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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Stalemate: When Couples Get Nowhere Fast

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Nov 5th 2006

Remember the old saying about opposites attracting? Well, based on the information in this essay the conclusion is likely to be that the old saying is a myth. In fact, for most people, opposites do not attract. In the cases discussed here, not onlydo opposites not attract but they drive one another away. Think about whether you recognize any people you know?

1. One wife complains that whenever she asks her husband for help with household tasks he promises to provide that help but never gets around to it. He retorts that his wife is not accurate and that she does not allow for how busy at work he is.

2. A girl friend complains that her boy friend always reneges on anything he promises to do. She wants more of his time and he refuses, giving thousands of reasons why he can’t. Most of his reasons for not providing her with more time are that he is busy at work. He works late into the evenings, and even works on weekends. He resents her nagging.The result of his refusals is that she feels rejected and crushed. In order to please him and win his approval, she does everything for him, including washing his clothes, ironing his shirts, and bringing his suits to the cleaners. These are no small tasks since they don’t live together and she has a full time job and many chores of her own. After suffering what she perceives as his rejections, she goes home at night feeling worthless, tearful, and depressed.

3. A wife reminds her husband to purchase the airplane tickets for an important trip he must take. She wants him to make the purchase early so that he locks in the lowest airfares possible. He says he will but it never happens. For one, he keeps waiting for even better prices than are currently available. He obsessionally looks at airline tickets on the Internet and always fears that he may make the wrong choice. Ultimately, he buys the tickets at the last minute and at higher prices than if he had made the purchase earlier. When asked how this could happen, he, in his characteristic way, takes a long and circuitous verbal path to the explanation. The result is that both his therapist and wife feel extremely frustrated.One of his main characteristics is that he can never make a decision without going through a long and agonizing process.

4. A married couple argues over where to go on vacation. She knows where she wants to go but he keeps hemming and hawing. He wants to choose the best possible vacation spot. However, there are so many choices that he fears he will make the wrong choice. The time for vacation passes and they go nowhere. She is utterly frustrated with what she perceives as his passivity. What soon emerges during the sessions is that he didn’t want to spend the amount of money that the vacation would have cost. Besides, he believes she wastes money and spends too much. She complains he never gives her enough money for the groceries and home expenses.

5. A husband has lost his job. His wife, filled with anxiety about their house and their future, nags him to re-write his resume and pursue opportunities in his field. He says he will but never does. Instead, he becomes furious with her. In marriage therapy, she savagely attacks him for being utterly passive. He smiles pleasantly and admits that he is. She is left steaming and is even more mad and frustrated.However, part of his problem, according to his own report, is that his resume never looks good enough to him. He demands perfection of himself. In fact, part of the reason he lost his previous job is that he takes too long to get things done. What slows him down is his need for perfection. Despite the fact that she is usually steaming with anger at him for being so passive, she keeps most of her feelings to herself. She does not want to risk losing him by nagging and complaining too much. Depression, frustration, and hopelessness are emotions with which she is too familiar.

6. Lastly, a couple is referred for marriage counseling because they are at an impasse. They sullenly enter the office and sit opposite one another. The atmosphere in the room is thick with rage. When the wife begins to speak, she tearfully begins to explain that her husband always works and never has time for her or their children. She is now pregnant with another child. He responds with the attitude that his wife is crazy and is never satisfied with anything he does. There is no tenderness left in these two and they are at the end of their marriage. Anything that is suggested, such as they take time to get baby sitters and go out for dinner with one another, is never accomplished. He is too busy at work to take her out or to spend much time with the children. In point of fact, when she was tearfully talked about his failure to be available to her or the children during the joint sessions, he sat impassively. He was emotionally the direct opposite of his wife. She was emotionally expressive and stormy. He was cool, controlled and unemotional.

