#232: Going through a rough patch and taking it out on your partner.

I’m waiting for a Quicktime Render from Hell to finish. Here’s a question.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m in a messy and unhappy situation, which isn’t really what I’m writing about. The awkward kind of comes in with how I’m handling it. A member of my boyfriend’s immediate family has a terminal illness and in addition, this is (unsurprisingly) leading to meltdowns among other members of the family. He lives quite a long way from them and is doing a lot of back and forth traveling and trying to keep up at work as well and generally is stretched pretty thin. I’m also in a lousy situation at work, with a demanding boss and people quitting and having to take on their stuff. The combination of this means we hardly ever get to see each other. If we manage to carve out several hours to ourselves – and we both do try really hard, but it often doesn’t work out, a lot of the time something comes up at the last minute – then everything is good and we can relax a bit and just enjoy each other’s company. But most of the time all it seems like we can do is grab an hour here or there, on the way to the airport, from the airport, late at night when we’re both tired. And then in those times we either talk logistics or – and this is kind of my problem – I pick a fight.

I try to be supportive and take a backseat and provide him with what he seems to need. But the longer we go without getting to spend some time together the more unhappy, and honestly kind of resentful, I start to feel. I try to tell myself that I’m being selfish and he’s under a lot of strain, and I also try as much as possible to ask for reasonable things that would help a bit, and he’s good at listening and trying to accommodate me. But still I eventually start saying to myself, “We haven’t had dinner together in two weeks, we haven’t had a proper conversation in three, we were supposed to have two!whole!hours! on Monday morning and the plane was delayed – ” and on and on. And then the next time we talk I’m surly or snappy or else I just burst into tears.

He usually handles my freakouts pretty well, and I wind up feeling better about the situation. But then I just hate myself for not being able to deal without having to subject both of us to my feelings!bomb, and making this crappy situation all about me. This is turning into a pattern and nothing I’ve tried so far is stopping it. I try to make sure to eat properly and get exercise, and hang out with other people if he’s not around, but when I get into this spiral it’s just a slow drop into negative thinking and eventually losing it. I’d love some advice on how to deflect myself or learn better coping skills…

Thanks and sorry this is way longer than it probably needs to be 🙂

The Only Way Out Is Through?

Man, that sounds like rough going.

First, I suggest you seek out a therapist or other structured environment (maybe your work has an Employee Assistance Program or hotline?) where you can talk about your stress. If you could get some of the feelings that are coming out in the form of meltdowns at your boyfriend out in a safe, more structured environment, it might make you feel more in control when he’s around. There are meds that help with anxiety. Maybe you should investigate them. I’m serious – I know therapy isn’t the solution for everyone and meds aren’t the solution/don’t work for everyone, but if it *might* work for you why not look into it? I think you should do anything and everything to take care of yourself right now.

Here’s why I really feel for you and your situation. I think what you’re looking for here is a time-frame. If you knew it would only be this awful for, like, another month, you could ride it out, right? It’s only a month. But what a horrible, guilt-inducing thought! You can’t root for someone to die quicker so you can get your boyfriend back. What if it’s like this for 6 more months? A year? More years would be good news, the best! And yet your poor hearts will break in the meantime.

So there are no boundaries because you don’t know how long it will be like this. And he has a hard time setting boundaries (with work, family, travel, etc.) because HE doesn’t know how long it will be like this. I’m sure it’s impossible for him to really plan anything ahead or schedule time off from work, etc.

Instead of reacting to events as they unfold, I wonder if you guys could sit down and make a 6 month plan. It starts with each of you making a list:

  • Stuff that NEEDS to get done (at work, at home, travel, etc.)
  • Stuff that you would LIKE to do/get done.
  • Stuff that you can just let go and not worry about right now.

Ideally you would try to move as much stuff from the “should/would like to” list down to the “let go” list and stick with the stuff that needs to happen. But it might help just to have the list and see it all in one place and think about the next 6 months as one big chunk. In 5.5 months you can re-evaluate and plan the next six months.

Now, are there steps you can each take to mitigate your workload and outside commitments?

  • Can he ask for help at work and get some projects reassigned?
  • Can he take a bigger chunk of time off from work, go home for a good spell, and handle as much as he can there all at once? Is it time for him to move home for a while? (Not ideal for you, but a real possibility, yes?)
  • Can you ask for help at work?
  • Is it time for you to look for a new job?
  • Could you guys agree that every 2 weeks you get one sacred evening to be completely unplugged from phone, email, work, etc.?
  • Could you guys figure out small daily rituals to keep you connected when you are apart? I’m not even suffering through any kind of crisis and I saw my boyfriend yesterday for many hours but I still find that “How is your day?” and/or “Good night” text or two to be an anchor.

