Boyfriend Struggles with Intrusive Thoughts

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

My boyfriend is 31 and I met him when he was 28. He was very social and relaxed but at that time we both were going out more on the weekends and hanging out with friends. At that time we had recently started living together and I noticed how reserved and quiet he was in our home environment versus being out socially. When we were home he seemed so distracted, so much so that I felt like I would have to wave a hand in front of him to bring him back to reality. He made some drastic changes in his work life within the first year of living together like leaving a really good job to start his own company that ended up failing so he took a huge blow to his self esteem. He stopped connecting, stopped being affectionate and pushed away an intimacy and stopped pursuing me all together. I let it go for a long time because I knew how upset he was about his career and we pushed forward and he found a great new job that he’s been in since.

The problem is that he is engaged in social settings like at work or in a group of friends but at home he disappears. I would like to say that it only occurred during the depression that hit him when his business failed but it never went away and started while the business was still running. We have talked about this feeling of him being disconnected many times and he said he knows that hes doing it but has no control. He said he doesn’t engage any more with others it’s just they don’t require any bonding, any deep relationship and that’s easy for him. He said it’s not me but that he has never in his life known how to be close with someone and that it has hurt any relationship that he’s tried to have. He opened up and told me that his parents put him in therapy when he was a child but he didn’t know why. He said he would tell the therapist what they wanted to hear so he wouldn’t have to be there but didn’t know what his purpose was for being there. My boyfriends mother called me when we first moved in and said how she hoped so much things will work out for us and that he has a hard time handling work and a personal life and that it has been a challenge for him his whole life to emotionally connect with people-talk about pressure and putting fears and worries into my own head after that conversation.

So I thought our problems went as far as him not knowing how to connect or be affectionate to him admitting it’s so hard for him to. He said intellectually he knows he wants to but physically cant. That something beyond his wants bypasses his ability and cripples him. He said he knows when he is being alert and involved with me and in an instant he’s gone and completely disconnected and myself as an outsider can see the difference in his demeanor when he transitions and my sisters and mother have noticed it on their own account at family functions.

He told me yesterday that his problems are much deeper than what hes told me over the years. He told me that in his early 20’s he admitted himself because he had suicidal thoughts because he had no money and the idea terrified him. He also said that since he was a child he has had visions in his head while awake and sleeping of him killing himself and he has what he has described as calculated visions of hurting others and by that I mean killing others. I was frightened to ask him in detail what sort of thoughts specifically but he said there is no emotional link to the thoughts or to the people it can be complete strangers and he envisions hurting them for seconds in his mind and then it’s gone. He said he needs constant distraction to get his mind away from these thoughts and visions and that he worked over the years to train himself to zone out to stop the thoughts. I then tried to ask details and he said he regrets talking to em about it and can’t say anything more out loud because then the thoughts become more real for him…I don’t even know what that means but I’m scared for him and sort of myself. He said he doesn’t actually want to hurt himself or anybody and has never thought of hurting me and that they are not his thoughts personally but he can’t stop the thoughts from occurring. I think this is why he can’t connect and relax with me emotionally and physically or that it’s hard for him too because he has no space for it in his head, I don’t know.

All I know is that it has really put a lot of stress on us and pressure on him from me to be closer and that doesn’t make life any easier for either of us. He says he loves me more than he’s any loved anyone and shows it the only way he knows how which is affection but very few and far between. He said he has to consciously think about it almost needing it in a calendar to remind him that someone needs him (me). It’s so devastating for me because he is a beautiful, kind man but is so deeply disturbed with things hindering him from feeling healthy in mind. I don’t know how to help him. I want us to be together and build a family but I don’t know if I can with someone who is so emotionally unavailable but it’s hard to walk away from him because he feels and like it’s out of his control. He wants to be but has a hard time and disconnects at home to avoid thoughts of suicide or of hurting others.

Is he showing any symptoms of a disorder? And if so, how do I help him? Please help me, help him.

A: I think what you are describing is a form of OCD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. His brain gets hooked by a distressing thought, in his case hurting himself or others, and he can’t get it out of his mind except by zoning out. It’s a tactic that works in one sense. It does push the thoughts away. But the unfortunate consequence is that he isn’t able to be close to people while he is occupied with battling the intrusive thoughts.

He can be helped, but he has to be willing to make the effort. It is a mistake for him to think that because he had an unsuccessful therapy experience as a child that all therapy will be unsuccessful. He needs to commit to being honest with the therapist and not to tell the therapist what he thinks she or he wants to hear. Therapy only works if there is honesty and trust.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be the most effective treatment for this disorder. I suggest that he look for a therapist who is trained in this method and commit to a three-month trial during which he will do his very best. Chances are he will be able to learn how to manage the OCD so it doesn’t interfere with his life anywhere near as much as it does now.

I wish you both well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Jul 2013

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2013). Boyfriend Struggles with Intrusive Thoughts. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 22, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2013/07/21/boyfriend-struggles-with-intrusive-thoughts/