What to Do When Your Partner Has a Problem

What to Do When Your Partner Has a Problem

What to Do When Your Partner Has a Problem

When your partner is struggling with addiction, mental illness, or a mental health disorder, it can devastate your relationship. After a decade of experience as a couples counselor and couples therapist, I’ve seen hundreds of couples grapple with these issues. And I know that even when you’re both doing your best, if one of you has a problem, it can send your relationship into a downward spiral.

But I also know that recovery is possible. I’ve seen firsthand that couples struggling with depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug addiction, pornography addiction, ADHD, and PTSD, can overcome their issues and emerge stronger and more connected than ever before. And I know that some professional support and advice can make all the difference.  

So, if you’re reading this because you’re wondering what you should do about a partner with a problem, then you’ve reached the right place. There are some simple things you can do to help them — without becoming codependent — that I outline in the podcast at the end of the article.

If, on the other hand, you’re here because you are at the end of your rope, and wondering if it’s time to cut ties and start a new relationship altogether, I recommend that you read the rest of the article too. And maybe listen to the podcast at the end. It might answer some of the questions you’ve been asking yourself for a while now.

Does Your Partner Have a Problem?

The questions we’ll discuss on the Love, Happiness and Success podcast come from listeners all over the world. In this episode, we’ll discuss questions about what to do when your partner has a problem. Questions like: 

  1. How do I help my partner who is depressed (or anxious/struggling with ADHD/addicted to something) and refuses to get help?
  2. What are signs your partner will get their act together, and what are signs you should break up?
  3. How do I help my husband, who is suffering from PTSD and won’t talk to anyone?
  4. How many chances should I give my alcoholic/addicted partner?
  5. I promised, “For better or for worse,” but is it wrong of me to bail on this marriage – can this marriage be saved –  if my spouse is not holding up their end of the bargain?
  6. Is my boyfriend ever going to be cured of his pornography addiction?
  7. Should I feel guilty for ending this relationship, even if I feel like I need to save myself?

These are big, serious questions. But you, my dear listener, told me this is what is important to you… and I’m listening to you. I hope that this discussion helps you find your way through this dark time, and back into clarity and inner peace.

All the best to you,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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What to Do When Your Partner Has a Problem

Free, Expert Advice — For You.

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. And you’re listening to The Love, Happiness, and Success podcast.

[Intro Song: Waitin’ for the Orange Sunshine by Lorelle Meets the Obsolete]

Dr: Lisa: Lorelle Meets the Obsolete with Waitin’ for the Orange Sunshine, kind of a somber song, but I thought it was very appropriate for our subject today. Because today, we’re going there. We have some serious stuff to talk about apparently. We are going to be talking about what to do when your partner has a problem, like the capital P problem. The reason I am talking about this today is because, as you know, I solicit listener questions for this podcast. I want to talk about the things that are most important to you. Questions on this topic have reached a critical mass. I’ve gotten a number of questions clustered in this area of, “My husband, my boyfriend, my wife; they’re not okay. They’re struggling with something serious, and they’re not getting help for it and I don’t know what to do.”

So that’s what we’re talking about today on our Love, Happiness, and Success podcast. Thank you for reaching out to me. I really do make all of these podcasts anticipating things that are going to be important, or helpful, or valuable to you. I know, sometimes, we talk about fun things like last time’s dating podcast, that was really fun. There’s also a time and a place to talk about more serious things, too. So thank you for letting me know what’s on your mind. If you have questions for me or would like to suggest a topic for an upcoming show, please do reach out. 

You can get in touch with me through my website: growingself.com. I just recently installed a nifty feature where you can actually record a voice recording for me by clicking on a little button. If you go to the blog page of growingself.com, you’ll see the button that will allow you to record a message right from your phone or computer or whatever. If you’re okay with it, I will use that recording of your voice to answer your question on an upcoming show. So I am in the process of collecting those. If you have a question for me, leave me a message. You can also get in touch by email, hello@growingself.com or by Facebook now since I figured out how to properly check my messages, facebook.com/drlisabobby or Twitter if you are a Twitterer. 

Let’s see, other brief announcements. We have a number of new classes that are available. Of course, we’re always available for private counseling or coaching in person or online. But if you’re looking for an inexpensive alternative to working one-on-one with someone, I hope you check out some of our classes. I have been looking for ways always to make meaningful growth work more accessible for people. So, I’m excited about these online programs. I basically walk you through the same information that I give people in our sessions and leave you with the same assignments so that you can get the same benefit ideally, but in a format that is much, it’s convenient, you do it at your own time, and it’s quite frankly, infinitely less expensive than one-on-one private coaching or counseling with someone. 