I don’t know if these questions are even helpful, I’m just thinking about how to get you both out of Crisis Reaction mode and into We Are A Team Who Can Face Anything Together mode.

Does it help to think of this as a “Our Grandparents and Great-Grandparents Wrote Love Letters As They Risked Death In War” situation? Or does that just add more guilt? Because I think the chips are pretty much down, and “meltdowns” and you picking fights can’t be sustainable for him. You not getting any of your needs met is not sustainable for you.

I don’t know how to help you get there, but I think the answer lies somewhere in being fully present for each other when you are together. It’s not the last two weeks, when you couldn’t even sit down for dinner, it’s right now, right here, you’re both in the same room with dinner in front of you and saying “What do you need, right now, from me to feel happy and okay?” You should ask him that sometimes. And he should ask you that sometimes. And as much as possible you should answer that question with immediate concrete possible actions.

Do you need to touch?

To not touch?

To talk about serious things?

To talk about anything but serious things?

To fall asleep watching a stupid TV show?

So those are my suggestions.

1. Put a support system in place for yourself to manage your stress and anxiety and give you a safe place to unload your difficult emotions while ride this out.

2. Make a 6-month plan where you fully acknowledge exactly how much you have going on and look for ways to get a handle on it.

3. Find some kind of ritual or rituals that allow you to stay connected when you’re apart and reconnect when you do have time to get together.

I know we have a lot of long distance lovers here, and military families, and people who met and came together over long distances and through real hard times, so I’m hoping they have some concrete suggestions and stories of encouragement for you.

I really wish both of you well.

39 thoughts on “#232: Going through a rough patch and taking it out on your partner.

  1. this is so much my 2008 it’s actually pretty upsetting: my now-husband and i both had family members dying of terminal illness, but his was much more shocking (read: younger) and necessitated 3000-mile trips home once a month. his family was completely melting down. i was in grad school and working and still trying to process the fact that i’d graduated from college and lost the best support network i’d ever had. my average day involved listening to my family cry over the phone, holding my fiance while he cried after listening to his family cry over the phone, and sitting at work staring blankly at a computer screen. oh right! and fighting off the incomprehensible social pressure to plan a wedding IMMEDIATELY RIGHT THEN.

    suggestion time:
    1. a thousand YESes to therapy. i WISH i had had the wherewithal to arrange it for myself at the time, and frankly i don’t know how i survived that year without it. i think i was in some kind of emotional coma. if you can’t get it together yourself (it can be complicated, especially when every fucking thing is a complexity explosion), ask a friend to set it up for you. THIS IS NOT WEIRD.

    2. find a friend to vent to. not just about the fact that the situation is horrible, but about the resentment you feel toward HIM. he is absolutely requires your patience and support right now, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t suffering, and having a person to whom you can safely (read: without guilt) bitch about that goddamn plane delay might help keep that completely reasonable anger from spilling out onto your boy.

    3. know that this WILL end. i agree that you probably don’t want to actively root for a loved one’s death, but i think it’s okay to remind yourself terminal illnesses DO end. the victim’s suffering will end, his family will heal, and you will heal. this is not forever.

    speaking on behalf of the internet: jedi hugs for you. ALL the jedi hugs.

    1. “if you can’t get it together yourself (it can be complicated, especially when every fucking thing is a complexity explosion), ask a friend to set it up for you. THIS IS NOT WEIRD.”

      THIS! Getting the appointment made is the hardest thing. I couldn’t make the call. I had a family member do it for me– and yes, it was really hard to ask, but the fact that I was breaking down in tears when I tried to ask told me it was really, really necessary. Once it was scheduled, though, I could actually make myself go.

  2. This is also my 2008! Except that I was the partner with the dying family member AND the partner picking fights (about other issues, most of which were being the fuck done with long distance and also my general bad attitude about Burning Man). And I got sick myself in that time period, and moved house.

    Um. The relationship did not survive; I am no longer dating that man. I am still friends with him. We still love and respect the hell out of each other.

    There are reasons our relationship ended amicably and not in a total scorched earth War of the Roses murder spree. Some of those are “don’t want to go to jail” and “have a lot of friends in common, could we maybe not make this more awkward than necessary for them?”

