I am in a four-year relationship with a lovely man. We’ve weathered serious storms and worked through what could have been relationship-wrecking issues, thanks to being forgiving, talkative, and evolving people. We’re easy-going, share humor and interests, and enjoy spending time together, and we’ve lived together for three years now. For about the first three years of our relationship, my boyfriend supported me emotionally and sometimes financially as I struggled with extreme depression and anxiety. I dropped out of university and spent a considerable amount of time feeling miserable and suicidal, but as of over a year ago I’ve turned my life around. I work full time and am excelling in my classes, and aim to transfer to a university in another year.
My boyfriend has not been so lucky. He has several congenital illnesses which are painful and which can only be managed. He’s tried medical cannabis but it does not work well, and he must limit his painkiller consumption because the side effects worsen some of his conditions. He also suffers from depression which has not responded to any medications. He despises his job but the job market here is horrible and nothing else has come up. He doesn’t have health insurance and only gets physical treatment because his doctor helps him with costs. He no longer believes that he has the skill or desire to go through with his original career plans, and still has student debt he must pay off before ever going back to college.
I can’t help financially, because I’m still paying off my student debt from my first failed stint in university, and have further education plans to worry about. I help around the house, cook meals, and do my best to keep the house a stress-free zone (which is difficult with our roommates – we want to move out, but we’re waiting on other friends to be ready to move). We make time to be together, bond, and relax. I’m psychologically stable enough to offer support. I still feel like I’m not doing enough. When I ask him what I can do to help, he says I do enough – but I feel like I hardly do anything, as I’m always busy with and tired from work and school. I let him know that I’m here for him, and ask him if I can get or do things to help, and sometimes he has requests, but often he’s stubbornly self-reliant. I want to help brainstorm things he can do, goals he can make for his life, but I’m already doing that for myself – I feel half overwhelmed, half like I’m abandoning him when he needs me most. He’s pessimistic about his future physical and mental health, and I don’t know what to do. I know how depression feels, and I can’t fault him for despair.
I love this man fiercely, and it hurts to see his sadness, his pain, his frustration. What more can I do? How can I help him?
You’re already doing all that you can by being supportive and by working hard at being awesome in your own studies and career, so try loving your boyfriend without trying to fix him. Try shifting your message from “I’M HERE TO HELP” to “Hey, awesome boyfriend, what do you want to eat for dinner? Shall we have the sex later? I’m going to hang out with my friends tonight, enjoy having the house to yourself for a bit.” When he says he is fine and doesn’t need anything, try taking him at his word instead of second-guessing him.
Sometimes when one partner is up and the other is down, the roles get all weirdly calcified into HELPER and HELP-EE and the help-ee feels more like a project than a person. It can be infantilizing. When you’re already down, it can be a bummer to think people are only viewing you through the lens of “What do you need?” Maybe try the lens of “My boyfriend is so awesome, you guys?” and “I know things suck right now, but you are awesome and I so happy that you are on my team” for a bit and see how that feels for both of you.
If by asking “How can I help my boyfriend?” you’re really asking me “How can I make him be healthier, wealthier, happier, and not-unemployed?“, my answer is: (How the hell would I know?) + (You can’t, really)(Unless he asks) = This is how things will be for a while, so maybe enjoy what there is to be enjoyed (which sounds like a lot), take care of your own needs, and trust yourselves and the future.