I am looking for suggestions to help break some unhealthy patterns in my relationship.
February 10, 2012 1:53 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for suggestions to help break some unhealthy patterns in my relationship.

First off, yes I am in therapy. 'Pattern abatement' was suggested to me by my counselor initially, and other than 'growing a pair', I am looking for ways to steer things between my SO and I into calmer waters.

My SO has had a few really bad patches in her life, with some others that I am directly responsible for. All that basically boils down to the fact that there are many triggers for her (simple coincidences, letters/numbers on license plates, etc), and she has a great deal of paranoia and worry about things that don't exist, or could not exist, or would not exist - based on what has occurred for her before at any point in her life. I have tried my best to undo the bad I have caused (lots of growing up, therapy and apologies). I have tried and tried to be extra sensitive to anything that might upset her in any remote way. But being a person who has not had the same experiences myself, I still sometimes cause problems by not being hyper-aware, hyper-considerate to her feelings. I have definitely become more present and conscious about things, actions and repercussions over the last few years, but still, I am no 'svengali'. It's frustrating, because a simple thing done with 100% honest and good intentions can be totally misconstrued because of some detail that reminds her of something negative, either from the past or a worrisome, 'unseen' negative in the present or future.

Anyway, it's getting to the point where it's causing unnecessary stress/strife, like someone wanting to pick a fight because they think the 'object' dropped on the 'floor' means I am having an affair with person 'X'. Yes, my SO can be extremely jealous, and has self-esteem issues out the wazoo. She was in therapy for a while, but ultimately rejected her counselor (and refuses to start therapy again). Now it seems that she places her problems on my shoulders, as if it's something I have to fix....because after all, in her mind, when the 'object' drops on the 'floor' it means I am having an affair with person 'X'....or take your pick of any other possible scenario, however ludicrous or far-fetched it may sound.

I am trying to be a lot more firm by standing up to this behaviour to ward it off, but not in any adversarial, mean spirited way....I've had some emotional, highly defensive outbursts before, but I can now catch those and stop them before they happen. Other than just calmly and empathetically talking my SO off the ledge, standing fast, stiff upper lip and whatnot, does anyone have any other insight or advice on how to make some of these patterns fade away?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not entirely sure what you're talking about, but it seems that her level of paranoia (or possibly another issue, like flashbacks or something else) is indicative of a major mental illness that you are unable to treat.

If she is seriously mentally ill and refuses to get treatment, she will likely not get better.

I'm sorry if I've misread you, your question was a little light on detail (understandably).

Good luck.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:59 PM on February 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

Wow, she's being incredibly unfair to you. This is not your job. This is her job. She needs to be conscious of what her triggers are, and she needs to communicate these with you, as well as the strategies she's adopting to help stop these, and how you can support her. It is not your job to do this for her, and you can't make it better, only she can. In fact, trying to make it better in the way you describe "talking [her] off the ledge" and whatnot) will likely only support and enable what's happening, and will make it worse. Your focus should be on how to remove yourself from the situation, or at least on how to support her getting the help she needs. I understand that you feel like you caused some things, but that doesn't mean it's your responsibility to fix it, and it is not something you know how to do. This is an incredibly awful situation she's put you in, I'm sorry.
posted by brainmouse at 2:01 PM on February 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm confused. It sounds like your SO may be significantlly mentally ill -- some of what you're describing actually sounds like schizophrenia. Has she been diagnosed with any condition? Is she on medication and/or in therapy or otherwise being treated by medical professionals? These are not issues that can be reasoned with or accommodated by watching your own behavior.
posted by scody at 2:02 PM on February 10, 2012 [22 favorites]

(*IANAD of any kind, naturally.)
posted by scody at 2:02 PM on February 10, 2012

From what I can tell from your description, this sounds like something which is entirely out of your power to help her with. The problematic patterns are not yours but hers, and she is placing the onus of avoiding fights on you. This is neither a reasonable expectation nor something that is actually likely to happen.

This really does sound like a serious mental illness. If she won't seek help for it then the only options you have are either to accept that this is the state of your relationship, or to leave. Unfortunately you can't make her want to get better, nor can you learn the "rules" of her mental triggers. I'm sorry this is happening. Good luck.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 2:04 PM on February 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Only reading what you've written here, it sounds like you're doing everything you reasonably can here, and that your SO definitely needs to get back into treatment.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:08 PM on February 10, 2012

She was in therapy for a while, but ultimately rejected her counselor (and refuses to start therapy again). Now it seems that she places her problems on my shoulders, as if it's something I have to fix....