If you’re interested in learning more about that, check it out, go to growingself.com. You can see our classes page. We have four or five on different topics at this point, and I have plans to add some over. So check back to see those. Okay, I think that that is all of my announcements. Although, I do want to just add a general reminder. If you like the show, if you learn something today or something falls out of it that feels helpful to you or someone else in your life, it would mean so much to me if you would leave a review on iTunes saying that. So give the show a rating, give it a review because the more you do that, the more it will be available for other people that might be searching for answers or advice on a similar topic. So that would mean a lot to me. You can also do that on our website, growingself.com. You can subscribe to the podcast link to it on iTunes. Or you can just do a search for The Love, Happiness, Success podcast on iTunes. Thank you very much.

Okay, so let’s talk about our topic today, which is what to do when your partner has a problem; they are struggling with something pretty serious, that is not only impacting their life but is also impacting your life, and they are either not getting help, or they’re not getting better. This can take a variety of different forms, but common things like if your partner has depression, and they’re isolating, and irritated, and hopeless, and don’t want to do anything except sit on the couch, that is not okay. If your partner is dealing with something like alcoholism, or substance abuse, or an addiction of some kind, could be a substance addiction, could be a gambling addiction, or a pornography addiction; that can be a hard one for a relationship. 

But other things, even unmanaged ADHD can be incredibly difficult if you are the partner of someone who is out of control or can’t get things done. There are other issues: PTSD, or somebody who’s really impulsive, and running around and spending a bunch of money, and erratic. These are all major things if you’re in a relationship with someone, and it can be extremely difficult to live with someone who’s going through this stuff. I think that the arc of this, in general, is that people try to work with our partners and help them. I think they love them, and they want them to get better. At a certain point, they also start asking themselves, “How long do I keep doing this? How long do I keep waiting on you to get it together? How hard should I try to support you through this? When do I pull the plug?” This is a heart-wrenching decision, not an easy one to make. As with most things that are complex and multifaceted, there is not a black or white, yes or no, right or wrong kind of formulaic answer. 

However, on today’s podcast, I will be talking about things for you to think about that can help you make your decision one way or the other and also, hopefully, provide you with some guidance about what to do to help your partner get the help they need. Although at the end of the day, you don’t really have any control over what they decide to do or not to do. But I’ll just give you some tidbits that you might consider trying as you work to figure this out.

So just to put all of what I’m about to say in context, I’ll tell you that, this is not a newsflash, but one of our really most basic human needs, right above eating food and not freezing to death, it’s very primal, is the need for connection, the need for partnership. We are wired to bond to other people, to pair bond, to have these codependent relationships, interdependent relationships. When I say codependent, I do not mean that in a negative term, but that we, as humans do work best when we’re partnered with someone who has our back and who we’re participating in life with; that we support them, they support us, and it’s good. Trusting that your number one person is going to be there for you is the biggest part of having that connection; that they are emotionally safe, they are loyal, you can count on them. That is the biggest core part of attachment and secure attachment is that trust. Whenever any couple is fighting about anything, it is always not about the bacon. It’s not about whether or not someone remembered to take out the trash. It goes back down to this: Can I trust you? Do you care about me? Do you care about how I feel? Do you notice me? Are you safe for me? Are you gonna freak out on me and attack me? Can I trust you to be kind? 

So, we’re talking about very big primal things, as always, when it comes to human relationships. But when it comes to these capital-P problems, these are the big things that are getting activated underneath the surface. Because when someone you love is struggling with one of these really major problems, they stop being able to function as partners in, oftentimes, pretty basic ways. But certainly, in the ways that you want them or need them to function in order for you to feel loved, and safe, and connected to them. So, just like big picture, whenever anyone tries to talk to somebody who is non-responsive, particularly this is somebody that they care about, right? Talk to somebody who isn’t responsive, or talks to somebody and maybe gets a “Nope. Yep. Hmm. Whatever you say,” but then that person doesn’t follow through.

