2010-04-16 / Health & Wellness

Caretakers anonymous

A lovely young college student, when asked to discuss her relationship with her boyfriend, paused a moment and said, “I think it’s destructive.”

She went on to describe him as depressed, possibly suicidal, and said they’d engage in periodic fights that left her “tired.” Sometimes he would tell her she was the reason for his feeling so bad, being unable to keep up his grades and having low self-esteem. Other times he’d say it wasn’t her responsibility at all.

She was confused when she presented herself at my office. She wanted to help him, but her efforts to encourage him were failing. She spent time worrying about him; she was tearful as she told me her friends were leaving her since she hardly saw them anymore. Her boyfriend grew worse if she failed to spend most of her free time with him.

As I heard her story, I reflected on how many similar ones I’ve heard through the years.

Once I saw a young couple who’d spent many years attempting to understand the underlying dynamic that kept them lashing out at each another but also bound together.

After several sessions, the wife said, “I’ve been trying so hard to understand what emotional needs are mine to resolve versus what I can expect from the relationship because I don’t want to overwhelm my husband.”

It then became clearer that when she reached out for support he was unable to assess how much to give. He often became emotionally drained himself when trying to support her. This led to distancing on his part, perceived abandonment on hers, and the whole cycle kept repeating.

How much should we give to our partners? How much support can we expect to receive? What’s healthy? What’s not?

These questions aren’t easy to answer. There are many individual differences. It used to be that therapists would label the young college student’s behavior as simply “co-dependent” or “enmeshed” and attempt to facilitate healthy separation and/or individuation.

Clearly, there should be appropriate guidelines in place as to individual versus relational responsibilities. Each of us is free to decide how much investment we make in ourselves and in others. When that investment in a relationship returns only pain and sadness or when we are short-circuiting our own happiness or personal choices in an effort to “help” another, we have to carefully evaluate the situation.

This young woman’s boyfriend clearly needs help, but is she the one to give it? So often we feel we are the only ones because the person in need has isolated himself or herself from others. More importantly, he or she has decided to put responsibility on someone else for what should be accepted as one’s own.

How was it possible that she was unable to see this? And yet, the path toward this state is often subtle. Maybe he appeared extremely stable and successful when they first met and only later did the signs appear. Clients often tell me they ignore their intuition about partners and discard “red flags” early on in relationships because at that point the relationships are exciting and fulfilling.

Giving emotionally to another yields connection and self-fulfillment. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It is one of the most beautiful compensations in life that no man can sincerely try to help another, without helping himself.”

However, being able to discern when and how to give is part of the foundation of optimal, healthy connection to another. If giving results in blame, judgment or control, it’s time to take another look at whom you’re with or what’s happening in the relationship.

As Oscar Wilde put it, “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.”

Deborah Barber, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in Westlake Village. You can reach her at (818) 512-7923 or go to www.DrDeborahBarber.com for more information.

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