Kimberley: Isn’t that so interesting, though? We constantly get asked what causes OCD, and we never can really answer the question. We say it’s a combo of nature and nurture and you guys are touching on the nurture piece in that, yes, we are genetically predisposed to it, but that other people’s anxiety around things can create anxiety for us. I actually feel the same way. There are so many things my husband is anxious about, or my kids. Now I’m hyper-vigilant about it. That’s so interesting that you guys are seeing that in real life.
Ethan: Yeah, for sure. And then Katie brought up a great point, which is, I think the most challenging times, and they don’t happen often, is when we’re both struggling simultaneously. How do you support each other in that moment? First of all, what’s very funny is we like to joke we both have OCD and we’re both only children. It’s one of those households. Literally, we’ll cook a frozen pizza and we’ll sit there and size up the half to figure out which one’s bigger and then be like, “Are you sure you want that one? I want that.” It’s a thing.
When we’re both struggling, it’s like, “No, you need to listen to me.” “No, no, no, no. You need to listen. It’s my thing. It’s my thing.” It’s been few and far between where we’ve both really been significantly struggling simultaneously, but we’ve managed it. We learn how to be able to struggle and listen and support. It’s no different than advocating when you’re not feeling your best. You can still be compassionate and sympathetic and offer advice that is rooted in modalities of treatment and still be struggling at the same time. We may not get the empathy that we want because maybe we’re just not in a place or we’re pouring from an empty cup or whatever, but fortunately, those times aren’t that frequent. But when they do happen, we’ve navigated and managed really well, I think.
Katie: And even just-- oh, sorry.
Kimberley: No, please, Katie. Go ahead.
Katie: I was going to say, even with that, having conversations around it, I think, has been really helpful. We’ve had moments of being really honest. Particularly earlier this year, I had some tough stuff that happened and I was in a place of grief and then also OCD was coming into that. Ethan, it lined up at some points with some difficult points that you had. There were some times that you were honest about saying, “I am just not in a place to respond to this right now in this moment in a healthy way.” I think that’s actually one of the best things that we can do too. Of course, OCD sometimes gets frustrated at that, “Hey, why can’t you talk about it right now?” But I think having those honest conversations as a couple too so that we can both offer care to ourselves and to one another in the midst of those times that we’re struggling is really, really important.
Kimberley: You answered actually exactly what I was going to say. There are times when we can’t be there for our partner. When that is the case, do you guys then go to your own therapist or to a loved one? Not to get reassurance or do compulsions, but just have a sense of containment and safety. Or are you more working towards just working through that on your own? How do you guys navigate thriving in Relationships with OCD when your partner is tapped out?
Katie: We both have our own therapist and that’s really, really helpful. We both actually have conversations together with the other person’s therapist. Ethan will meet with his therapist and we’ve had times when he’s struggling where I’ll come in for a half session to talk about, hey, what’s the best way to respond to him and vice versa. I’ll meet with my therapist separately, but we might bring him in for 20 or 30 minutes for him to learn, hey, what’s the best way to respond to Katie right now? We both have those separate spaces to go and talk about both what we’re navigating and what we need, but also how to respond to our partner and then collaborate with one another’s therapist. I mean, that has been so helpful for me because there have been points where I don’t know how to respond to what Ethan’s navigating. To hear directly from his provider as opposed to feeling like I have to take on that role is so crucial. And then, Ethan, you meeting with my therapist earlier this year, oh my goodness, was so helpful because she had given me all this insight that I just wasn’t in a place to be able to share because I was struggling. For you to hear that directly from her and what she thought that I needed I think was a huge step forward for us.
Ethan: Yeah. It’s nuanced. It’s not a one size fits all. Yes, it’s all ERP or ACT or DBT or whatever. But it’s all specific to what we’re all going through. I will say it’s funny because as we’re talking, I’m like, “I didn’t ask Katie if these things I could say or not.”
Katie: I’m afraid to say that. You can literally say anything. I pretty much talk all the time about all this.
Ethan: For sure. I think one of the things that really, really helped our relationship in terms of navigating this is, when I first met Katie and we started dating, she wasn’t seeing a therapist actively. It was challenging because as someone that is well-versed in OCD, we would constantly talk about things and she would divulge a lot of information to me. I started to feel like I didn’t want to take on an advocate or therapist’s role with her. I wanted to be her boyfriend. I was really struggling because I really wanted to support her and I really wanted to be. That was never a question, it was not supporting her. But for the same reason that we tell parents like, “Don’t police your kids, be their parents,” and hear how that can backfire, it was really challenging to navigate being a significant other and also supporting her, but not becoming that person that her OCD goes to.