In order to go back to that, “Are you still there for me? Are we still doing this? Do you care about me? Do you love me? Do you care about how I feel?” people will escalate and sometimes, go a little bit bananas in efforts to make themselves be understood by their partner who might not be responsive to them. So, what that can look like is increasing anxiety around, “Am I safe with you? Are you drinking today? Because that means you’re going to be either my partner if you’re not drinking. Or I’m gonna have to anticipate all this horrible stuff from you. Maybe if you have been drinking…” Like hypervigilance around, “Did this person use today? Or have they been looking at pornography today? Or did they get off the couch today?” Any indication that “Am I safe with you?” or “Am I less safe with you?” 

So, for the person with the partner, we’ll call this a PWP: the Person-with-the-Partner who is not okay. What you see across the board, whenever they are in love with a person who has a problem, the PWP starts to work harder and harder and harder to create safety, to make their needs known, to make sure that the person with the problem is going to be okay and stable. So, what you see is a lot of checking behaviors, a lot of controlling behaviors, sometimes, even a lot of aggressive behaviors, but it’s always motivated by this anxiety on the inside of “Are you here? Do you care about me today? Are you safe for me today?” Again, going back to that primal need for attachment. People who have partners with problems start behaving badly because their basic attachment needs are not getting met. 

So, I’m going to be talking through a number of different things. But as you listen to this, I just want you to have compassion for yourself if you’re living through any of this because it’s a really, really hard thing. Reactions that you are having, as the partner of a person with a problem, make perfect sense when you look at it through this lens of attachment. Okay. So with that in mind, I’m just going to talk you through some of the big ones so you can understand what’s going on, and what kinds of things might help and what kinds of things might not help. 

So first of all, let’s talk about depression. Depression, as I spoke about in a podcast recorded not too long ago, it’s very common. At any given point in a 12 month period, one in four Americans meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition. One in four, okay? Depression is one of the absolutely most common ones of those. There are different kinds of depression. There is a kind of biologically-based depression that has roots that go very deep, and healing from it is more like learning how to manage it and avoid depressive episodes. But you can also struggle with depression after going through difficult transitions or going through an adverse life experience. Those are called adjustment disorders, but they still look like depression when you’re going through them and when your partner is going through them. 

But when your partner is depressed, it is very hard for the person left standing, so to speak, because when you’re trying to have a relationship with someone with depression, the experience is like trying to talk to a clam, like a turtle or something. They just go away. They don’t want to talk. They don’t want to hang out. They don’t want to do stuff. They don’t have any energy. They are hopeless and obstructionist if you try to recommend any changes for things that would make things better. They can also be extremely irritable, extremely short-tempered. They are usually also anxious. People who are anxious aren’t always depressed, but people who are depressed are always also anxious. So, when you are trying to have a relationship and have a life with someone who is in this headspace, it can be extremely difficult because they just stop participating in life with you. Also, they might take it badly when you suggest that they go talk to somebody, or get some help, or bring up the D-word. They might not even be aware that they are depressed. 

Of course, if they are, anything that you suggest will not work because that is the mental state of depression is sort of everything is horrible and “Going to therapy is for losers and it won’t work anyway. So why should I bother? If I take medication, it will mean that I’m a crazy person. I don’t want to be a crazy person. So I’m not going to take medication.” So, I mean, this whole big circular kind of thing. It can be extremely frustrating and I talked to the partners of people with wait… The partners, yes, of people with depression, and they use very dramatic descriptors to try to communicate how they feel. 

I’ve had people say, “I feel like I’m chained to a cannonball that’s sinking to the bottom of the ocean.” Or, “I feel like we’re two sled dogs pulling a sled through a blizzard, and the sled dog next to me just laid down, and now I’m all on my own. I have to drag the sled and I have to drag them.” They’re evocative imagery, right? It’s really frustrating. But I think it also can be important for you as the partner of the person with depression is that their brains are not working right now. That is what depression is: is that it is an alteration of your cognitive functioning that results in people feeling terribly emotionally, and that even though, from the outside, somebody can be, they’re not obviously hurt. It’s not like their leg is in a cast or something. So, it can be really hard to not say, “Snap out of it. You’re all right. What’s wrong with you?” But to have compassion for what that person is actually going through can be very difficult to maintain. 

So, we’ll be talking about solutions a little further in the podcast. But right now, I just want you to know that I get it and that your experience is very real. Certainly, if your partner has been depressed for a long time and has stopped functioning in any meaningful way, or a way that you can engage with them; it is also very normal to start thinking about, “How much longer am I going to keep doing this with you?” There may come a point at which you decide to pull the ripcord and eject from the situation and so we’ll certainly be talking about that. 

