#252: How can I help my boyfriend when he won’t ask for help?

Guido from Pixar's Cars...he's here to help.
Can I lift something for you? No? Can you let me lift something anyway so I feel like I’m helping?

Howdy, Captain.

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?

Thank you,

Dear Juggler:

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.

29 thoughts on “#252: How can I help my boyfriend when he won’t ask for help?

  1. I have a boyfriend who has several congenital heart defects and is unemployable because of them – no health insurance company covers 100% of anything except the medical you get with disability. There are many things he can’t do. I don’t try to do stuff for him because that would just rub it in. I can’t get him a job and I can’t fix him – for political and medical reasons these problems are larger than my capabilities. All I can do is love him the way he is. I used to want to fix things, but then I realized that all I was doing by stressing myself out over his condition was stressing him out, too – and depressing him.

    LW, you are not his nurse, his therapist, his social services provider, or his headhunter. When you step into those roles, you are telling him that you are better than he is because you can fix the problems he can’t. This makes disabled people feel like shit. If he needs a nurse, a therapist, a social services provider, or a headhunter, he can go get one – and if he wants your help, he can ask for it. *Be his girlfriend.* Believe me, that’s enough.

  2. Agree agree agree. I currently struggle with the dynamic of supporting (emotionally) a lovely man who has a very stressful work situation right now, whereas I have an “out by 5” kind of relaxed freedom. It’s very easy for me to bring him dinner when he has to work a 12 hour day, but it does become one-sided and he starts to worry that I will resent him. Which I don’t! I only would if it got in the way of my stuff, which it never does.
    For practical support:
    If I may suggest: Do some things for him unsolicited so he doesn’t feel like he has to ask you for more (“Welcome home! I made us tacos!”) and other times ask if he needs anything and believe him if he says no. And always always take care of yourself, which it sounds like you are.
    As for his illnesses and whatnot, perhaps do a little online research for him for sliding scale providers or even alternative treatments…maybe this has already been covered, but you never know if some new awesome social service opens up if you haven’t looked for a while. Maybe his parents can help him with the medical side of things until you guys get more solid financial/health insurance footing, too.
    Best of luck! You’re doing the goodness in the world.

  3. I could not agree more. I am currently disconnecting from people who got so concerned with helping that they have been getting in the way of what I want. Seriously, sometimes “I am fine” just means “I am not ready to talk to you about it”, it most certainly does not mean “second guess me until I cave from pressure” or “pester me in order to fill your own entitled need to be involved”

    Sorry, this subject just hit home for me and I think more people need to read this post.

    1. “Pester me in order to fill your own entitled need to be involved” = ANNOYING. I think somewhere in this great post there is a word for “favors that aren’t really favors.”

      Feel free to link/Tweet/like/”like” this post far and wide, my friend.

  4. Just don’t treat him like a work in progress or a fixer-upper. I know for myself, I get anxious if someone is doing things for me to a point where I know I cannot possibly reciprocate. It’s often to the point where, instead of helping like they mean to, the other person is actually piling on because on top of my other worries, I’m trying to figure out how to restore the relationship to a more equal footing.

    I get that you really appreciate the help and support that your boyfriend gave you when you were struggling and now you really have an opportunity to give back and support him now that he needs you. That’s great! But I would caution you to keep from going overboard and really look for ways of helping that actually help (and bonus points if it benefits BOTH of you– like washing dishes or buying groceries). I personally wouldn’t touch his career woes except as a listening ear because so much of the time career advice sounds like, “You would do so much better if you weren’t so lazy, Lazy McLazyton.” That’s not what you mean, and it’s not what you said, but if he’s already feeling like he should be doing more than he’s currently capable of then that’s exactly what it will sound like. On the other hand, “I’m going to the grocery store and Target tomorrow, is there anything I can pick up for you?” is both helpful and easy to respond to guilt free. Also helpful are things like, “I’ve got a half-load of whites I need to wash, do you have anything I can add to it?”

    Other than that, keep being awesome and taking care of yourself. That’s the best gift you can give him right now– take care of yourself so that he doesn’t worry about needing to be strong for you. Be a good listener and let him be as strong and capable as he is (no swooping in to take care of things unless he asks). Maybe his strength and capability are a bit shaky right now, but he still needs to be those things for himself.