I think her finally landing on a therapist that was right for her and good for her where she can get that objectivity that she needs and I can too learn what she needs from me as a partner, not that there was anything wrong with our relationship, but really allowed our relationship to grow and really allowed us to focus on what we should be focusing on, which is each other and who we are to each other and what’s important to our lives and our family. Our therapists can handle our OCD. That doesn’t mean that OCD doesn’t get involved. It does. But for the most part, that was really where our relationship really got to level up. We both were able to turn to our therapists, but also include each other in treatment so we can have open and honest conversations about what’s going on.
The other thing I’ll say is, we have no secrets. We literally have no secrets. As a first timer to a long-term relationship, because my OCD Obsessions wouldn’t let me have a long-term relationship any longer than four or five months, as a first-timer in the three-year club on May 9th, I really feel like that is such a crucial piece to our relationship. We watch reality shows and it’s like, “You went through my phone,” and it’s like, “Well, I don’t care. She knows my passwords. I have nothing to hide.”
I always say that individuals with OCD would make the worst thieves. Could you imagine? I put myself in a position of robbing a house. There’s no way I wouldn’t worry that one piece of DNA was not left in that house. I find hair on my pillow all the time. There’s no possible way I could ever burglarize anyone and not think I would be caught. We’re not transparent because we know that that will alleviate our OCD. We’re transparent because I think honesty is really important in a relationship and so is communication. We always advocate that having therapy and having access to treatment shouldn’t be an exception at all. That should be the standard. It should be accessible, should be affordable, should be effective. Absolutely, no question there. But with that being said, Katie and I were both fortunate enough to have really good treatment and I think our relationship reflects that. Not to say that we’re perfect all the time, but I think we’re too highly therapized individuals that began our relationship with honesty and communication and have continued that through and through. I think that has enabled us to not only grow as a couple but also helped us manage our own OCD and the OCD of each other and how we interrelate.
Kimberley: Right. I think that is so true. As you’re talking, I’m thinking of people who are at the very beginning stages. They didn’t have any idea about OCD and they’ve been giving reassurance, they’ve been asking for reassurance, and there’s tantrums because the person isn’t giving the right reassurance. What would you encourage couples to do if they’re newly to treatment, newly to their diagnosis, and their goal is to be thriving in Relationships with OCD?
Katie: There’s so many different things, and I know this is different for every person, but even if they’re new to that process, getting their partner involved in therapy, meeting with their therapist, having them learn about OCD, again, Ethan talked about, not from a space of the partner becoming the therapist, but having an understanding of what the person is going through so that they’re not reassuring, so that they’re not accommodating. But I say this to folks all the time, again, so that you’re not also being so hard and so rigid so that you can still be the person’s partner in the midst of that. I think being able to understand what their triggers are, what their symptoms are, what’s coming up, so that you can say, “Hey, I’m your partner. I love you. I can’t answer that, but I’m here.”
I think figuring out what that looks like with the provider, but also with the partner is just so beyond important to have an effective relationship, one, so that you’re not just closing it off so that you can’t talk about it, but two, so that, as Ethan said, you don’t become the therapist because that’s not healthy either. I think we have in our relationship almost tried both extremes at different points of, “Hey, we’re not going to talk about it at all,” or “Oh, we’re going to talk about everything and we’re going to totally support each other through every aspect.” I think with each person, it’s finding that balance of how we can be a couple with open and honest communication, but we’re actually still each other’s partners and not each other’s therapists.
Kimberley: Yeah. Do you have any thoughts, Ethan?
Ethan: I was just thinking. I mean, she nailed it. I don’t know that I have anything to add to that, whether you both have OCD or one of you has OCD. I was actually thinking earlier on in the relationship, and about divulging your OCD and when it’s appropriate. We get so many questions from so many people about, when I’m dating, when am I supposed to let them know? When am I supposed to talk about it? I have very aggressive feelings about OCD and dating, and as amazing as somebody may look and be like, “Oh my God, I would love to be in a relationship with a partner that has OCD because then I don’t have to explain anything.” I did not date to specifically find somebody with OCD. When I met Katie, we were friends long before we were together.
