When I work with couples, there is sometimes a difference in the level of functioning between the partners. Sometimes, people who like to take care of other people wind up with partners who are very damaged psychologically. This can be challenging, because the partner who isn’t as damaged expects more out of their partners them what they can deliver. It is a fine line between accepting abusive behavior and understanding that the person has had a difficult childhood or difficult past experiences in general. I do think that compassion is always a good idea, but sometimes compassion can turn into enabling behavior. We can be supportive and understanding of each other’s painful past, and accommodate it to a degree, but when it starts becoming a one-way relationship wherein one party is always favored or given his or her way, it stops being healthy for both partners.
This difference in functioning is not necessarily restricted to heterosexual couples. It can also happen in gay, lesbian, or polyamorous couples as well. I use a heterosexual couple as an example here but it could be any two people whose psychological function differs significantly, enough to cause relationship problems.
Meet Mary and Mac
Let me give you an example. Mary and Mac have been together for six years. Mary has been through a lot of trauma and often has angry outbursts where she cannot be talk to in a reasonable way and she cannot control her anger enough to have a productive conversation. Mac, wanting to be understanding, allows himself to be talk to in a demeaning, hurtful way that makes him feel insecure and depressed. This is been going on for at least two years, and Mary expects back to tolerate this without question or objection. Mac has asked Mary on repeated occasions to get help, but Mary says that she’s not ready yet. The truth is that Mary is frightened of the idea of facing all the horrible things that happened to her, and would rather skip processing that and just go on with life as if nothing happened. I can understand why this would be more tempting, but when she drinks or is just stressed, the anger and frustration that she was never able to express to her perpetrators come out. What should Mary do, and what should Mac do?
Often by the time they reach couples therapy, a lot of damage has been done because they say things to each other during fights that cannot be undone. Max starts to shut down more and more, or stonewall his partner. As Mary senses Mac pulling away, she becomes more desperate and her emotions more out of control. Usually these situations don’t work until individual therapy for the person who is in the most distress, has taken place. This is especially true if there is domestic violence going on. Couples therapy can bring up a lot of painful issues, and it’s important that both partners have a safe, responsible way to cope with their feelings. Sometimes therapists mistakenly think that they can see a couple where battery is going on, but it is best to refer them to anger management and other resources before attempting couples therapy.
It’s also important for the person who is coping better to get some help. Work on boundaries and self esteem is crucial when you have a partner who is emotionally needy or abusive. If you feel as though you’re always giving in the relationship and never getting very much back, it’s important to look at that and ask yourself why. A few books that can be helpful are Stop Walking on Eggshells, by Paul Mason and Randy Kreger, and¶ Coming Home to Passion, by Ruth Cohn. I also find a lot of couples like Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver, although that book is more general in its audience.
The hope is that both of you can cope with stress and an effective, healthy way and thus truly enjoy your relationship. A relationship should be mutually beneficial, warm, and loving. If yours is not, consider getting some help.