Another common pattern and one that is also very destructive is to be partnered with a person who has a substance abuse problem of some kind. This one is extremely difficult because when the partner is not actively using when they are sober, when they are not high; they might be delightful. Still that same person that you fell in love with and the person that you want to be with. But it’s almost like that person gets obscured when they use drugs or alcohol. They change. It can turn into this thing where you keep trying to connect with a person that you know is in there somewhere. You still see them from time to time and it can begin to feel extremely hurtful for the partner of the person with a problem because invariably, at some point it turns into, “If you loved me enough, if you really cared about how I feel, and what I need, and how hard this is for me, you would try harder to not do this anymore.” It really becomes personalized. 

What I see in practice is that the partners of people with a problem can start to have really low self-esteem. They can think, “What is wrong with me? If I could only be better or more or something, then my person wouldn’t use their substances anymore.” Or also, one thing that so commonly happens, there’s actually a whole movement called Al-Anon, just support people going through this is that partners of people with problems begin to become over functional, their partner has stopped functioning because of their addiction. So the other person will start to check on them. “Are you sure you’re okay? Are you drinking today? Is he drunk? I see him wobbling. Is he okay to drive the car? What about now?” Really a lot of anxious energy into, “Is this safe?” They can also begin to overcompensate in terms of taking over household duties, doing more of the planning, more of the organizing, making sure we have money in the checking account, and milk in the refrigerator, and the laundry is done, and doing more and more and more to occupy the space in the system where their partner, who is no longer functioning, used to be. 

Over time, what happens is they become increasingly angry and resentful that they are in this position that they feel like they have to do everything; that it’s all on them to make sure that we’re okay. They can become increasingly angry and resentful with their partner and, also, combined with that anxiety. The pop-psychology term for this phenomenon is codependence in the negative sense, which is exactly what I described for you: one person is becoming increasingly hostile, and hurt, and upset, and over-functioning in proportion to their partner’s addiction or under-functioning. 

Part of the healing process for you, in this case, is to become unhooked from your partner; that they are doing their thing and that you are instead refocusing on things that you can control. Stop trying to control them, but rather controlling yourself, and your own life, and perhaps setting different boundaries if this person is not in a position to be trustworthy. In this case, you might consider getting involved with Alcoholics Anonymous, or Al-Anon. You can google it, widely available. I think they have different groups for people whose partners are having different problems. There’s probably just like an Alcoholics Anonymous group, an Al-Anon group for Narcotics Anonymous. So they go in tandem together. But even if your partner is not currently in treatment, I would strongly encourage you to get involved with an Al-Anon group on your own.

Related to substance addiction is a similar process, but I think in some ways, maybe less spectacularly destructive than a substance abuse problem, but certainly, just as insidious when it comes to relationships, is pornography addiction. This one is really hard. It is becoming more and more common in surprising situations. At this point, it’s not uncommon for me to meet for couples counseling with a young couple. They’re in their late 20s or early 30s and the male partner is experiencing really persistent erectile dysfunction and cannot perform sexually. It is almost invariably because there is a previously undisclosed pornography addiction at the root of it. 

So you can only imagine the havoc that starts to wreak on a relationship. Because, aside from just the act of pornography addiction—somebody’s staying up late at night and sitting in the second bedroom, and not going to bed until all hours, and especially if your partner knows what’s going on— it feels really nasty because it feels like cheating to a lot of partners of people with this particular problem. It puts the partner of the person with the problem in this state of not just hurt feelings and anger, but also of inadequacy. They often believe, “If I were hotter and more attractive, then you would want to be with me, instead of sitting in front of your computer all night.” That turns into this spiraling, yucky dynamic. Because even when you try to be intimate with your partner, it’s really hard to not think about the pornography addiction. 

Going back to everyone’s experience when you have a partner with a problem; it leads you to feel angry, resentful, anxious. You need more safety and reassurance from your partner. So first of all, you might not feel like having sex with your partner anymore, but then if they finally do get you into bed, and they’re not able to function sexually, then it kind of just reinforces that message that, “Well, I must not be what they want.” Again, that can be a really nasty web to untangle. In my experience, that usually does require a lot of professional support in order to do that, particularly if the addiction has progressed to the point where the addicted person is experiencing sexual dysfunction as a result of it. He’ll probably need to meet with a specialist in order to get that back on track and also couples counseling in order to repair those aspects of your relationship that were so profoundly damaged by that addiction. 

