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My OCPD Husband Can't Tolerate My 'flaws'

Question:

Hi Dr. Dombeck- I just recently married 5 months ago and since this time, my husband has had what I think is an "OCPD break." While he had traits prior to our marriage, since I moved in and "invaded" his space, we have started to have problems. It seems that he cannot tolerate any of my "flaws" which were all present prior to our marriage and he keeps growing more and more distant. He has even started to question his feelings for me which has been heartbreaking to me however, I am just now realizing all of this is common for the OCPD personality. My qeustions is, how should I go about dealing with him? We are in couples therapy right now but I am just at a loss for how to act. Should I try and keep his home "perfect" until he can gather the insight to see why all of this occured, or should I continue to be me and wait patiently? Thanks Doctor!

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Answer:

The hallmark of any personality disorder is a tendancy towards rigidity with regard to coping. While I cannot speak to the validity of your diagnosis, it seems safe to say that your husband is having a difficult time adjusting to being married, and in large part the reason for this difficulty seems to be related to his relative rigidity in adapting to the changed circumstances. Marriage requires an identity adjustment from ‘me’ to ‘we’, and it seems like he is having great difficulty entering ‘we’ territory. Language such as you are quoting in your letter (e.g., "your flaws") is ‘me’ language conveying a sense of me against you. When he starts talking about compromise and how are we going to handle the problem (where "we" doesn’t mean "you"), then you’ll know he’s made progress.

In large part, this is an identity crisis that belongs to your husband, even if it also ends up defining the tone of the marriage. The man is almost certainly in a defensive mode and feeling overwhelmed with all the new demands he is needing to adapt to. If you pressure him, he will likely react with more defensiveness, which in his case seems to be manifest as distancing. The more you push him to get close to you; to accept you; the more you are likely to see him pull away.

I don’t think keeping the home perfectly as he desires is a workable solution. You will never be able to read his mind, and even if you could, why would you want to? If you try to be perfect for him, you’ll end up feeling like a second class citizen and likely get resentful at some level. I wouldn’t want to live that way, and don’t recommend it for you either.

Since you are asking, I do recommend that you be you, and make yourself comfortable as you can. It is ultimately the only way you have to not become resentful. You need to be able to assert your right to be yourself, but you also need to find compromise with your husband in areas where he cannot tolerate too much of your way of doing things.

One way you might cope with the situation is to negotiate a few spaces within the marriage where he does not need to surrender his identity or way of doing things, and also a few spaces where your way rules. Such spaces might be literal places, like a few rooms in the house that he gets to decorate, clean and keep ordered or disordered as he and he alone sees fit. Such spaces might also be metaphorical, and pertain to more abstract parts of the marriage, such as how the banking will be managed. Many successful marriages function in this manner, with the partners divying up responsibility for different aspects of their shared lives and agreeing that what is in their domain is theirs. Of course, to be successful, such a strategy needs to be reciprocal, with each parter having domains that are theirs. If your husband has trouble surrendering some domains to you, or if you have trouble leaving him domain over other areas of your lives, it won’t work. It’s worth a try, however. If you can make it work, it will work well. If you can’t make it work, you aren’t worse off.

I’m very glad to know you’re in couples counseling. The problem here is bridging the gap between ‘me’ and ‘we’ and couples counseling provides an anchor firmly in the ‘we’ camp. It might be nice for your husband to also have a ‘me’ anchor (e.g., a therapist he can see individually), but I don’t know if suggesting this to him would make things worse or better. It all depends on what his attitude is towards the problem. If he is very traditional in his approach to marriage, he’s likely to see the problem as being your and to absolve himself. If he is open to seeing his own role in creating the problem, then he is more likely open to the therapy process.

My final thought is that at five months old, your marriage is a baby. It takes some significant passage of time for partners to adapt to being married, and I don’t think that enough time has elapsed where the necessary changes should have occured by now. I’d give it several years before I became overly alarmed. This said, if you are having these problems now, you should realize that you will continue to have these problems (although hopefully in a smaller, less destructive manner) throughout your married lives. All marriages have problems. Successful marriages are ones that find ways to cope with them and where the positive elements of marriage outweight the negative ones.

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