    But also. Around the time my mother was dying, and then after she died, and my already-sort-of-ex came and visited and took care of my family but then didn’t come to the funeral, which I totally held against him? Which is when I was picking all the fights. I remembered something my grandmother in the months after my grandfather died, any time my mother or her sisters said something snarky about her husband:

    “Say three nice things about the man you are married to.”

    OK: my grandmother, for not being Catholic, has a really conservative attitude about marriage. She also acknowledges that she was extraordinarily lucky. I’ve seen photos! My granpda was nothing short of a CATCH. And, I mean, I got to hang out with him when he was a wonderful, funny, kind old man. She was LUCKY. (He was lucky, too, to have married the tough, bitchy, never-a-hair-out-of-place woman he married. ESPECIALLY considering they had but nothing for a dating pool! But I digress.)

    That catch, my grandfather, had just died. And she just couldn’t deal with anyone with a living, healthy husband talking shit.

    I still feel that way when people talk about their living, healthy mothers even though I sometimes get mad at my not-living mom. And I know not all moms are as wonderful as my mom was; some moms are abusive and objectively awful. Or they just weren’t people their kids related to like I related to my mom.

    Anyway. I decided that for x amount of time — I have no memory of when this agreement expired — my not-yet-ex and I should pay each other a compliment, one each day. We were far apart (I was still with my family, even further away from him than I normally was) so we texted each other.

    So: our relationship ended with each of us having told the other one, once per day, one thing we found completely admirable or charming about the other. I think, had there not been other, very practical, reasons for the relationship to end, we might have worked out? But either way.

    I agree with all the Captain’s advice. And I add that as much as you can, as often as you can, remind yourself why your partner is a person you’re glad to know, and want to keep knowing. Ask him for that affirmation as well.

  3. I cannot second the advice for a six month (or whatever you deem an appropriate time frame) plan enough. In my own experience, I can say that the stress of living in that constant state of crisis and the feeling that not only was I not getting my needs met, I had NO CONTROL over it, was what drove me to the screaming fits/picking arguments/”fuck you I’m drinking a margarita and no I’m not watching Supernatural with you god dammit” stage. If you can establish some sort of game plan, then you can have reasonable expectations that will actually be met, rather than constantly being frustrated. It still won’t be an ideal situation, obviously, but if you know it’s for a limited amount of time and you can get you and your boyfriend on the same page, hopefully your stress level (and the fights and unhappiness that spring from that) will settle a bit and you both can get through it a bit more easily.

    Jedi hugs for you both!

  4. Like many others commenting, I too have been through nasty crunch-times of sickness and mental health and work crises and just not having the time.

    One other thing to think about: if you can afford it and aren’t already doing it, consider paying for things you currently spend time on. Cooking and cleaning are the most obvious. Also home repairs and such. Travel agents instead of spending hours slaving over online itineraries (if that’s something you’ve been doing). Possibly even virtual personal assistant kind of things where when you need to pick X up from Y, or find out about places to stay in Z at short notice, and so on. Accountants for tax time even if you’re usually capable of doing it yourself. Taxis instead of hauling your tired self out to the airport. That sort of thing.

    I realise this is really sucky advice to the point of being painful if you can’t afford it. (Some crunch times I’ve done some of this, others I haven’t because money, it’s not always a thing I have.) You have to be in a good position in many ways to take advantage of this kind of thing. But it does help if you can.

    If you do it it’s also something you can consider paying forward someday: a temporary cleaning service or a night nanny for a few nights or similar for someone else in crisis or under continual stress, some time in the future.

    If you do have friends or family saying “how can I help? how can I help?” (and again, it’s possible you don’t, this is often my big lack in crises) some of this can be picked up by them too, especially taxi duties but also things like “hey, I made a list, can you do my grocery run?” and similar.

    I know you asked for advice and your partner didn’t and that’s why the Captain addressed your support system, but is there anything that can be added to your boyfriend’s? It sounds like you’re really stretched trying to meet what you consider your part of his physical and emotional needs, and maybe he needs to unload some of that on someone else in Team Him, too.

    1. Seconding checking in with the boyfriend. A great, low-stress “couple time” activity is picking a TV series and watching through it. Pick something you both like and that you both want to see, and that’s your deconpression activity. It gives you both something to do, someone to cuddle, and gives you an imaginary safe space in which to escape.

      I have an abusive family who likes to blame me for people’s deaths, and I would NOT have gotten through the pain and stress without Mad Men and Doctor Who. Better, it let me give physical and emotional comfort to my significant others when I didn’t have the emotional real estate to do anything major.

    2. Even if friends or family aren’t offering help, it might be because they haven’t thought to. Asking friends to cook some meals to throw in the freezer and heat when needed or clean the living space could be a huge relief without being a huge drain on the pocketbook, and people may be perfectly happy to help once asked.