So there’s that one. But also, let’s talk just briefly about a couple of other different things because I want to give you some ideas about what might be going on and what the path to making this better can look like for you. So ADHD is another really big one. You would be amazed at actually how many couples come into couples counseling because one person isn’t listening or isn’t following through, and the other person is really angry and yelling all the time. The other person who isn’t listening or following through is starting to feel like a child in their relationship and their partner is turning into their angry parent. You can just imagine this dynamic. But neither of them have any idea that was the person who is not listening or following through is actually struggling with undiagnosed ADHD. It is a fairly common diagnosis. Even though ADHD is always present in childhood, it may or may not have been diagnosed in childhood. I think it’s easy for it to be blown off with little boys. They’re just rambunctious or they have behavioral problems or we can point to other things. 

But it’s also extremely common in girls and women, and it is very underdiagnosed in those cases. You see most commonly the spacey little girl who’s looking out her window, and forgetting to do her homework, and is getting feedback from teachers like, “Jane is so smart. If she just applied herself, she would do so well, but it seems like she just doesn’t care about school.” Girls never get diagnosed with the inattentive subtype of ADHD which is not the big crazy hyperactive jumping around one, but rather just the sort of spacey, forgetful, zoning-out-thing which in adulthood, when they are in partnerships, and they are forgetful, or when the demands of life say they’re working, and they’re kids, and a lot more obligations and responsibilities can really start to be quite problematic in relationship and make their partners feel like, “Don’t you care about me? Can’t I trust you? Why don’t you listen to me when I tell you that these things are important?” 

It’s not that they’re doing any of this on purpose, but rather that they struggle to sustain attention. It’s hard for them to remember things. They don’t have good systems in place to support themselves. Of course, that’s more of the female subtype, although men can also have inattentive ADHD, and women can have the more hyperactive-impulsive type. 

But what you see, oftentimes, with men in this setup is that there are… There may be impulsive qualities that go along with it. I think one of the hardest things for couples, sometimes, can be difficulty keeping on track with a budget: overspending impulsively, or having poor time management, being late to things, or not calling when you say that you’ll call; those things, they can all really damage trust in a relationship, particularly when your takeaway is: “If they cared about me, they would be able to do these things that I need them to do in order to trust them, and in order to feel loved by them.” 

First of all, ADHD is not an excuse for bad behavior. However, if ADHD is not being managed properly, it is a huge obstacle in being able to really be a good functional partner in these different ways that I’ve described. It may be more helpful for you to get your partner into treatment and start reconceptualizing ADHD as the problem as opposed to your partner’s character, or the lack of respect that your partner is showing you. Because many people with ADHD feel like crap about what they’re doing or not doing, and they would like to be better. Sometimes, it really just takes learning the tools and being able to manage it in a much more intentional way in order for them to be able to do that. So important conversation to have with your partner, and just something important to have in the back of your mind if this pattern of “irresponsibility,” or can’t remember things, if any of that sounded familiar to you, you might consider that as a culprit. 

Just very briefly, another thing that can also take a tremendous toll on a relationship, and which is also common and also under-diagnosed, is post-traumatic stress disorder. There are different kinds of PTSD, but the symptoms are somebody has lived through a really scary, life-threatening type experience: maybe it was a guy who was in combat, or maybe a child who grew up in a home where domestic violence was happening, maybe was abused themselves in some ways, or maybe, as an adult, experienced an attack or other really scary life experience. So what happens with that is that people in order to protect themselves from these really intrusive symptoms where they’re reliving the scary, horrible, horrifying feelings, or memories, or little snippets that can be triggered by the most minor of things. They start to almost wrap themselves up in an emotional cocoon. They withdraw. They don’t want to participate. They don’t want to talk. They’re shut down. They’re avoidant. They’re numb. They don’t want to do things. If it is a survivor of sexual assault or childhood sexual abuse, he or she might not want to have anything to do with sex. Certainly, someone who’s experienced violence might be very avoidant with any kinds of things that could even possibly lead to getting those fears triggered. 

It can look a lot like depression on the outside of it, that looks a lot just like this avoidance and shutting down and numbness. But I think the difference is that with PTSD, you do see these breakthrough moments where people are freaking out or they’re getting really upset about things that might not make a ton of sense in the moment. You don’t know why they’re so upset all of a sudden. It’s out of proportion to what’s going on. 