    1. Great advice, thank you. LW, it’s not that you should NEVER HELP with ANYTHING, but maybe get in the habit of asking once, believing the answer, and then letting it drop. “I’m going to the store, can I get you anything?” “No, I’m good.” “Cool.”

  5. One other thing I think I sense from this letter is a feeling of, “He was so amazing when I needed him and I really want to return the favor.” Which is a great thing to want to do! You take care of each other because you love each other. But that’s the thing to keep in mind: he wasn’t taking care of you in the last few years so that you’d be in debt to him and take care of him down the line. He was supporting you because he loves you.

    The ways in which he (may) need help may not be the ways in which you needed help, which is okay, too. It sounds like you’re already doing what you can, by spending time and keeping the house stress level down, etc, and that may really be all he needs that you can provide. But those things are very valuable in and of themselves, so just be sure you don’t beat yourself up over feeling indebted (ie, “He supported me financially and I can’t do that for him, so what CAN I do?”).

  6. Learning to take people at their word is a larger lesson that’s good for many situations. When I started doing that in my life, things got way easier and I was happier. If someone really did have some kind of double meaning when they said “no, I’m fine, really”, well, that’s not my problem.
    When friends start to confide in me about how other friends are stressing them out/making them feel guilty but it’s really they who are reading into everything, I usually ask them “have you tried taking them 100% at their word?” Usually they find some reason not to, though. 😦

  7. My partner was seriously ill for much of the past year. I spent months driving myself crazy trying to anticipate his needs. Is he tired? Is he hungry? He says he wants to come grocery shopping with me, but will that tire him out too much? I wanted to be standing at his side with a box of tissues before he knew he had to sneeze. It was exhausting, unrewarding, and unfair to both of us.

    So I made a decision, and I shared this decision with my partner. I will only go out of my way to help him if he asks me to. If he asks for a glass of water, I’ll happily go get him one. If he says, “Ugh, the kitchen is so far away…” I’ll nod and keep reading my book. It’s not that I never say, “I’m going to the kitchen, do you want anything?”. But I’ve started giving him credit for being able to express his own needs. If he’s tired, or hungry, or thirsty, or needs help, he knows he can always tell me. I will never get tired of helping him. I will get tired of exhaustively imagining his needs.

    Now I’m going to break my own rule by offering some help you didn’t ask for, LW. In your letter, your financial situation sounded pretty stressful. Is your boyfriend eligible for any kind of help from the government, or have you looked into low-income insurance plans? Can your doctor/hospital/clinic set you up with a social worker? When my partner was ill, we met several times with the oncology unit’s social worker. We also met with the resident psychologist, who talked us through many of the difficult personal issues around caregiving and being cared for.

    Caring for a loved one is so, so hard. Doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists…these people have training, professional boundaries, and office hours. You and I have none of these things, but can’t help but try to provide ALL the services, ALL the time. It’s clear from your letter that you love your boyfriend very much. No one else loves him like you do, and that’s important.

    1. LW here! The replies to this have been extremely helpful. Big thanks to everyone who has replied.

      Regarding your question, I haven’t looked into low-income insurance. Part of this is because my boyfriend is reluctant to share a lot of health information, which I’ve respected. Another part is that he does get relatively affordable visits and prescriptions from his doctor, so it’s not incredibly pressing. My personal worry is that something major could develop and he would have no insurance, or if he wanted some kind of therapy/social worker meeting, where would he go? At this point I’m not sure how much I should research, or how much I should share, since I don’t want to pry into his medical processes and he hasn’t expressed an interest in therapy of any kind.

  8. I am often “stubbornly self-reliant” because to be otherwise can cause me to be depressed. Passivity is not a happy place for me. LW, I wonder if your boyfriend is the same way. I can’t be the only one!

  9. The advice given above is fantastic. Consider this, too: when you ask someone how you can help them, you’re asking them to think about their problems. Granted, for a good reason – you want to help fix their problems! But you’re still asking your boyfriend to think about everything that makes him miserable – which he’s understandably reluctant to do.

    I’m sure your boyfriend knows that if you had the Magic Wand of Controlling the Universe, you’d totally wave it around and grant him all his wishes. But he knows that the things he wants – to be healthy and employed – are outside of your capabilities.