Do these scenarios sound familiar to you? These are just a few examples of the kinds of complaints I, as a therapist, have heard repeatedly over more than twenty years of working with couples. Some people refer to this behavior as passive-aggressive. In actuality, the men represented in each of these fictionalized case studies are examples of people with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder(OCPD). Women are equally afflicted with this type of personality disorder.

Some of the women in the cases above represent another type of personality disorder referred to as Dependent Personality Disorder(DPD). Men are equally capable of having this type of personality disorder.

According to the DSM 1V of the American Psychiatric Association, A Personality Disorder is defined as "an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviate markedly from what is expected of the individual's culture. It is pervasive and inflexible and remains stable over time. Personality disorders begin during early adolescence or childhood and lead to distress and impairment." In other words, an individual with a personality disorder engages in fixed and unchanging patterns of behavior.

DSM IV Definition of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder(OCPD)

In a manner of speaking, the person with this disorder "sees individual trees, but fails to see the forest." They are so focused on details that they are blind to the "bigger picture."

DSM IV Definition of Dependent Personality Disorder(DPD)

There is such an excessive need to be taken care of that those with this disorder become submissive and clinging. They fear separation, and making any decisions lest they anger loved ones. They cannot disagree with anyone and will go to any lengths to gain approval from others.


The quintessential Hollywood example of what it can be like to live with OCPD was the Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau movie, The Odd Couple, that went on to be an equally successful television series. Both the movie and television show were versions of the original Broadway Neil Simon play of the same name. The two main characters were Oscar Madison and Felix Unger. Each of them is divorced and shares an apartment in Manhattan. Felix Unger is the extremely obsessional character who demands that everything be neat and orderly with regard to the apartment, cooking, clothes, work, etc. He is also hypchondriacal and constantly worries about germs and health. Felix' obsessional preoccupations and behaviors drive Oscar, who is his opposite in every way, to the brink of either insanity or homicide. The two characters, at opposite ends of the neatness poll, get into conflicts with one another that are hysterically funny. While Felix is neat, Oscar is a slob. While Felix is heath conscious, Oscar smokes, drinks, and overeats. Felix is driven just as crazy by Oscar's behavior as Oscar is Felix’. The reason for the popularity of the play, movie and television show is that it tapped into a lot of truth about certain types of human relationships. Anyone married to an obsessional person knows just how maddening it can be to deal with them.

However, it is not amusing when someone must deal with an individual who has an obsessive personality disorder. It is even more difficult when that person has a personality disorder of his/her own. For example, two personality disordered individuals, who are headed for marital disaster, are a Dependent Personality Disorder married to an Obsessive Personality Disorder.

Why is this so?

The more an individual who is dependent asks for reassurance, the more the obsessional person refuses to provide it. Try to imagine the women in a few of the above cases attempting to get love and approval from their spouse or boy friend who is not able to give them what they want. Desperately looking for approval, the DPDasks that the OCPD show proof of love by such behaviors as being taken out to dinner, being given flowers, gifts for their birthday, or other such romantic behaviors. The OCPD may promise to do some of these things, but never actually does. When confronted with why this didn’t happen, the OCPD explains, in rational and logical terms, why it couldn’t happen. If the DPD becomes tearful and feels hurt, the OCPD responds with righteous indignation. The more emotional and desperate the dependent person becomes, the more the obsessional individual views his/her partner as out of control and insane. They simply cannot understand the outpouring of emotion or understand why this person is so angry with them. People with OCPD never see themselves as being wrong. In fact, they see others as wrong while they are always correct. The DPD, always clinging and always hopeful, continues onward, attempting to get love from this rejecting person. It is an example of the proverbial attempting to get water from a stone.

In psychotherapy, when asked by the husband or wife why the other will not meet their wishes, I often use the metaphor of the clam when referring to OCPD? The harder one attempts to open the clam shell, the tighter it pulls itself closed. Hitting it with a hammer will not work any better than attempting to use a knife to "shuck" it open. The clam remains tightly closed because it needs to. Obviously, it is protecting itself from something.

