This short story looks at a devoted couped who are learning about exposure-response prevention to overcome relationship OCD. It tells how a specific strategy helps brings in some light-hearted humour coupled with the strength to defeat the problem together.
Reading time: 4 min 6 sec, word count 1,028
I’m in bed. I’m crying as I cover my ears to drown out the noise beside me. I should switch off, but it’s not that easy.
Tom can’t hear it. Still, he turns towards me and says, “I will listen.”
“You might feel differently about me,” I say, my anxiety rising. “What if you believe my thoughts?”
He sighs, flops flat on the bed, and says “Ellie, I meant, let’s talk, and I’ll try to understand.”
I tell him, like before, that I cheated on him, but he scoffs and tells me to go cheat again!
I feel so guilty.
I’m at work, and the calls are coming in fast. I hear customer complaints and sense the frustration in their voices.
I should listen properly and offer more support, but my mind is on Ellie.
I told her last night, go ahead and cheat again, it is fine by me.
She told me not to say that, said it triggers her. I guess I did sound abrupt like I didn’t care. But I’m fed up with the same old story. I get upset, frustrated. It’s like Chinese whispers, and I’m never gonna believe Ellie cheated on me, ever.
“Let’s order food in tonight,” I say to Tom as he comes in from work.
Sure, I’ll just grab a quick shower.
“No wait, let me tell you something first. It’s too late, and I hear him shout, “Oh my god! Is this for real?!”
Nervously, I bite my lower lip as I slowly climb the stairs.
“Wow, isn’t this going too far, too soon, Ellie?!”
We both look at the sticky notes on the door, the window, the mirror, the wall. Each one said, ‘I cheated on Tom.’
“What made you do this?!”
“Let’s order dinner, Tom, and I’ll tell you.”
The food is delicious, but I eat mindlessly. It’s because I’m nervous and excited at the same time.
“So, you feel okay about the cheating thing, now?” I ask Ellie.
“Well, yes and no, I mean, my anxiety hits the roof, but I roll with it.”
“Roll with it? Where to?”
Ellie half-smiles, she knows I’m jesting. She gets I’m thrilled about her progress.
“My therapist said to continue exposure-response prevention with the sticky notes, and embrace anxiety to build a tolerance for it.”
“Okaaay, well, no reassurance tonight, you know how it feeds into this thing.”
“Yeah, I know.”
We’re in bed. I resist covering my ears to drown out the noise. It’s hard, but I keep it up.
Tom’s awake. He knows the intrusive thoughts are bothering me.
The conflict is hard. “What if I did cheat on you, Tom?”
“No reassurance, Ellie, remember.”
“Please, Tom, my distress is unbearable.”
“Nope, c’mon, read what’s on the poster we put on the ceiling earlier.”
I switch on the lamp, hesitate, then read out aloud, ‘I cheated on Tom, and he doesn’t care; neither do I.’
“But what if…”
“Tom holds my hand, “Keep your attention on response prevention, Ellie.”
A few weeks have passed.
I’m with my therapist, and we’re talking about false memories.
“But how can a memory be there, but not there?” I say
“Sometimes assumption,” she says. “For example, your colleague saying it’s impossible to be ‘just friends’ with guys can put false ideas in your head.”
“So what my colleague said, is that what triggered intrusive thoughts and false memories about cheating with my friend Adam?”
Why do therapists say everything is likely? Nothing is ever certain. Still, she helps me see how deceptive OCD is and why response-prevention is crucial to recovery.
“How did therapy go, today?” Tom asks.
I slide a glass of wine towards him. “It was good. I discovered the brain can create a memory, even from a real event.”
“Well, my therapist said people could suggest ideas like guys and girls can’t be just friends. If you’re susceptible to OCD, it can make you think you cheated and simultaneously doubt your relationship.”
“Yeah, so at that work party, I remember being there, but I don’t recall cheating, I just feel that I did.”
“Feelings aren’t facts, right?”
“True, it’s the doubts that drive me crazy.”
Ellie pours another glass of wine for us both.
“Let’s be a united front, Ellie. We both know OCD thoughts aren’t real.”
“I agree, and ERP is helping. My therapist said a few more sessions, and I’ll be almost in remission.”
“Does that mean no more OCD?!”
“Well, I’ll always have OCD, it means the obsession weakens, so I’ll be able to function much better.”
“Cool! So how will the relapse-prevention blueprint you told me about work after remission?”
“It means the tools learned in therapy will help maintain my recovery.”
I raise my glass. “Here’s to remission, Ellie!”
This 800-word story (8 x 100-word scenes) shows how Ellie’s main ritual is to seek reassurance, and how Tom doesn’t give in, knowing it will strengthen Ellie’s obsession. He helps reinforce how Ellie’s sticky-note exposure can help reduce relationship-intrusive thoughts. As Fred Prenzil (beyondocd.org) says, one cannot be fearful and bored at the same time, and so the goal is that Ellie’s fear of cheating will turn to boredom.
The story further shows how essential it is for a partner, like Tom, to gain insight into obsessive-compulsive disorder. For example, by having that insight, and a little bit of light-hearted humour, Tom demonstrates how he can better help Ellie keep her attention on response prevention. It is especially useful because, at times, it would be easy for a partner to give in and offer reassurance, just for a bit of peace.
OCD can cause conflict and is an exhausting illness for both partners. Still, when both are on the same page, they learn about the disorder together, how it works, and how it is treated. As an example, Ellie and Tom prepare as a united front to defeat OCD and look ahead to sharing the joy of remission.