    I would guess that your boyfriend would rather think about happy things when he’s with you – like how much he enjoys spending time with you. Don’t try and ask him how you can make him happy, because the problems he has are problems you can’t fix. Just try and have a good time with him. Do fun things together – they don’t have to be expensive, you can just play board games. Or design your own board game together! Or anything, really, that means you two can just spend time around each other without having to talk about everything that is making you unhappy (granted, those conversations *do* need to happen at regular intervals – but make sure they’re surrounded by happy, fun conversations).

  10. My girlfriend of three years (who just finished college) suffers from chronic severe migraines that interfere with her daily life, schoolwork, social life, etc. I’ve learned that I can’t fix things for her, and sometimes just being with her is the best thing I can do to help. Also, we’ve learned to trust each other that when we say we do or don’t need help that we know we’re being honest (though we’re not always perfect at that).

    1. Yes – I suffer fairly frequent migraines (happily they’re not severe, and only occasionally actually produce a headache in addition to visual aura as long as I take painkillers quickly) and when I do all I want is to snuggle up to my husband and have him stroke my head.

      I don’t want him to stop what he’s doing or even potter around getting me painkillers or anything else, but it provides so much comfort and pain relief (even though logically I know it shouldn’t) just to have that little bit of warmth and absent-minded attention while I’m feeling miserable.

  11. I understand the need to feel as if your relationship is in balance, the desire to feel as if you have “repaid” him for helping you. It can be quite difficult to accept help for the simple reason that help can be quite hard to repay in kind! It seems like the simplest way to cancel the debts you feel you have to him (He supported you! He helped you financially! He encouraged you to get back on track!) would be to do the exact same for him, doesn’t it? Who wants to feel like they’re in debt?

    But after all of this great advice you’ve gotten about not trying to control your boyfriend’s universe and to examine the impulse you have to Fix His Life, you may still feel as if you “owe” him something – as if a cosmic balance sheet still has you marked down as In Debt to him. I would probably feel that way (I’m a slightly broken human being, so YMMV) and to me it would feel like an itch in the back of my mind. Just like everyone has told you, you shouldn’t use your boyfriend to fix your feelings, because they are YOUR problem. However, that doesn’t mean that the feelings will magically stop existing! And your feelings are important too! Just because this is really your problem doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem.

    There are other ways to feel like you’re “paying back” your boyfriend without hovering over his shoulder like the Magical Vulture of Helpfulness, asking if he wants help cutting his meat. You could create a simple but heartfelt gift, or make him some jam, or make a list together of a hundred things you’d like to do together in the next year. You could give him a picnic or a bar graph or knit a hat or have fancy sexytimes or whatever. Making the conscious choice to spend joyful time together, and to give him things simply because you love him, will start to feel like the debt is being repaid. If you really need a concrete touchstone, aim to have one wonderful moment together every week.

    1. Magical Vulture of Helpfulness is a perfect description. Yikes… Thank you, this is really solid advice.

  12. It’s true, you cannot provide support to someone who does not want it.


    There’s a legitimate frustration here which I don’t see being acknowledged, and I want to share something from my own experience:

    Way back in the mists of time, my best-friend-since-forever adopted a threesome of cats, and and shortly afterwards her cats had 9 kittens between them, and I adopted one. Fast forward fifteen years: Cat C (my kitten) is diagnosed with an inoperable tumour in her gut, I have to make the decision to have her put to sleep. It’s probably the hardest decision I ever made. My best-friend-since-forever is awesomely supportive.

    A few months later I discover that my other cat G has also developed cancer and will be dead in a year or so. Cat A, her own cat, is still alive – fragile, elderly, on multiple tablets, but still purring when petted… but increasingly incontinent, arthritic, eating little, not seeming to enjoy what she does eat.

    Then Cat A dies. My friend absolutely, rootedly, rejects any need for support. What she wants, she says, is to just not talk about her – not ever again. Of course this is itself a form of support, which I acknowledge and respect, and I don’t. I knew and loved and used to care for Cat A sometimes, and would have liked to talk about our cats and how it is to miss them so, but what I felt was that while I was grateful she’d been emotionally there for me when my kitty died, she was unequivocably rejecting any need for me to be emotionally there for her when her kitty died: and that made me feel I couldn’t ask her to be there for me when the day came (as it did) that I had to say goodbye to my second cat.

    I had felt with the first death that we had opened up a door between us : with the second death, it felt that she had firmly closed the door in my face: with the third death, I was still feeling too fragile and hurt from the closed door to re-open it and trust her to be there for me.