If the OCPD protects him/herself from something by remaining rigidly shut, why is the DPD stubbornly pursuing love from the "clam"? Perhaps this is also a defensive type of behavior or a repetition of frustrations suffered from early childhood onward. Perhaps the child who never felt given to goes through life attempting to prove self worth by continuing to try to get love and approval from the ungiving in the hope that they will finally succeed.

Despite my years of therapeutic experience with people who have these types of personality disorders, I am always baffled by the way in which the dependent person will persist in their pursuit of love from the obsessional individual. On one occasion, a dependent woman stated that she loved her boy friend despite twenty years of stubborn refusal on his part to marry. In fact, he barely fit her into his busy and neatly organized schedule. He both worked at his career and worked out at the gym seven days per week. He had time to go to the gym but never had time to take her out to dinner, a movie, or a play. While she lived separately in her own apartment, she cleaned his as well, yet never received any acknowledgement for this. If she became angry, he would stop calling and she would become extremely anxious. Again, this went on for twenty years before she began to realize how the entire situation was causing her to feel extremely depressed.


The nature of personality disorders is such that they are very difficult for therapists to treat. The real hope for change comes when the individuals with any type of personality disorder are so unhappy that they are willing to enter treatment. Part of the problem is that obsessional people rarely see the need for help for themselves because they blame everyone else for being unreasonable. Even when their spouses succeed in dragging them into therapy, they are often stubbornly unwilling to see the need for change.

However, there are those who do want therapy, even those who are obsessional. The types of therapy available range from marriage therapy to individual therapy based on psychodynamic or psychoanalytic principles or cognitive-behavioral therapy. Anti depressant medications do help relieve feelings of depression but do not help the person learn about and change their behaviors. Depending on the seriousness and type of personality disorder, treatment can take a very long time as people tend to resist learning how they are behaving, let alone changing that behavior.

Your comments, opinions, questions and experiences are invited.


Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

family and ocpd - - Jan 11th 2010

How to cope with my clever and beautiful daughter who has ocpd, the usual relationship is not possible as whatever I do is wrong. There is extreme coldness from her, total lack of humour or joy and even rejection of gifts, ie deliberately leaving the gifts behind. It is heartbreaking when she was such a loving (but often anxious) little girl. There is a long history of mental disorder in both families, anxiety, bipolar, severe depression alcoholism etc. Neither my husband or myself have suffered from any of these as far as I am aware but I know that it is often hard to see one's own problems! With a partner there is the possibility of splitting up but I could never give up on my child, it has caused me so much grief and pain in my life since she reached puberty. Do you have any suggestions? I am a far from perfect person myself but I always try to treat others they way I would like to be treated and I think that kindness to others is the most important trait in life. I am not tidy or organised so I am an opposite type to my daughter. My other children are fine and I have a good relationship with them.

What if Children are involved? - Myriam - Dec 10th 2009

Hello Dr. Schwartz,

I found your article very interesting. My husband could without a doubt be diagnosed with OCPD. Living with him has been, I must admit, very challenging. It has been particularly difficult because my 10 year-old son displays symptoms of ADD. My husband has been extremely hard on my son, even to a point of physical altercation (belt was used more than once).

My husband refuses to admit that he has a personality disorder, and is unwilling to realize how much stress he brings on our family. I am now at the point where I would live him to at least allow myself and the children to breathe temporarily or permanently. Is there hope that this stubburn man would ever realize how unbearable his personality can be? What advice do you have for me?

From a desparate wife and mother ready to walk out on an otherwise good man...     

Impasse? - Allan N. Schwartz, PhD - Dec 8th 2009

Hi Sophie and Jay,

I am sorry that you conclude that there is not hope because that is not what I mean to imply. A lot depends upon motivation. Also, the fact that you and your boyfriend are at an impasse does not mean that you match the types of couples described in the article.