Katie: We always say that, like he was my best friend that I happened to meet through the OCD community, that we fell in love during COVID because he was my best friend, and because we had so much that connected us beyond OCD. I know you said this earlier, Ethan, but we get the question all the time, “Oh, if I just had a partner with OCD...” and that is not. If all we had in common was our OCD, this would not work out because it actually can make it even more challenging. But it’s what’s beyond that. I always think we shouldn’t be in a relationship or not in a relationship based on our diagnosis. It’s about who the person is and how we can support them for who they are.
Ethan: Yeah, for sure. You actually raised a good point. I was going to talk about, and we can maybe come back to it, when to talk about your OCD to your partner, when it’s appropriate, when you feel it’s appropriate, this difference between wanting to confess about your own OCD and feeling like they need to know right now that I have OCD so I’m not dishonest with them and I don’t hit them with the big secret down the road. We can talk about that. But you raised-- wow, it was a really interesting point that I totally forgot. Katie, what did you just say? Go ahead.
Katie: No, I was just talking about not being in a relationship because of the OCD and really having--
Ethan: I remember.
Katie: Okay, go ahead. You got it.
Ethan: Yeah. I’d be curious to Kim’s thoughts. But I think with OCD individuals, whether it’s a significant other or family and friends, and I’ve been talking about this a lot lately, we’ve talked about, okay, how do I get someone to understand what OCD is? How do I help them understand what I’m going through? We did a town hall on family dynamics last week for the IOCDF and we’ve had multiple conversations about this. I’d be curious to Kim’s thoughts. I think there’s a difference between having a partner or a family member, whatever, being able to support you in an effective, healthy, communicative way, and fully understanding what you’re going through. I think those are two different things. I don’t think that an individual needs to know and feel exactly what you’re experiencing going through to be able to understand and support you. I think as individuals with OCD, we have this inherent need for our partners or people that we care about to know exactly how we feel and exactly what we’re going through. “You need to know my pain to understand me.” I think that is a big misnomer.
I think honestly, that’s a potential impossible trap for a relationship when you’re dating someone or with someone that doesn’t have OCD. The likelihood of that individual, while you can give them examples, the likelihood of them actually truly understanding your own OCD experience is unlikely. Just like if Katie had had cancer and went through treatment, I’ll never know what that’s like. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t be sympathetic and empathetic and support her and learn about the disease state and be able to be a really, really wonderful partner to her. I think for individuals that are in relationships with individuals that don’t have OCD, if you resonate with this, being able to release this idea of like, they need to know exactly what I’ve gone through. Really the real thing they need to know is, how can I be a supportive partner? How can I support you in a meaningful, healthy, value-driven way so we can have the best possible relationship? I don’t know if I ever said that, but Kim, I’d be open to your thoughts.
Kimberley: No, I agree. Because the facts are, they won’t get it. No matter how much you want them to get it, they will get it, but they won’t have experienced something similar to you. But I think like anything, there’s a degree of common humanity in that they can relate without completely having to go through it. They can relate in that I too know what it’s like to be uncertain or I too know what it’s like to have high levels of anxiety. Or even if they don’t, I too can understand your need for certainty in this moment or whatever it may be.
I think the other thing to know too is often when someone needs to be understood and they insist on it, that’s usually a shame response. There’s a degree of shame that by being understood, that may actually resolve some of that shame. If that’s the case, they can take that shame to therapy and work through that and get some skills to manage that, because shame does come with mental illness. Often I find some of the biggest fights between couples were triggered by a shame emotion. They felt shame or they felt embarrassed or humiliated, or they felt less than in some way, or the boxing gloves are on. How do you handle, in this case, conflict around-- I don’t know whether you have any conflict, but has conflict came up around this and how do you handle it?
Katie: One piece with the last component, and then I’ll shift into this. I think as you were talking, the shame piece resonates with me so much. I’m definitely someone that even through the OCD experience, guilt and shame are much heavier for me than anxiety or fear or anything else, that feeling really challenging. I think that the biggest piece that helped to combat that actually had to do with my relationship with Ethan, not specifically because he knew every ounce of my themes or what I was going through, but simply because of the empathy that he showed me. I talk often about how because of shame in my OCD journey, one of the reasons I struggled to get better for a long time was I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I didn’t feel like I was good enough because of my intrusive thoughts. I didn’t like myself very much. I hated myself actually. Ethan, by loving me, gave me (I’m going to get emotional) permission to love myself for the first time. It wasn’t because he specifically knew the ins and outs of my themes, but simply because he offered empathy and loved me as a human being, and showed me that I could do that for myself. That was a huge step forward for me. I think every partner can do that.