    This all did get cleared up – years and years later, when I was finally able to use my words to tell her how much that closed door had hurt me. (She was startled: the impression she’d got was that I was happy to comply with her instruction not to talk about Cat A, since I never did after she asked me not to, and puzzled why I never wanted to talk to her about Cat G as I had about the death of Cat C.) But at the time I could not find words to say “Wait. I thought we were friends. Why can’t we talk about this?”

    I may be wrong, LW. But if you’re feeling that you opened up to your partner and were vulnerable and needy and that it hurts you that he will not show you his neediness in return – well, no, he doesn’t have to. But the pain of feeling shut out is a real actual pain. There may not be a solution to it. But the feelings are real and all I can say is: they didn’t get resolved for me until we finally talked about it. (And it took years before I was emotionally ready to do that without bursting into tears. What can I say: I loved my cats.)

    1. You touched on a feeling for sure. With all this extra perspective, though, I think that neediness for reciprocal feelings I have stems more from a crappy past experience with an ex than from anything in this relationship. My compulsive take-care-of-people-a-lot thing springs partly from the same sad, old well. I do have a fear that if I don’t do enough for people, they’ll [leave/abandon/reject] me, when really I’m acting pushy or nosy. I’ve vaguely known about this for a while and it seems like it’s finally crystallized into an, “Oh! I can change that!” moment. The reward of self-betterment and improvement for my boyfriend’s experience are strong motivators.

      I’m really sorry about your cats. I lost my first cat a couple years ago. They are such special friends. 😦

      1. *nods nods*

        What I wanted to get said was, though (in shorter form without all the backstory and cats):

        Your feelings are what they are. My feelings are what they are.

        Sharing your real feelings about a situation or a person in any way that could possibly get back or get out or make the other people involved feel bad, is usually not a good idea.

        But denying that your real feelings are what they are doesn’t make them go away or change. I can’t deal with my own feelings as Esti seems to be advising below, by telling myself that I’ve got no right to feel the way I do. Getting past a bad feeling requires acknowledging, if only to myself, that it is there.

        The first step on the way to resolving a situation is to acknowledge the situation is as it is. I love Griffy’s solution – “It’s okay for me to feel sad” – “It’s okay for me to feel worried” because that works both ways.

    2. The pain of feeling shut out is definitely a real pain, and it is (or can be) a good idea to use your words and talk the issue out at an appropriate time. But sometimes shutting people out is done to cope with whatever pain the shutter-outer is going through, and although it can feel hurtful I think it’s important to keep in mind that other people aren’t not-sharing at you.

      Your story made me think of my own example, from the other side: a few years back, my parents split up and although I was in grad school and no longer living with them, it was pretty upsetting to me. I spent a few weeks really wanting to not discuss it with anyone as I processed it on my own. My best friend at the time, with whom I was very close and normally talked to about everything, felt shut out by the fact that I had said I wanted to take some time before talking about it with him, particularly because he had just gone through some pretty big issues he’d talked through with me extensively. He didn’t say anything at the time about feeling shut out, but he stopped sharing things with me and I ended up confused and hurt about what had happened.

      The problem (at least from my perspective) with my friend’s reaction? Was not that he didn’t tell me that he was feeling shut out so that we could work through it. The problem, from my perspective, was that me not wanting to talk about my parent’s divorce just wasn’t about him. It wasn’t something I was doing to him, it was something I did for myself to process and deal with a bad thing that was happening to me. And while I don’t doubt that he sincerely felt hurt and confused about why I didn’t want to talk to him about it after he had just talked through a bunch of bad stuff happening to him with me, I think that sometimes it’s on us to recognize when our reactions are not fair to the other person and are our own issues to deal with. The fact that I usually talked to him about things in my life, or that he had just talked to me about things in his life, didn’t obligate me to share this particular thing with him, particularly since I told him up front that I needed some time to work through things on my own.

      I take your point that having a friend not want to talk about their issues with you can make it harder for you to want to open up with them next time you have your own issue — I’ve definitely had that feeling before. But if there’s a specific, upsetting thing the person doesn’t want to talk about (and not a general pattern of not sharing things with me), I try to remind myself that this is about my friend doing what they need to deal with their own pain and that they’re not not-talking at me.