All of us can have some symptoms of almost anything. The fact that the two of you recognize that you have a good relationship means that you are not like the extreme couples in the article. Perhaps a really good marriage therapist would help the two of you.

Also, I am not sure of what you mean by an "impasse." Please remember, there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. Couples quarrel with one another just like they get along. Disagreements occur and so do frustrations.

If you two are comfortable together and love each other, then, stay together. Very often, the secret to a successful marriage or relationship is for each person to learn to "bit their tongue" and not say what they are tempted to say. Do not diagnose yourselves and do not try to fit into psychological categories. Just be, live, love, argue  and care and be together.

Dr. Schwartz

Hopeless and helpless... - Sophie and Jay - Dec 8th 2009

After reading your artilce, that's how I feel about me and my boyfriend. You don't seem to offer any hope or any help to people who may be dealing with some of these personality traits. In fact you say you are "baffled by the way in which the dependent person will persist in their pursuit of love from the obsessional individual".

I searched the internet for infomation on how to deal with a stalemate in communication between me and a boyfriend of two and a half years. We keep coming to the same impasse where we cannot come to terms that we both can be happy with. Someone always has to give in, or give-up. Your article would deem us doomed, with very little hope of changing this dynamic. I want to be realistic but not pessimistic.

I am 49 and he is 47 years old and we are both childless. I don't feel like we have time to waste in a recurring stalemate situation, yet we both acknowledge potential in what we see and have between us. Sometimes we both fear that we are just incompatable and may have to face that as fact. People who know us generally encourage us to work it out. The also believe that we "could" be good for each other. But when issues get escalated to distressful states, it's nearly impossible to succeed. We are not having any serious issues with our sexual intimacy, although it isn't very frequent, it has been mostly satisfying.

I have some dependent traits but also some of the obsessive compulsive traits: emotional, sensitive, seeking reassurance and at times needy, but also a perfectionist, seeking to create a controlled environment, and a procrastinator who doesn't get enough done. For example, I am jobless over a year now and my life has been turned upside down. This has undoubtedly had an impact on our relationship. He has done many things to try to help me, which could also be classified as enabling. In spite of that I have had difficulty making any successful efforts to secure work, and that has been a source of anxiety and depression for me, and a source of frustration for him.

My boyfriend is definitely not dependent, but has some of the obsessive traits: highly independent, very reliable, very productive and gets a lot of things done in some very important areas while neglecting other areas. When confronted, he's can be self-righteous, indignant and very inflexible, yet he doesn't make promises he won't keep. He will not say I love you, and is uncomfortable with comforting me when I'm distressed, usually saying things that make me more upset. He also will admit to being a poor communicator, and he does understand how that frustrates me. Your description of the "clamshell" probably most accurately describes my deepest frustration in the relationship. If we have a relatively silly fight, it can get easily escalated by both of us. When I try to go back to him for resolution and discussion, he is extremely resistant and when I push for it, as I usually do, there is retaliation. I respond in like kind, as well and it becomes quite hateful, hurtful and ultimately pointless.

It makes me very sad to give up on this relationship, and you seem to give these traits very little possibilty for change. It just seems too hard to make it work, and it becomes very disfunctional and dibilitating at times. I have tried therapy regarding my personal issues at different times of my life. He has sought out therapy once before in his life, years before he knew me. He is not willing to work on his issues with therapy at this time, although he often suggests, and even paid for me at one point, to go myself.

I guess my question is then, how do you know when enough is enough?

yes, that's us!! - springtime - Apr 8th 2009

Just read this article, on the very day that I have decided to let my marriage go. It's such a relief to read the responses and know that I am not alone. A few years ago my husband's OCPD-based hoarding caused me to have a severe breakdown. Looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Im not that 'chained up little person' any more, anger at what he had done to me made me determined to get my life back. Now that I am no longer dependant, he does not know how to handle me. Most important of all, he cannot hurt me or upset me, I actually find his bizarre behaviour amusing and have to try to keep a straight face when we argue. Last week I tried to persuade him to allow a decorator into our house and he threw a tantrum worthy of a two-year-old. Therapy hasn't helped, since he refuses to admit he has a problem. He tells me that if I leave he will sue me for custody of our kids on the grounds of my mental instability.  I've read up a lot on OCPD, and have gathered evidence...bring it on, that's what I say.