I used to talk with my students when I was in education about empathy, and I would always say you don’t have to experience the exact same thing that your friend experienced to say, “Oh, I can put myself in your shoes.” To your point, Kim, I know what sadness feels like. I know what this feels like. I know what that feels like. I think just showing empathy to your partner, but also showing them that they truly do deserve love in the midst of whatever they’re experiencing with their OCD can be such a healing component. I just wanted to say that, and now I’ve forgotten the other part of your question.
Ethan: Well, wait, before she asks it, can I piggyback?
Ethan: I’m going to just offer to Katie. Katie’s shared that story before and it’s really special. Always, I was just being me and seeing something beautiful in her and wanting it to shine. But something that I don’t think I’ve ever talked about ever is what she did for me in that same context. I always saw myself as a really shiny car, and if you saw me surface, I was really desirable. I knew my first impressions were really solid. But if you got in me and started driving, I got a little less shiny as the deeper you went. It was really hard to get close to Katie and let her in. Katie and I haven’t talked about this in a while, but when we started getting intimate, I would never take my shirt off with the light on. I would hold my shirt over my stomach because I was embarrassed about my body. She’s an athlete. I’m not an athlete. When we would walk and I would get out of breath, the level of embarrassment and shame, I would feel like, how could this person love me? Now I’m going to get emotional, but it took me a long time to be able to-- this morning, I was downstairs making breakfast without a shirt. I didn’t think about it. She taught me that the parts of myself that I thought were the ugliest could actually be loved. I had never experienced that beyond my parents. But even beyond that, I don’t know that they had seen pieces of my OCD, pieces of me as a human being, as an individual. Katie taught me about unconditional pure love and that even what I deemed the most disgusting, grossest parts of myself, even seeing those.
My biggest fear with Katie was her seeing me. I don’t panic often, like have major panic freakouts, but there are a few things that I do. My biggest fear was her seeing me. I kept saying, “Just wait. Wait till you see this, Ethan.” It comes out every now and again. “You won’t love that person.” Early on, I had a thing that I panicked and she was nothing but love and didn’t change anything. For weeks, I was like, “How can you still love me?”
It doesn’t necessarily relate to your question, but I wanted to share that because I think that for so many that really see themselves as broken or cracked, I think it’s real easy to look really good on the surface. But I think that being willing to be vulnerable and honest and truthful-- and Katie’s the first woman I’ve ever done that with, where I was literally willing to go there despite what my OCD told me, despite what my head told me and my brain told me. I just think that’s also created a really solid foundation for our relationship. I just wanted to share that.
Kimberley: That full vulnerability is like the exposure of all exposures. To actually really let your partner see you in your perceived ugliness, not that there’s ever any ugliness, but that perceived, that’s the exposure of all exposures in my mind. You have to really use your skills and be willing to ride that wave, and that can be really painful. I love that you guys shared that. Thank you for sharing that, because I think that that’s true for even any relationship. That is truly thriving in Relationships with OCD!
Ethan: Yeah, for sure. OCD can definitely get sticky even with that. It’ll start to question, well, does she still love me because of that? She says she does, but does she really-- even my brain now goes, “She can’t possibly love my body. That doesn’t make sense. That doesn’t make sense.” So funny thing about Katie, we were early on in our dating, we were struggling. She’s laying on me. She’s like, “You’re the most comfortable boyfriend I’ve ever had.” I was like, “Yeah.” And then I started thinking like all she’d ever dated before me were triathletes, like washboard dudes. I was like, “Huh, thank you?” She’s like, “No, no, it’s a good thing. It’s a good thing.” I’m like, “Okay. Yeah.” It’s very funny, but I also loved it.
Katie: I do the same thing with you. I mean, all the time, everything’s still. Three years in, we’re getting married in September, stuff will come up and it’s like, “Wait, you saw this, this part of myself that I think is really ugly. You still love me?” Like, what? It gives me permission every time to love myself.