  5. Wanting something to end is not the same as wanting someone to die. You can want something to end without wishing ill on another person. Even further, having feelings of anger and resentment towards someone dealing with a terminal illness is totally fucking normal and you are not a bad person for thinking those things in your heart of hearts when you have been spun out by someone else’s emotional needs yet again. It is okay. What you are thinking is normal.

    Having witnessed slow deaths due to terminal illness, I can say with confidence that the main feeling when the person dies is relief, not loss; they have been mourned for the duration of time in which they were ill. In a way, death signals the end of mourning and the beginning of healing. If you have dealt with other people’s death before, it helps to keep this in mind.

    There’s good advice in the comments and from the Captain, so I don’t have much to add to that. I just wanted to step in and say that what you’re feeling during this time isn’t always nice and happy and selfless, and that’s okay.

  6. Oh, I relate so much to this letter. It’s so terribly obvious that if the main problem is stress and the emotional fallout of hardly seeing each other, it doesn’t help to spend your little time together fighting about that. But it can be so hard. I’m guessing you try really hard to let little issues go because you don’t want to stress him out further when he’s got so much to deal with already. So maybe you’re not telling him when you wished he would have called last night, because you know he was with family. But maybe when you are together and not busy for once, all that stuff boils over. You get mad at yourself for picking fights but it’s hard to stop.

    I’m projecting here, sorry. I have lots of experience with stressful jobs and family issues and not enough time together. And I have definitely found myself wasting my partner’s and my little time together on arguing. In my case, I think it was in large part because I was trying to provoke connection – arguing involves attention and emotions and reconciliation with cuddling and affirmation… All of which can be in short supply at these times. But saying “darling, I really need a cuddle tonight if you can spare one” would have been a better way.

    I really support the Cap’n’s advice about seeking support and making a plan. Both of these involve accepting that less time together is your new, although temporary, reality. Accepting that it is going to be this way for a while – although it sucks- can help deal with those feelings of deprivation that hit every time he leaves. So you don’t mourn each week apart as a separate loss, or experience each week apart as a separate crisis. 

    Also, give yourself permission to get by without him being there all the time. Sometimes, on some weird level, I think we feel like it’s a betrayal of the relationship to cope without your partner by your side. Like if this was *real* love you wouldn’t be able to bear to spend a night apart. That’s not right. I’m not suggesting it’s a weakness to need your partner – I’m just saying that if you can manage without him, as you must sometimes, it’s not something to be ashamed of.

    Jedi hugs to you, LW. Good luck.

  7. I just want to suggest that you talk to your doctor about antidepressants (your primary care physician is fine; you don’t need to have found a therapist for this part). It might sound simplistic (like, ‘I don’t need medication, my problems are REAL,not in my head, so I don’t think popping a pill is going to fix this’). However, personal resilience can be partly a matter of chemical balance/imbalance. At one point, my partner was going through grief for his father’s death and huge work stress all at once, and he started getting disproportionately upset and unpleasant about little everyday glitches in life, which was perfectly understandable but still sucky and certainly didn’t make him feel better about himself or his life. Meds made all the difference in the world. Obviously, they didn’t magically fix the real things he was grieving and stressing about. That took time. What they did was offset some of the bad stuff that grief and stress was doing to his body on a chemical level that undermined his coping skills and resilience at the time he needed them most.

    Sounds like that may be what’s happened to you: the horrible stress you’re going through may have affected you on a chemical level (mood affects body chemistry affects mood affects body chemistry affects mood……), making you feel even more sensitive and fragile and unable to cope with disappointments, causing you to lash out in ways that don’t feel right to you even while you’re doing them, but you can’t seem to help yourself. That’s the kind of thing meds can help with. Not a magic pill for the situation, but something that can help you get through it.

    1. That’s the best laid out description of what meds can do I’ve ever seen, thanks!

      1. Thanks (as an as-yet unpublished writer, I lap up all word-related praise)! But more to the point, as I’m sure you can tell, although the part of my experience with anti-depressants that seemed most relevant to the letter writer’s question was second hand, I’ve got first hand experience, too.

    2. This has been my experience with medication too. I have hard-won coping mechanisms that keep me from freaking out too much over day-to-day life, but that doesn’t leave me with any cushion when my knees get cut out from under me. Medication gives me that cushion. That way, I can deal with the crisis *as it is*, not as my worst fears build it to be.