TO any ladies or gents out there going through the same thing I say get help for yourself, you cannot force someone else to do so, but knowing yourself and understanding what motivates your own behaviour is the key to true piece of mind. Good luck.

Parent with Dependent Personality Disorder - amy - Feb 10th 2009

Just there anyone out there with a parent with dependent personality disorder? My therapist suspects that my 30 - years divorced mother has dpp. She lives with me and my children, taking no responsibility for any decision of her own..when asked and expected to make a one on her own, she gets quite angry and defensive and accused the family of "not helping her". Just wondering if anyone else has experienced something similar.

Spouse with BPD - Erika - Feb 22nd 2008

After reading your article, it only made what my marriage pyschologist said to be true about my marriage. He told me that my husband has Borderline Personality Disorder - Controller. My exhusband was such a control freak in our marriage that it drove me insane, depress, and extremly angry. I finally divorced him and move on with my life but now I have attracted another man who is just as crazy as my ex-husband.

I don't know what personality disorder he has but he has something. When we met he gave me a fake name, he watches me or has someone else watch me, he lies about everything and even when I know the truth he still denies it. I don't know this man much and I don't even have feelings for him anymore. The problem is that he wont leave me alone and I can't breath. He has contacted my family, friends, my kids, and my exhusband. They will not admit it but I know this man did. I went to the police and nothing. I know this man has money and he is a doctor and in the military. He uses his position to manlipulate my environment and his manlipulation is what's making me fill like I can't breath.

I know I can't make him go away, but I am writing because what he is doing to me is emotionally killing my motivation. When I left my exhusand I was so happy. I've never felt so free in my entire life. I saw nothing but good positive things in my future. This man has distroyed my hope to ever being successful in life.

This man has played so many mind games with me that I don't trust no one. So here is what I see. What personality disorder does he have.

He enjoys playing mind games in my opinon to have control

He stalks me but I don't see him he has other people watch or talk to me

He lies about everyting

He enjoys pushing my buttons

He goes behing my back and talks to my friends and family without talking to me

He was previously in a relationship that he believe that the woman only wanted him for his money

He pretended to be a 24 year student and my university when in fact he is a doctor and is well over his 30s

He is extremly immature

Can you tell me what kind of person I am dealing with? How do I get rid of a guy like this? Lastly, why do I attract controlling men? Is there something wrong with me that I attract men who are controlling?

Thank you! - Mahua - Oct 19th 2007
Thank you so much for this article. It has really helped me understand a lot of things. I wish I get to read more about this topic. Thanks again, Mahua.

I do not know what to do now - - Aug 6th 2007
I am so scared. I knew something was wrong. I have been married for three years and I had a feeling that my husband was OCD or something, but when I would read about OCD it just would not fit. today I finally came accross OCPD and realized that he really has issues. it is not me being lazy or not productive enough, tidy enough, organized enough, dutiful enough bla bla bla....I had started to believe that maybe I was just a mess!!If I forget to do something he asked me to do I get this fear and stress not like he is going to hit me because he does not, but like he will disapprove and that disapproval hurts so much.

When the time comes to call a halt - Zazie - Apr 20th 2007

These are interesting sketches as they outline some of the difficulties of living with OCPD and DPD. I have been the one with DPD and my husband, I feel, has a form of OCPD - hoarding, controlling, inability to emotionally connect, attachment to 'things', etc.

It has been a difficult relationship because of the dynamics and I have reached the stage, with much help from my counsellor and, to be hard, the death of my father (who I experienced to be overly controlling, violent and abusive).