But again, if you’re living with someone who’s going through that, it can be difficult to relate. It can also be difficult to just manage day-to-day life if they’re shutting down at and/or so unpredictable or getting triggered by things. It can also be something extremely tender and difficult to bring up. Because, as a rule, people who have lived through trauma want more than anything to not talk about it or think about it ever again. If you even broach the subject, it can be a lot of defensiveness or an extremely negative reaction. As the partner of someone who might be dealing with this, you can really feel in a bind, like, “I can’t talk about this with you. And yet, it is really destroying our life together. So I don’t know what to do with it.” 

So this is just a small sampling of the kinds of problems that partners can be dealing with. If you are partnered with somebody who is going through this stuff, first of all, I’m really sorry. Because these things are hard. I’ll tell you from my experience, both as a therapist and a marriage counselor, if you are trying to have a relationship with someone who is going through any of these things, while it is happening, it is extremely lonely. It is very confusing. It can be hard to even tell other people what is going on at home because I think it’s very easy for other people to say, “Oh, well, XYZ,” some bad advice, or to say, “Yeah. It’s probably just time for you to leave. You should just be done,” and cavalierly encourage you to end the relationship which isn’t helpful either. Because you know that your partner is not just their problem. For most people in your situation, there’s a lot of hope that it can get better. It’s not the whole person and you see the good parts, too. That’s why this can be so difficult and so scary and so confusing. 

So, in general, I will just give you some basic advice when you are in a relationship with someone who has mental health things going on, and they are not doing anything about it. If it is within your means, I would strongly encourage you to get involved in some supportive therapy on your own. If your partner is depressed and won’t go to therapy, you go to at least begin to have a place to make sense of what’s happening, and to figure out how to be in a relationship with them and not also go down the rabbit hole along with them. Connecting with a good therapist can also just help you get some insight into what’s going on and help you avoid personalizing the problem. I think to educate yourself about what happens when people are struggling with these kinds of illnesses can really help you just stay in a better place with the whole thing. 

Also, I will say that, in general, it is a bad idea if you have been in therapy to then have your partner come and see your therapist with you, particularly for couples counseling. Therapists who are not trained in couples counseling will, oftentimes, recommend this and say, “Oh, it’s fine.” It’s not fine. Don’t do it. It makes couples counseling much less likely to be successful unless there are very specific things going on. In general, please don’t do that. However, in these kinds of situations where your person really needs some professional help quite honestly and need somebody to have eyes on them; I do think that it is okay to bring your partner into your counseling session with you to just like, “Hey, I have a therapy session on Thursday at 3. Are you available? Would you like to come with me?” can increase the odds that they’re going to get in and get seen somewhere. 

You’ve already found the person. The appointment is made. You’ll drive. It just becomes a lot easier. Also, to have a hopefully positive experience with a mental health professional that perhaps you’ve already established a relationship with. If your partner can come in and be like, “Okay, they’re not scary. They’re not being mean to me. They, maybe, did have some good ideas.” Maybe, your partner could start coming with you just a little bit with the goal of your therapist saying to your partner, “What you’re describing sounds to me like post-traumatic stress disorder. These are the symptoms. These are the impact that it can have on a relationship. This is what treatment looks like. And I happen to have a colleague who is extremely good at this. I would love to give you their name and number so that you could set up an appointment and start working on this.” I think that your partner can ease into it, have a non-threatening experience and also, have— Just again, get some insight and a roadmap around, “Okay, this is what’s happening.” Also, a plan and to then be able to have a name and number and also a positive association. 

So if you have these things going on in your relationship, I think it’s totally fine for you to start therapy, and then invite your partner to come into therapy with you. If it is a marriage counselor, so much the better because then the marriage counselor can help your partner, and you understand how maybe some of the problems that you have been having in your relationship that you might be attributing to your partner’s problem and that you’re— The partner with the problem often can attribute the problems in the relationship to you. “Well, if you were not on my case… If you could just relax, if you could just take it easy. It’s not that big of a deal. Stop talking to me that way…” That can help you guys untangle that and really just deal with a core issue. So you might consider either of those things. Again, your partner might not be open to it at first. That’s okay. Go anyway. At some point, they might warm to the idea. 