      1. I always liked to think of antidepressants as sort of a cast you put on your broken heart/soul/psyche. You just support the fragile, healing superstructure that can’t take all the weight right now, and then with time and exercises, you get better, and then you take the cast off.

        Maybe have all your friends sign the pill bottle to give it that “this was a shitty moment that I made it through” talismanic quality.

        I would prefer to do things without them, but there is indeed a time and a place for such things. A trained therapist (not GP) can tell you for sure.

        Best wishes and jedi hugs to all the survivors and the LW!

        1. I’m all in favor of getting therapy, but I point out that GPs can prescribe antidepressants because a lot of people are daunted by the thought of therapy, either therapy itself or the logistics of finding a therapist and whether they can get health insurance to cover it, etc. (Lots of people who really need it and know they do take a LOOONG time to work up to it!) Particularly in a situation like this, where there does not seem to be a chronic mental health issue so much as a sort of situational depression requiring a bit of short term support, a GOOD general practitioner absolutely should be able to assess and prescribe appropriately — and can be a lot more accessible. Better to get some help via the GP than get none because she thinks she has to go to a therapist to get it, if that’s too overwhelming.

          1. Fair enough – but one should be wary of a GP who just drops a sample pack in your lap without doing any bloodwork or any in-depth probing into your condition. They should assess the ways in which the depression manifests before just throwing something you might react badly to into your bloodstream.

        2. I kind of feel bad for talking about something so not the LW’s issue, but I just wanted to say, this is a model for some kinds of depression but not all, and I don’t want people to feel pressured, that they “should” try to wean themselves off drugs they really need. I mean, I believe in and love therapy to pieces, I am a therapist, but I might be on antidepressants the rest of my life.

          My antidepressants are more like a brace than a cast, personally. It doesn’t matter how much therapy I’ve done, if I’m off them, I get anxious and sobbing over everything, and it takes all my cope just to haul my brain back on track. When I’m on drugs, I have the best attitude you could hope for, pretty much. Kind of like someone with a congenitally weak leg–take off the cast, and they keel over. (This simile appeals to me because I also have congenital bone deformities–I can’t walk barefoot, so I wear corrective orthotics everywhere.)

          Basically, what we currently call “depression” is a catch-all syndrome masking several different distinct disorders with different causes and cures. “Depression” is a broad category of symptoms like “headache”. Some headaches are because you’re hungover; some are because you have a migraine; some are because you have a brain tumor.

          So there are theories that some kinds of depression (especially the lifelong recurring kind) are the cause and/or result of permanent brain damage. (We’ve seen the brain damage, but we haven’t got cause/effect nailed down, and suspicions are it’s a bit of both–a little predisposition turns into depression turns into worse damage. Moral of the story: get your depression treated.) Because when you’re depressed for long enough, some of the happytime brain receptors die, and may take years to regrow, if they ever do; and if you have that brain damage, you’re more likely to be depressed (and even worse depressed) in the future.

          So I have the genetic predisposition to depression, the last time I can say I was not depressed was six (and I have been pretty consistently depressed since I was 11). Which means my brain may permanently be unable to produce enough serotonin and other neurotransmitters to make me functionally non-depressed on its own. So I’ll always need an artificial input stream.

          Some people will have healed bones or brains at the end of a couple months. Some won’t. And that’s okay, I think.

          1. Good point, and I didn’t mean to be insensitive to the unfortunately-wired such as yourself. Thanks for perspective, and also I send you hugs.
            I think you might agree that some people who might have been cast-wearers will get into the brace-and-wheelchair habit out of fear – and if you CAN take the cast off, do try! But if you cannot, be like Staranise here! : )

    3. Talking to your primary care physician is better than nothing if you have no access to mental health care, but it’s no substitute for working with a mental health professional. I’ve had a bad experience with a PCP who wasn’t very knowledgeable about mental health care. He prescribed a medication that wasn’t a good choice for me, and gave me a lot of misinformation about other treatment options. He also didn’t really have any idea how to evaluate my progress, which is important because not every medication is effective for every person. I realize that not every PCP is as bad at mental health care as that guy, but specialist training exists for a reason. You can’t expect your PCP to be an expert on every area of medicine.

      1. I’m sorry you had that experience – I’m going to go with “better than nothing!” for the LW. Why not at least try?

      2. There are GPs who are bad at mental health issues — and ones (like mine) who are awesome. I tend to think younger ones are more likely to be good, just because there is an increasing trend among mainstream physicians toward appreciation for the interrelationship between mental and physical states, but that’s not to say there aren’t lots of older physicians who totally get it — the trend has been around quite a while. If you get a bad one, ask around. There are plenty of good ones, and I’m sure word of mouth will get you there.