Ethan: That’s such an interesting relationship dichotomy between the two of us. I don’t mean to venture away from your question, Kim, but it’s so interesting. I don’t see any of the things that she sees in herself. She could freak out for a week and I would still see her as this perfect individual who I couldn’t love more. She feels the same about me. It’s so weird because we see each other in the same light, but we don’t see ourselves in that light. It is amazing and I feel a little selfish here to have a partner to be able to remind me of how I should see myself. I hope that I give Katie that same reminder and reassurance, but it really is amazing to be able to see that within our partner because I’ll do something and I’ll be like, “Wow.” She’s like, “Yeah, that didn’t change anything for me.” I’m like, “Really?” Because that’s how I feel like, “Oh, okay.” Because that’s how I feel when you do. “Okay, we’re on the same page.”
Kimberley: Let’s just delete the last question because I want to follow this. I love this so much. It actually makes me a bit teary too, so we might as well just cry together. What would you say to do for those who don’t understand OCD and maybe perceive it as “ugliness”? I’m sure there are those listening who are thinking, “I wish my partner could see beyond my anxiety and how I cope.” What advice would you give to them?
Katie: Ethan, you go first.
Ethan: It’s a hard question. It’s a hard question to answer. It’s thundering and you get it twice since we’re in the same house. I think one thing I was going to say before, and maybe this will get tight, and this doesn’t answer your question directly, Kim, but I’m hoping we can get to it, is when somebody asks me like, “I have OCD and I want to date and get in a relationship, well, how do I do that?” I have very strong feelings about that particular question because I don’t want to dive into acceptance and commitment therapy and this whole concept of being able to do both things simultaneously, which is very value driven and we’re going to feel the feels and have the ick and we don’t have to wait for the perfect moment. But I’ve always believed that if your OCD at that time is so severe that it’s going to heavily impact your relationship, and the reason that you have to tell the person that you’re interested in all about your OCD is because you have expectations of that person to reassure and enable, and you’re going to need that from that person, I would always say, you might not want to get in a relationship right now. That may not be the best timing for you to get in a relationship.
I always would want somebody to ask themselves like, if you’re in therapy and you’re in treatment or wherever you are in your process and you know that you shouldn’t be seeking things from somebody and reassurance, enabling and so forth and so on, then that’s a different conversation. But I think at first, being honest and true to ourselves about why we’re divulging, why we want them to know about our OCD, and what we’re going to get out of this relationship—doing that from the beginning, I think, then trickles over into your question, Kim, about like, what if they don’t understand? What if they don’t get it? Because going into a relationship with this idea of, “Well, they need to know so they can keep my OCD comfortable,” is very different than my OCD doesn’t necessarily play a prominent role in my life, or maybe it does, but I’m in treatment and I need them to know and then they may not understand. I think that that’s like a different path and trajectory. Katie? Yeah, go ahead.
Katie: I think that’s such an important component. It’s interesting. I heard a very different side of the question. I was thinking about maybe someone who is already in, whether it’s a romantic relationship or--
Ethan: No, that was the question. I didn’t know what to say yet, so I was being like, “Well...” Yeah, no, that was the question. You heard that right.
Katie: It was really important too. This might sound really simplistic, but I think it’s so important. Just based on, oh my goodness, my experiences with feeling for such a long time, I was defined by my OCD or defined by my intrusive thoughts, or, oh, how could anybody love me in the midst of all of this? I want everybody to hear that regardless of how your OCD is making you feel right now, or how you’re feeling, you are not defined by your OCD. You are not defined by your intrusive thoughts. You are not defined by your disorder. You are an amazing human being that is worthy of love in all of its forms, and you’re worthy of love from yourself. You’re also worthy of love from a partner. I think sometimes there’s this feeling of, well, I don’t deserve love because of my OCD, or I don’t deserve someone to be nice to me or to treat me well. I’ve also seen folks fall into that trap. I’ve been in relationships that weren’t particularly healthy because I felt like I didn’t deserve someone to be kind to me because of my OCD, or like, oh, well, I’m just too much of a pain because of my obsessions or my compulsions, so of course, I don’t deserve anything good in this sense.
I want you to hear that wherever you are in your journey, you do deserve love and respect in all of its forms, and that the people that are around you, that truly love you, yes, there are moments that are hard just like they are for me and Ethan, where sometimes there might be frustrations. But those people that truly love you authentically, I really believe will be with you in the midst of all of those highs and lows, and continue to offer you love and respect and help you to offer yourself that same love and respect that you so deeply deserve.
