When Your Partner Can’t Cope


Considerations when one member of a couple fairs better psychologically than the other does.


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.

 

Recommendations

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.

Getting curious instead of furious


Quite often when I work with couples, and also other family dyads, I notice that people get themselves wound up and heated about common misunderstandings. Once the people involved allow themselves to calm down and talk about what was bothering them, they find out that they were misinterpreting each other, adding projections from their own past, or misunderstanding what the other person intended to say. A lot of the problems stem from not just what is said, but how things are said (e.g., in a sharp, aggressive tone of voice or with threatening or disrespectful gestures). This is where the interpretations and projections from the past go wild, usually. It’s very hard to stay centered and rational when you’re being flooded with emotional responses that have as much to do with an abusive past, as with what is happening now.

This is why I recommend first that people have a weekly check-in as a couple. Sit down without any distractions (social media, phones, television, computer, kids) and talk as calmly as you can about one thing you liked that your partner did, and one thing you didn’t like. Take turns (even use an egg timer to ensure that both get a chance to speak). Then reflect back what you heard your partner say. Be open and humble enough to be corrected. If you’re doing the correcting, don’t shame the person (e.g., “You’re so stupid, I can’t believe that’s what you thought I said!”). Instead, say, “No, that’s not what I intended to say; this is….” A book that is very helpful to couples (and any) communication is Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, which helps people be responsible for their own emotional reactions and not blame and shame each other.

The second thing I recommend is that if you find yourself in an argument and you just can’t fathom where this person is coming from, take a moment, breathe deeply, and then tell them, “I don’t think I understand what you are saying/intending. Help me understand, please.” I know, easier said than done, right? But it can make a world of difference between having a horrible night fighting for hours, or helping the other person clarify what they want to communicate. Each of you has the right to be heard, understood and validated. Each of you has a unique perspective that is equally valid to the other’s. Don’t lose sight of that when you have disagreements. There may be a perfectly valid reason the person is saying or doing what they are right now; you just don’t have the magic decoder ring to understand it. Even when they explain it to you, it still may not make sense, but stick with it and you will have a better chance at “getting” your beloved’s point of view.

Third, I suggest that both partners keep in mind, “what is the end game?” Is it to be right and lord that over the other person like a kid in the school yard, or to remain happily together for a long time? Is what you are defending, or fighting about, important enough to risk alienating the other person and having bitterness and resentment between you? Is it something that you might laugh about later, saying “I can’t believe we fought about that! How silly!” I ask people who get angry to rate how important this matter you’re getting upset about is, on a scale of 1-10. If you can honestly say it’s above a five, ask yourself why that’s important to you. If it’s below a five, consider letting it go unless it’s emblematic of a greater sense of disrespect and pain in the relationship.

With Valentine’s Day coming up next month, I thought I might arm those of you in relationships with a few pointers to get through that holiday. It has its own set of expectations and cultural meanings that sometimes get in the way of really enjoying each other. If you think that your relationship is in trouble and could use more help, please call me at 661-233-6771.