        Likewise, there are bad therapists, including ones who have an unhelpful anti-med bias, in part because not all “therapists” are qualified to prescribe. I think that to prescribe medication the therapist has to be a medical doctor (psychiatrist) rather than a psychologist or social worker — which doesn’t mean you should not go to a psychologist or other therapist you’ve heard good things about just because they can’t prescribe. As long as they don’t have the anti-med bias they will refer you, often to someone they work with on a regular basis, to get you what you need.

        What’s great is if you get your GOOD primary care physician to refer you to a GOOD therapist, and they treat your mental health like a joint undertaking, each asking you how things are going with the other and adjusting their treatment accordingly.

  8. This may sound silly, but for the nights you’re alone, a stuffed animal might help. If you don’t have a teddy bear (left over from when you were small, maybe), you could go into a toy store or a zoo souvenir shop and find something. (I have a fine stuffed tarantula I got at the Montreal Biodome a few years ago, but a bear or leopard or turtle might be more comforting.)

    1. I have done that myself my whole life, and I tell you what, you can talk to that face all night and it never judges you. Great recommend, Vicki!

    2. Or a hot water bottle, preferably one with a cosy cover. Having something warm and cosy to hold really makes nights apart easier to bear.

  9. Oh, LW, jedi hugs, that whole thing sounds wretched. All I’ve got is some advice my mother gave me when my mother-in-law was dying and my husband was a wreck: this is too big for one person. Pick three friends or family members to unload on, with the understanding that they will then unload onto other people, and so on and so forth until the stress load is diluted to something normal. Team You will be on call to hear you complain about your job, and about never getting to see your boyfriend, and how awful the whole thing is.

    Something my mom didn’t say, but would have if she was Captain Awesome: there should definitely be a therapist, or someone else who is just there to listen without judgment, emotional involvement, or social recompense, so that you can talk about the ugly stuff that comes with this situation– the sneaking sense of hope and relief if the relative takes a turn for the worse, the guilt that comes with that, the resentment of someone else taking up all your boyfriend’s time, all the nasty stuff that’s making you feel awful. Get it out of you! This is big stuff. Nasty stuff.

    Your boyfriend is leaning on you, and can’t be there (or spare the emotional energy) to help you deal with your work stress, and that’s hard! It doesn’t help that “has a dying relative” tends to trump everything else in the stress contest, so you get to feel like your stress is petty in comparison, but it still hurts. Get Team You on the phone, and lean on them hard. If you can get all the nasty stuff out when you’re talking to Team You, then it won’t come flying out when you’re finally having time with your boyfriend.

    1. “there should definitely be a therapist, or someone else who is just there to listen without judgment, emotional involvement, or social recompense”

      Where I grew up, there was a hotline that was just for that. It was an 800 number, it was staffed by volunteers, and it wasn’t for referral to therapy or social services or anything — it was just to talk. The volunteer I knew said mostly they got lonely people, who needed to know someone was listening. Some other towns have similar services. Could be worth checking, just so you have someone to go ‘mm-hmm’ and ‘uh-huh’ while you rant about the unfairness and frustration of it all.

  10. This was my 2005-2006, actually. My partner’s mom was diagnosed with cancer that quickly progressed, and she died in late 2006. During the time she was sick, he spent a LOT of time with her in the faraway state she had moved to with her new husband, who had recently left. I was angry and resentful at the amount of time he was spending there, especially since she was being stubborn about not moving closer to family. I did a lot of that picking fights thing, both over the phone and when partner came home.

    I think my biggest piece of advice to the LW is to reiterate what CA and some of the other commenters have noted: your partner’s crisis doesn’t magically erase your needs, and *that is ok.* You’re allowed to have needs even during this time! I definitely struggled with feeling like my emotional needs were silly or frivolous because, well, my mom wasn’t dying so I should just suck it up. But that kind of thinking led me to ignore the other needs that weren’t getting met. I’m not sure what your situation is, LW, but my partner and I were living together, and he was taking enormous amounts of unpaid time off to deal with this, and our financial situation and home situation were really suffering in addition to my emotional well-being. That just added to the resentment and made the fights even worse (fighting about money when your partner’s mom is dying, how could I be so unfeeling!).

    The key, of course, is finding good ways of communicating about it, which frankly we were quite bad at during that time but managed through trial and error to figure it out. I definitely second/third/wevs the idea of having a set time set aside for you, and also the daily text messages or phone calls. And to remember that you matter too, and that nobody can be an unlimited fountain of support indefinitely. Hang in there, LW.