Kimberley: I love that. I think that that speaks to relationships in general in that they’re bumpy and they’re hard. I think sometimes OCD and anxiety can make us think they’re supposed to be perfect too, and we forget that it’s hard work. Relationships are work and it takes a lot of diligence and value-based actions. I think that that is a huge piece of what you’re bringing to the table. I want to be respectful of your time. Closing out, is there anything that you feel like you want the listeners to hear in regards to relationships and yourself in a relationship? Do you want to go first, Ethan?
Ethan: Sure. Yeah, I agree. Let Katie close out. She’s amazing. I just want to echo, honestly, the last thing that Katie said was perfect, and I wholeheartedly agree. What would I want to bring into a relationship? I want to bring in my OCD or myself, what is going to be my contribution to a relationship, a romantic relationship. I definitely would want to bring me into it. I want to bring Ethan and not Ethan’s OCD. That doesn’t mean that Ethan’s OCD won’t tag along for the ride, but I definitely don’t want Katie to be initially dating my OCD. I wanted her to date Ethan.
I think what Katie said about that directly relates in the sense that love yourself, value yourself, realize your worth, know your worth. It’s so hard with OCD, the shame and the stigma and just feeling like your brain is broken and you don’t deserve these things, and you don’t deserve love. What’s wrong? It’s so hard. I mean, I say it humbly. When I say go into a relationship with these things, I know it’s not that simple. But I think that if you can find that place where you know what you have to offer as a human being and you know who you are and what you have to give, and it doesn’t have to be specific. You don’t have to figure yourself out of your life out, simply just who your heart is and what you have to give like, I don’t know who I am entirely; I just know that I have a lot of love to give and I want to give it to as many people as possible—own that and don’t be afraid to leave crappy relationships that are good, that because it’s feels safe or comfortable, it’s the devil you know in terms of how it relates to your OCD. You’re not broken. You’re not bad. You shouldn’t feel shame. OCD is a disorder. It’s a disease, and you deserve, as Katie said, a meaningful, beautiful love relationship with whomever you want that with. You deserve that for yourself. Stay true to who you are. Stay true to your values. If that’s where you are now, or if it isn’t where you are now, be willing to take a risk to be able to find that big, as Katie says, beautiful life that you deserve. It’s out there and it’s there.
To Kim’s point, I’m sorry, this is a very long last statement, so I apologize. But to Kim’s point, relationships are hard and life is hard. I really believed when I got better from OCD that in six months, I was going to meet my soulmate, make a million dollars, and everything would be perfect. Life did not happen like that at all. It’s 15 years later. But at a certain point, I was like, “I’m never meeting my person. OCD is not even in the way right now, and I’m never meeting my person. I’m never going to fall in love. I’m never going to get married.” Now we’re four months away from my wedding to being married to the most amazing human being. I truly believe that that exists for everyone out there in this community. Living a life that is doing things that I never would imagine in a million years. Please know that it’s there and it’s out there. If you put in the work, whether it happens the next day, the next year, or the next decade, it’s possible and it’s beautiful. Embrace it and run towards it.
Kimberley: Beautiful. Katie?
Katie: I feel like there isn’t much I can add to that. I’m going to get teary listening to that. I think I’ll just close similar to what I was sharing before for anyone listening, whether it is someone with OCD or a partner or a family member, whomever that is, that you deserve love and compassion from yourself and from every single person around you. You are not defined by your OCD. It is okay, especially if you’re a partner, if you don’t respond perfectly around OCD all the time, because you know what, we are in the midst of a perfectly imperfect journey, especially when it comes to romantic relationships. But if you continue to lead with love, with empathy, and with compassion, and with trusting who you are, not who the OCD says you are, I truly believe that you’ll be able to continue to move towards your personal values, but also towards your relationship values, and that you so deeply deserve that.
Kimberley: Oh, I feel like I got a big hug right now. Thank you, guys, for being here. I’m so grateful for you both taking the time to talk with me about this. Most of the time when someone comes to see me and we talk about like, why would you ever face your fear? Why would you ever do these scary hard things? They always say, “Because I’ve got this person I love,” or “I want this relationship to work,” or “I want to be there for my child.” I do think that is what Thriving in Relationships with OCD is all about. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Katie: Thank you for having us.Ethan: Thank you for having us.