Hi Captain Awkward!
So I’ve been a reader since the blog started, and now it is my turn to seek your advice.
Background: I have an awesome partner, and we have been together for seven months. We are both 20-year-old college students. He is kind to me, and we are best friends as well as partners. I am struggling with our relationship right now because my partner has some serious mental/emotional health issues. He is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and is still feeling the ripple effects of not ever fully dealing with that. He internalizes everything, by which I mean he takes everything personally and always feels like everyone in his life is pressuring him/watching him/waiting for him to fail (me, his family, his residents [we're both RAs], his bosses, everybody).
When he goes into a ‘funk’ as I call it (about every two weeks), he gets very silent and very moody, and basically becomes emotionally unavailable. He occasionally smokes to calm his nerves (which he never used to do, and it both worries me and grosses me out). Then it becomes my job to comfort him. I get very frustrated during these periods, because my first instinct is to take him by the shoulders and shake him while yelling “THERAPY. THERAPY. GO TO THERAPY. THERAPY IS GREAT. GO THERE.” Somehow, this strikes me as unhelpful, so I don’t do it. Instead, I have tried a gentler approach. “Hey, have you thought about maybe dropping in at [our university's counseling service]?” He has gone before, and is receptive to the idea when I bring it up, but the consistency isn’t there. I strongly feel that ongoing counseling would help connect all his emotional issues together and get him on a path of healing.
I absolutely do not want to break up. I love him dearly, and want to see him through this rough patch. I often find myself going “Our relationship would be so perfect IF he had his issues under control” by which I mean our goals are similar, our views on life are similar, we get along great, we have great communication, we want to be together long-term, and the only tiny little (read: giant, problematic) detail is that he is emotionally unstable. When he goes into his ‘funks’ I feel constant anxiety, nervousness, and dread. I am seeking help from our university’s counseling service to help me deal with this (getting support for the supporter, I guess).
So, I guess my questions for you can be summarized thusly:
1. What do you do when your relationship is emotionally unbalanced? I often feel like I pour all this worry and concern and support (oh my gosh, all the support) into him and get very little back. Part of this is because I am a relatively emotionally healthy, competent adult and I simply do not need as much support (I realize that statement is full of the privilege of having a happy childhood/teenhood). I think another part is that he is unable to give me the support I need (when I need it) because of his own issues.
2. Is it possible to have a healthy relationship when one partner is screwed up? I have often heard “You can’t be whole together until you’re whole individually!” or whatever, but I want to know if I can make this work when the person I want to be with is just not always healthy.
Help me, Captain! Any advice you can give me would be helpful.
Dear Person Who Loves A Black Hole:
I love you for being a relatively emotionally healthy, competent adult and for having the instincts to tell your partner to GO TO THERAPY NOW. They will serve you well.
I have a suggestion for what to do when your partner gets into one of his black, paranoid moods where you “pour all this worry and concern and support (oh gosh, all the support) into him and get very little back.”
Step 1: “Partner, I am so sorry you are feeling like this. You should call the counseling office and make an appointment. I think regular therapy would help you a lot. Is there anything specific I can do right now?”
Step 2: “Partner, I love you so much, but it’s hard for me to be around you when you’re feeling like this. I’m going to go do (other stuff) for a while, I’ll check back on you tomorrow/in a few days.“
Step 3: Go be a 20 year old college student who is in college for you, not to take care of someone else. See your friends. Get love and support from them, and give it in return. Hit your books with everything you’ve got. Make art. Protest stuff. If your school has a fancy gym, go to it and swim in their fancy pool. Take up an activity that has nothing to do with him. Keep going to therapy yourself. Give yourself permission to not worry about this dude.You say that when he gets like this “Then it becomes my job to comfort him.” As the emotionally healthy, ground person who knows how to set boundaries, you can make a conscious decision that it is not your job.
I know it’s a lot easier said than done. It is hard to walk away from someone you love who is in pain when they seem to need you the most. But this is me speaking to you as a) a college teacher, who wants you to get the absolute most out of this expensive and rare and lovely experience b) someone who has poured all of her love into a dark star or two, hoping love would work on humans the way sun and water and Miracle Gro work on plants. I turn 38 this weekend. To date, I have been successful in loving people out of their childhood traumas, addictions, and mood disorders exactly zero times, and the “Things would be perfect if only you would just….” relationship is a particular heartbreaker.
Here’s the thing. Your love helps him and is good for him, I’m sure of it. And I hope that his love is good for you. And I definitely don’t want to tell you that trauma survivors are undateable – “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are stronger at the broken places.”
But your partner needs to figure out how to comfort himself and manage his moods so that they don’t spread and get their hooks into you. He needs to figure out what triggers these funks and see if he can avoid or work around the triggers. You say he is kind, but it is not kindness to shut down emotionally and force you into the position of figuring out what he needs from you. There is no amount of sad or ill that excuses routinely treating someone badly when you can possibly prevent it. He needs to go to therapy and treat this stuff, even if he has been through hell and back, even if he has a legit mental illness that makes it really, really hard. He needs to do it whether you break up with him or whether the two of you are together forever. College is exactly the right time to do this, when the resources are in place and easy to access. You cannot heal him by loving him enough or by finding the right script.
The emotionally healthy side of you wrote to me because it knows that this dynamic is fucked up and you don’t want to spend all your time comforting this guy, even if you love him. So. Enjoy what there is to be enjoyed. Ask him directly to take care of himself. And when he can’t give you what you need, go and get what you need for yourself. Maybe you’ll find an equilibrium that works. Maybe he will get the help he needs, which is great as long as you remember: You getting your needs met is the only chance this has of working long-term.
Let’s go out with a little music and some Marilyn Hacker.
She Bitches About Boys (Marilyn Hacker)
To live on charm, one must be courteous.
To live on others’ love, one must be loveable.
Some get away with murder being beautiful.
Girls love a sick child or a healthy animal.
A man who’s both itches them like an incubus.
But I, for one, have had a bellyful
of giving reassurances and obvious
advice with scrambled eggs and cereal;
then bad debts, broken dates, and lecherous
onanastic dreams of estival
nights when some high-strung, well-hung, penurious
boy, not knowing what he’d get, could be more generous.