  11. Input from the other side. Some years ago I was rather freshly married to a wonderful man. Then my sibling committed suicide and one of my parents was killed in a car crash and one of my grandparents died of a heart-attack. All within the space of 6 months. My (wonderful, lovely, supportive) husband was amazing for three weeks… and then he collapsed. Went into clinical depression. And then I had to care for my grieving family (I’m the eldest of my generation across the family, so it fell to me), work to support us both (’cause he was depressed and couldn’t work), and take care of the house/pets/food because he couldn’t (because he was depressed).

    And then he left me, because my life was too tragic for him (direct quotation).

    I can’t tell you what to do and how to feel and how to move forward… but I can tell you that if you don’t get some support for yourself RIGHT NOW you will end up as just one more thing the bf has to care for on top of al already-full plate. Not to mention that you will end up leaving him because DUDE, it’s HARD to deal with grief and illness and death, and if you don’t have someone to hold you while you help your bf hold himself and his family… you’ll end up bailing, out of sheer survival instinct.

    1. So, it probably isn’t my place to say this, but I will anyway: Gillian, your wonderful, lovely, supportive ex doesn’t sound very wonderful, lovely or supportive to me. He sounds selfish and weak. Yeah, death, grief and illness are hard – they’re also part of life. When they’re on somebody else’s plate you do have the option of running away rather than dealing, but that’s not how good, loving relationships are built. They’re built on the understanding that bad things visit all of us at some point and it’s easier to be strong for somebody else. They’re built on the need to see the person you love as happy as possible and not to contribute unnecessary burdens to their lot.

      I hope you find somebody way better than him.

  12. crisis line. Most places have a crisis line you can call and talk about feelings, so even if you can’t get a therapist, find the number for yours. It’s not a substitute for therapy, but it can be very helpful.

  13. Therapy sounds like such a good idea. Put on your own oxygen mask first, lady!

    So here’s this thing that I used to experience with my husband that may not help, but might, so here goes:

    My husband is a pleaser. He HATES disappointing people and that makes him say “yes” a lot more than he should. He used to work two jobs, one of which was an “on-call” situation at a recording studio. The other was a 3rd shift situation. I work a 9-5 so we just didn’t see each other much. Sometimes we would plan things and he would get a call from someone needing studio time and he would cancel, or he would let them go past their allotted time and have to cancel plans. I would get upset because I felt like I was the only person in the world he was ok with disappointing and I wanted to be the person he wanted to disappoint the LEAST. Which, like you, led to our stolen hours here and there being filled with me being upset. Eventually he got better about blocking off time where he wouldn’t take the calls from work and I started to see the fact that he was able to relax around me as a good thing. It took time, and that’s without all the pure emotional exhaustion you must be dealing with.

    Does that sound at all familiar? My dude was putting me and our relationship on the back burner because he knew it was stable and felt like his time and attention needed to be on these less stable things. Its good to be the stable thing in your partner’s unstable world! But that doesn’t mean you don’t get to ask for things you need. There are so many good suggestions in the Captain’s response for ways to ask for what you need, I just wanted to come in and say that I know from my own (much less serious!) experience that I would feel kind of resentful in your shoes, even as I knew my resentfulness was not helpful. You are doing the very best you can and he sounds so lucky to have you in his life right now.

    1. Holy crud, we’re married to the same guy. My husband is also a pleaser and a peacemaker (he’s a middle child in a big family that hates confrontation, whereas I’m the oldest in a family that fights over every little thing), and he has a job that involves tons of responsibility and handling lots of demanding people.

      After a few years together, I had to put my foot down and insist that he stop coming home two hours late every night because there was always something at work that absolutely had to get done. I figured out at my own job that setting priorities and learning to say no makes everyone involved much happier in the long run. Of course, I’m more blithe than he is about pissing people off.

      1. Oh, do I ever feel you. I’m really excellent at telling people “no” and it not being the end of the world, so I tend to default to skeptical when people overbook themselves. With my husband, It seemed so ridiculous to me that I had to ask somebody to *only* work 60 hours a week or whatever, but that’s what it took! Using my words to ask for something very specific, not a general “be home more”.

        I have a feeling that LW’s boyfriend is over-functioning a little and could use the “maybe the meltdowns by your family members aren’t always your responsibility” conversation. I could be 100% projecting, though.

  14. You can’t support and help your boyfriend through this if you aren’t supporting and helping yourself first. Otherwise, it’s just a house of cards that will collapse and the collateral damage will be messy.