  13. I wonder whether there’s also a sort of survivor-guilt thing going on: your circumstances are so improved lately that you could easily be happy but for all the unfortunate circumstances going on in the life of the man you love. So maybe sometimes you just ARE happy. And then you look over at him and see how sucky things are for him right now, and you feel like a horrible, selfish person for having been unrestrainedly happy even for a moment, so you re-devote yourself to trying to raise his happiness factor in whatever ways you can, because in addition to wanting him to be happier for his own sake, you would like him to be happier for your sake, so you could indulge your own happiness without feeling like a selfish, horrible person.

    Try to bear in mind that your happiness is always a good thing (because I feel confident it is never actually at his expense). In fact, every extra bit means you have more of life’s goodness to overflow onto him, and he really needs it. So in addition to following all the other excellent advice above, allow yourself to be as happy as you can be.

  14. EdinburghEye’s post reminds me of an anecdote about a time when I was mentally and emotionally messy, and my boyfriend wanted very much to support me. He was trying hard to find the right combination of words and actions that would make me better, simply because he loved me and wanted me to be okay, but I very much felt under pressure to hurry up and get better so life could go back to being nice again. I had to use my words and say, ‘I think I need to feel like I’m allowed to be sad right now; can you just let me feel that?’ Obviously this was not the response he had ideally hoped for. Then I was even more sad because I could see I was making him worry, and we teetered on the edge of this dark downward spiral where my sadness made him worry which made me sad which made him worry which made AHHHHHHH CANNOT FIX EACH OTHER WHAT WE DO??? PANICPANICPANIC.

    And then Boyfriend put his foot down and said, ‘Okay, let’s make a deal. I will promise to just let you be sad, if you will promise to just let me be worried, okay?’

    It worked really well. I continued to be sad and he continued to be worried, but we stopped trying to fix each other, and it was a godsend. Because it meant that we could redirect all that energy of trying to fix each other, into trying to fix the actual problem. I’m not sad anymore. 🙂

  15. LW, your boyfriend was there for you when things were at their worst, and it’s completely natural and good that you want to pay him back by supporting him in the same way. But some things can’t be paid *back*, because life isn’t perfectly neat and symmetrical.

    So maybe think of his support over the past years as something to be paid *forward* to someone else somewhere down the line, set it off to the side for a while, and continue doing the things you are doing that are helpful to this relationship in the here and now.

    I agree with what a lot of others have already said here: ask if he needs help and take him at his word, whatever he decides. Do what you can to manage the household stress and keep things on an even keel, but if he needs to be down or angry or stressed for a while, he may just need to feel it and work through it. It sounds as though you’re both doing a great job of being there for each other and leaning on each other, and I hope you work through this and it works out for the best down the road.

  16. I think it’s one of the hardest things in the world to love someone who is hurting and not to be able to help them. The temptation to try to fix everything for the person you love is immense. But sadly that can make the loved person feel that all they are is a problem that needs to be fixed.

    It can be very important to self-reliant people that they are able to do things for themselves, and is sometimes the difference in your head between “things are really tough but I am still doing X for myself, so I am surviving” and “things are really tough and my partner had to do X for me, so that must mean I can’t cope”, so don’t take that away from your boyfriend. Maybe do what you can work on things you’ve already agreed are mutual goals, like moving out (can you chivvy your friends along to move a bit faster if the home situation is stressful and possibly making everything more difficult to deal with?), but otherwise I think you just need to be there for him and support him as you are already doing.

    It sounds to me as though the best thing you can do for him right now is exactly what you’ve been doing – loving him and believing in him, even when he’s finding it hard to believe in himself. Acknowledge and let him talk about the bad stuff, if he wants, but don’t forget about all the good stuff – he sounds lovely, so let him know it!

  17. You can’t do anything for anyone if they won’t let you. Just be there. That is enough. And be consistent. Bad day, good day, be the same. Upbeat, loving, thankful and always ready to help. 🙂

  18. I have a partner who is chronically depressed, too. Meds help but only so much. And in therapy I basically learned to let go of my feelings about it. You can help, but you’re not responsible for making the person happy. (It doesn’t even work.) I would try to manage his social life and then get incredibly frustrated when he wouldn’t go out. It was much harder for both of us to have me stressed about his depression, PLUS the depression itself, than it is to just live with the depression.

    Coincidentally, I was just pointed to this excellent post on how to help people today. It does assume that the person has an idea what would help and some ability to communicate that, but it’s a good place to start. I find that even when I’m talking to someone with no real volition right then, at least we can decide what kind of help does NOT work for them.

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