I will also tell you something else, and I say this with some reservations because I’m afraid of this sounding cold or heartless at all. I just want you to hear that it is not my intention to say this. But I’ve worked with so many people, I’ve worked with so many couples, and I have seen people for long periods of time. I’ve been in practice now that I have seen people on and off for years and seen also how relationships evolve over time. I have come to develop the opinion that if you are dating someone who has some of these issues and who is unable or unwilling to effectively address them if you are dating, it is probably the best thing for you to do to move on, as opposed to moving forward. As in, don’t marry them and assume that things will be better once you get married. Don’t have children with someone who is not currently able to be a solid, reliable, responsible partner. Too many times, I think people plunge forward into marriage thinking or hoping that things will be different once we’re married or, “If we had a baby, they would finally grow up.” It can be extremely easy to play those kinds of games with yourself. 

I just would like to suggest that if you are dating someone, it would be much better for you to assume that who they are showing you they are is who they are always going to be and bank on what you can see now. I think we both think it would be wonderful if you said, “You know what? I can’t do this with you. I love you. I think you’re a great person. I see so much potential for us, but until you get this drinking thing under control, I can’t keep doing this with you. So I’m gonna go do my thing and you go get you some help. And, maybe, at some point in the future, we might be able to reconnect. But I’m not going to count on that. No pressure, but I just want you to get well.” 

It would be so awesome if you saying that would be the motivation for your partner to finally feel intrinsically motivated to work on themselves. They would use that motivation to make changes. Maybe six months from now they show back up, and they can show you that they have really changed and they can start to earn your trust back. But then you begin to compile experiences with them where you can also see for yourself, it’s not just that they’re telling you that they’re trustworthy; they’re actually changing, they have changed, they’re not drinking, they’re stable in their sobriety. That might take a lot longer than six months to achieve, just to set your expectations. 

But that’s if you’re dating because, really, why I think this can be so good, not just for you, because you may have avoided a lifetime of pain and frustration, but also for your partner, because people don’t make changes, typically until the pain of remaining the same exceeds the pain they anticipate changing would involve. So if staying the same is so painful, if they’re having consequences, if they are losing relationships, if they’re losing you, that might be that bouncing off the bottom moment where they say to themselves, “I can’t keep doing this. I need to make some changes.” But the hard part with any of these is that you saying, “This isn’t working, and you need to make some changes.” That doesn’t really matter. Because you know this if you’re living it, you can say that all day long, but until the person with the problem, not just says but feels the panic of, “Oh my God, I cannot keep living this way one more day.” That is the place where they will be open to doing something different and getting some help. 

Your setting that person free might be the best thing that ever happened to them. Also, might actually mean the best thing that ever happened to you. Because I have also worked with people who made a different choice in that fork-in-the-road moment. So when they were dating, and remember that dating: going out with someone, getting to know someone, dating is for the purpose of determining if someone is going to be a good life partner. I think that when you’re dating, you do need to have that always in the back of your mind. “What’s this going to look like in 10 years? What kind of family could I have with this person? What kind of parent would they be? What would it be like for me if this person was always the way they exactly are right this very second” Think about that. If you’re thinking about that, and the answer to that is like, “Yeah, I don’t actually think I would want to keep doing this in five years or 10 years.” Or, “I don’t think that I would actually want to have a child exposed to any of these things.” Please trust that, again, and it can help them get some help, and it can help you have a much better outcome.

I don’t want it to sound harsh. But again, just because I’ve walked with people through this and I know that it’s much better for you to have a “naked lunch” moment, that horrible, awful moment of clarity that the writer, William Burroughs, described where you see exactly what is impaled on the end of your fork without any illusions. Better that you see that and make a responsible decision than spending the next 5, 10, 20 years becoming increasingly frantic, and resentful, and bitter, and chasing someone around, trying to make them be the partner that you want them to be. That doesn’t end well. So there it is, there’s my opinion. 

It also could be true that you are only realizing these things about your partner after the ship has sailed and you’ve gotten married or you started a family. Or, maybe, at the time you did get married, your partner didn’t have a drinking problem or a pornography addiction five years ago. These things can emerge, right? Maybe you didn’t have all the information. Again, in my opinion, for whatever it’s worth, I do think that if you are married, I think that it is a different level of commitment if you have made that promise: “For better or for worse. I am going to support you in sickness and health.” 

I think that you should work harder at helping someone, as opposed to as if you were just dating. In that case, to stick by someone that’s going through something hard, particularly if it is an illness or an addiction. Again, that might mean going to a marriage counselor by yourself and encouraging your partner to come over and over and over again, researching treatment options, and presenting it to them, getting involved in Al-Anon. There’s a sex addict version of Al-Anon that could be very important for you to get involved in. 