    I am a fan of lists. You don’t have to be a fan, but you may find it useful to make a list of everything that’s stressing you out right now and figure out what you can fix, what you can get rid of, and what you just have to stand. A list will also help you figure out what you can delegate– and don’t let guilt keep you from delegating things whereever you can. It does not make you a bad person or a bad partner if you can’t take care of all of your boyfriend’s needs. He’s leaning hard on you right now because you’re the closest and easiest person to lean on, but that doesn’t always make you the best person to lean on. That doesn’t mean that your relationship is in trouble, it’s just that right now, his needs are just too much for one person.

    But look, some of the stressful stuff you can delegate. Too tired to run back and forth to the airport this week…. let someone else do it. A few stolen moments are nice, but being stressed and stuck in airport traffic and waiting on a delayed flight do not make for a nice moment, stolen or not. It makes me crabby just thinking about it. So, whatever you can let go of or delegate to someone else, do so. If the house is a mess, let it be a mess. If your cousin/friend/maid service will clean it for $40, then that’s $40 well spent. Poke around for a grocery store that delivers or will pick and bag your groceries for you so all you have to do is drive up and let them put them in the car. If you need to survive on take-out or frozen foods for a while, it’s not going to be the end of the world. Your friends and family probably are feeling rather useless and wanting something useful they can do to help (without signing on to be on call)… to them I say, “laundry.” All this is to say, concentrate on your job and your boyfriend and let other people take care of the logistical stuff. The logistical stuff is the easiest to do, which also makes it the easiest to delegate.

    And look, let go of the pressure to make every moment with your boyfriend “count.” Not all time together needs to be quality time. I know you’re operating on stolen moments right now, but that just serves to make every interaction you two have together more important than it necessarily needs to be. Let some of your moments be silent, or silly, or filled with inane discussions on celebrity gossip. In other words, give yourselves permission to be normal in the face of your crisis.

  15. Dear CA and everybody who’s commented – thank you so much. I kept putting off responding because I couldn’t think of what to say, but basically I wanted to respond and say, “Yes, this, this is exactly what I’m feeling like.” I’m sorry that so many of you have been through something like this, but thank you for writing it here so I can read it and feel a little less crazy and alone.

    Specifically to CA: you’re right, a lot of it is the timescale and the uncertainty and just the sense of waiting. But a plan will help, I think. And therapy 🙂 I’m still reading and rereading everybody’s suggestions and thinking about what I need and how to get that, so that I can keep trying to be helpful and supportive.

    So many Jedi hugs and warm feelings at everybody.

    1. Jedi hugs to you, LW! One more thing that hasn’t quite been said explicitly (and blew my mind when my therapist first said it to me): confusion can be a symptom of grief. Especially in a long, drawn-out situation like a terminal illness, the grieving person can really lose their ability to organize their day, track their thoughts, make plans efficiently, etc. It’s like you just lose some brain power. So as you and your partner are going through this, I would strongly suggest that you write some things down. When I was grieving my mom, there were days when I literally made to-do lists that were like “shower, put on clothes, yoga, lie down,” because it was hard to remember, on waking, what on earth I was supposed to do with my body and my mind in that state. I mention this both to emphasize the “ask for what you need directly” angle for you, and for the “ask friends to help you in SPECIFIC ways” for both of you. Like, if part of your stress is that household tasks are all falling on you, invite a friend over to help you do laundry in exchange for beer (or whatever). And make sure your friends (especially mutual friends) know that it will be more helpful for the both of you if they offer to help in specific ways rather than saying “If there’s anything I can do…” I mean, that’s a PSA for everyone, I guess: if you know someone who is grieving or seriously ill, it’s often kinder to say “I would like to bring you dinner so you don’t have to cook; will Monday work for you?” than to say “What can I do to help?”

      Best of luck to the both of you, LW.

  16. Also, LW, sometimes you are going to be a crabby bitch – and that’s OK! A lot of what comes through your letter for me is someone who is pushing herself to be perfect because of how much pressure your partner is under. The world just doesn’t work that way, and the more you try to be perfect the less perfect, in the end, you will be. So yes, sometimes you will be tired and emotional and get upset with him because your text to him had three kisses and his only had two. Yes, that is silly! But yes, you are a human and we are silly! So I think letting yourself off the perfect hook could really help with how you are feeling right now. After all, couples fight. And if you feel like all of those tiny stolen moments that you two get to be together have to be PERFECT AND FULL OF PERFECT LOVE… well, that is going to be hard to live up to.

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