It appears to be the old chestnut of marrying one's father, although my husband has never been physically abusive.

Now I have stopped being 'hooked' by his method of relating I find that he moves between being contrite and aggressive. It is painful to end a marriage, but I genuinely feel that I have to leave in order to not just survive, but to have a life that isn't ordered, corrected, and constrained.

Sorry to be so negative. My experience is that my husband can be engaging, but not warm; intellectual, but occasionally over-bearing; controlling, and not a team-player, rigid, but not able to finish things.

I have enough faults of my own!! I have been demanding and needy, verbally abusive and very frustrated. It is time to call a halt, and that is a real shame.

So what's next? - MPB - Jan 18th 2007
That's what I'm asking myself now. Your article clarifies my life over the past several years. My husband is OCPD. I used to be (I think) strongly DPD and have spent years in therapy to learn to lessen my demands on him. I have expanded my personal interests and endured his rejection because I'm not "there" for his comfort like I used to be. But I have also gone 'overboard' in detaching and almost completely detached emotionally from him. He continues to remain convinced that only I am to blame for problems to our marriage, and he has turned to a more intense relationship with his mother. (My friend guesses he can't control me anymore so has turned to mom for the sameness he seems to crave.) After a year long separation, guilt and responsibility led me back home. Of course, no changes in the relationship, so stalemate again. So what's next? Time and courage will tell...

Stalemate - BBw - Nov 30th 2006
You are so right! I know this both from personal and professional experience! I am the Dpd and didn't really know it, knew something wasnt right. He is the OCPD and I know it but he does not own it. "I love you, I just can"t live with you." We are separated but I would still like for my marriage to work out.(of course) I would love more info amd help for my marriage and for myself and for my clients............ Thank you!!!!

It was like reading about somebody who knew me and my wife - Simon Fraser - Nov 10th 2006
I read your article, because I was looking for help since my motorbike accident 8 months ago which has not only left me unable to walk for the moment, but has cause a tremendous stress in our marriage. It’s funny but reading about O.C.D. and D.P.D. really opened my eyes to whets happening in the house hold and marriage. I on one hand like things to be neat and tidy and general try my best to perfect everything I do, although, I would say that I would consider myself a mild sufferer, I still believe that I require help in sort out these O.C.D. problems, as I do find that I procrastinate a lot and some things are always left undone because they are never good enough. My wife on the other hand since having our children has become needier and dependant, often making excuses as to why she can't do something herself so that I have to do it for her. She often plays mind games to try and ascertain how much I love her, and is very often disappointed my her findings. I do recoil when she starts on one of her 'how much do you love me' hunts, as I know that any way I play it, it will end in tears, arguments and fights, leaving both of us resentful and wanting out. I am at a crossroads just now, because the physical disability has really highlighted out problems to me. My wife seems to excel when I am having a bad day, and becomes sickly sweet and overbearing, but on the other hand if the day I’m having is good and I am able to be more independent, she is moody and resentful, often worried that I will leave her and go with someone else. It is a volatile situation that just can't continue any longer. I long for an answer but find that I procrastinate about what I should do, not helped by the new disabilities I have. I think I should take some time out and go and live on my own for a while. This would give me chance to seek help regarding the O.C.D. and trauma associated with the accident, and it would give my wife time to disassociate herself from the DPD associated with the aftermath of the accident. I could also look after my son and maybe my daughter when she’s slightly older (by a couple of months) giving my wife time to have some her time, finding out that she’s more than a mum and a wife and allowing her to become more independent again, and find things that make her happy, and not make her pursuit in life the love of her husband. Anyway I know what I have to do, it’s just finding the strength to make the change, and perhaps make both my wife, and I happier and possibly save our marriage. Thank You for taking the time to write your article, it was helpful and insightful. Many Thanks and Kind Regards Simon

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