For you to be doing things that support your health and your wellness so that you are remaining in a place of strength, and that you are not negatively contributing to the negative relationship patterns, but rather, behaving in a way that will make it more likely that your partner can get the help they need, and then also actively working to provide them with opportunities to get help. All that said, there also does come a point where you may begin experiencing consequences that might make you start thinking about making changes; and if your partner is very persistently not getting better, and not interested in trying whatever problem that they’re having is increasing in intensity, and if it is creating consequences in your life or the lives of your children, there does come a point where you might say, “I can’t continue to live this way. Maybe my partner is addicted to pain pills, but am I addicted to my partner in this moment? Am I addicted to an unhealthy relationship that is probably not ever going to get better? Do I have a responsibility to take care of myself, and also to take care of my children, and protect them from the consequences of someone who has PTSD, and who is freaking out and screaming at everybody, or having anger issues, or is laying in a dark room for 22 hours a day, or who is having escalating and intensity of pornography, or problematic sexual behaviors in our home?” 

At some point, you do have a line that can’t be crossed. I think that it is responsible to cut the cord at a certain point. Now, I certainly, and no other responsible therapists in the world, would decide what that point is for you. I would strongly suggest, though, that if you are in any kind of danger; if there is violence in your home towards you or towards your children, or if there are patently unsafe things going on. If your partner is driving drunk in the car with the kids like that kind of thing, certainly that would tip the scale in terms of the responsible thing to do, being to leave. You may also consider getting involved with your local social services department for some support, particularly if you’re in a situation where you are financially dependent on a partner with a problem. I know that social services involvement can be scary to think about because I think we automatically think, “Oh, no. They’ll take my kids away.” 

But I say this as somebody who is both in the mental health field and also a foster parent is that in my experience, Social Services does everything they possibly can to keep families together. It may be the case where social services can step in to support you and your children in creating a safe and environment, and also impose some external consequences or requirements on your partner that they need to meet in order for them to be able to rejoin the family. So again, it’s just with the idea of creating consequences and creating motivation that people can feel. 

So there are some ideas for you. I hope that if nothing else, that you feel understood by me and that you’re alone. You’re not the only person going through these kinds of things and that you just have some compassion for yourself and just the magnitude of what you might be going through if you are attached to a person with a problem. I also hope that some practical ideas fell out of this about things that you might consider trying to help yourself and, by proxy, to help your partner, too. 

Okay, so again, hope this helps. Thank you again, for all your questions and for suggesting this as a topic. I know it’s not the easiest thing to talk about, but I do really value you getting in touch with me and letting me know what’s on your mind. If there are other things that you would like to hear about, feel free to get in touch, growingself.com is my website. You can leave a voice recording, send me an email, whatever works for you. Okay, thanks. I’ll be back in touch soon.

[Outro Song]

Episode Highlights

  • The Bare Necessities
    • Partners primarily need a connection from a relationship.  
    • Your partner needs to know that you are there for them, that they are safe with you, and that you give them attention.
  • Partners with Problems
    • The partner supporting the partner with a problem, especially if they don’t want to get helped on treated, might become sick of the situation.
    • Various conditions are possibly at the root of this behavior, but they are not without solutions.
    • Depression
      • If your partner has depression, it might be challenging to get to them because they will not want to communicate.
      • However, your partner might also be having a hard time themselves because they’re aware of what they’re doing, yet they’re unable to “snap out of it.” They also don’t want to be labeled crazy, which is why they might refuse treatment.
    • ADHD
      • There are two kinds of ADHD: the hyperactive kind and the inattentive kind.
      • Men are usually diagnosed with the hyperactive kind. Meanwhile, females go undiagnosed because they commonly have the inattentive type.
    • PTSD
      • It’s tough to deal with this problem because you may find it hard to relate. There are various experiences that your partner may have had that led to their PTSD.
      • They also shut down and refuse to participate in daily life to avoid triggers.
    • Substance and Pornography Addiction, Alcoholism
      • These addictions have ripple effects on your relationship.
      • It might cause them to perform poorly in some relational aspects.
      • You will need to discuss their behaviors with them or with a counselor. You may both benefit from involvement in a treatment group like Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • Dating versus Marriage
    • When dating, make sure to get to know the other person thoroughly. Once you see red flags, put a stop to the relationship unless they change for the better.
    • There are different considerations for when you’re already married. You promised to cherish one another “in sickness and in health,” which is what the situation calls for now.
    • However, if your partner becomes increasingly abusive or violent or refuses to change, then maybe the best decision is to part ways.

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