Though you may, in a relationship, have the responsibility to be compassionate and understanding, you are absolutely not required to serve as someone's therapist, or to twist yourself up into a pretzel to cater to every insecurity.

And though your girlfriend should not have to pretend that there's never anything wrong or that she's not dealing with some issues, she does have the responsibility to be upfront about her own actions, and to take care of her own mental health and insecurities.

This does not sound healthy or reasonable. Nor does this sound like something that is your responsibility to fix. Based on what I'm reading here, she really ought to go back into treatment if this relationship has any hope of continuing in the long term. This situation doesn't sound good or sustainable for either of you.
posted by vivid postcard at 2:10 PM on February 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

I don't think there's a way for you to fix this without your SO also changing some of her behaviors. Would she accompany you to one of your therapy sessions to talk with you and your therapist about this?

It's not healthy or fair for a relationship to require one and only one person in the relationship to be hyper-aware and hyper-accomodating of the other.

It can be really difficult to be in a relationship with someone who has issues that stray into mental illness, and while it's easy for strangers on the internet to say DTMFA, it's a complicated thing to look at when you're there in the thick of it. But if splitting up is the only card you have, you may have to bring it into play and talk about things that need to happen (like "she gets therapy") and consequences if she does not. If you can convince her to go to some kind of couples counseling, that would also be great, as it sounds like things are complicated enough between you as far as differing expectations and such that mediated communication would be a good thing.

Good luck.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:11 PM on February 10, 2012

So, if your love has a trigger like....Burger King burgers, because of some awful thing that happened to her at a Burger King once, and you know about it, you are a jackass for bringing her Burger King as a Valentine's Day present.

This does not sound like that. I agree with other folks that this sounds more like a pretty serious mental illness, and that even if it isn't exactly that, you can't actually fix it. She has to want to fix it. Even the most sensitive and attuned partner can't possibly be expected to reasonably know that you dropping a cup means (to her) that you're having an affair.
posted by rtha at 2:17 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are you married to this person? Do you have children with them?

It sounds like your SO is pretty severely mentally ill, and you are in need of some heavy therapy yourself. Are you sure this relationship is at all healthy for either of you?

Leave 'love' aside for a second, and think about what you are getting out of the relationship and what she is getting out of the relationship, and what you see getting out of it for both of you in the future. Do you see things getting better, even if you did everything you possibly can to avoid her 'triggers'? Be realistic, here.
posted by empath at 2:45 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Someone who is triggered by random coincidences needs professional help. From a professional. What they need from their partner is sympathy and support, not therapy. If she's not willing to seek help, you should probably decide if that's a deal-breaker for you. It would be for me.

You can't be part of an effort to block out her triggers when they include things like numbers.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:03 PM on February 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

A question for you: Are these actual triggering events, or is your SO using these issues to control you?

I am not there with you, but that is what pops into my mind. If that is not what's happening, I agree with others upthread that it may be mental illness. Otherwise, perhaps you need to take a hard look at your relationship.
posted by annsunny at 3:09 PM on February 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I knew someone else like this- more extreme, maybe even, as she would go into what looked like a fugue state, complete with all the physiological changes like shaking, blood pressure drops and heart rate weirdness, so it wasn't exactly faking, though the timing seemed suspiciously manipulative to me.

After a few years of crazy-making however, her guy finally threw up his hands and said "This is more than I know how to deal with. Next time I'm calling 911." Her episodes stopped cold turkey. (And she left him soon thereafter.) It looked to me like the episodes weren't faked, but she had a lot of control over whether or not to run with them. When the consequences looked severe, and they weren't getting the result she wanted (everyone would drop what they were doing to take care of her) she was able to nip them in the bud.

I don't know if that's the case with your girlfriend, but I'd argue that if it IS manipulative, you should call her on it, and if it ISN'T, getting her professional help, even against her will, could be a good thing for her. And it might not be one or the other. She might not know herself.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:25 PM on February 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Short of deliberate persistent brainwashing, there is no way for it to be your fault that 123 in a license plate number means you're cheating on her. You can't fix that.

Given the nature of her paranoia, though, and I guess your past history of infidelity (or whatever else is is you're hinting you've done to her, which might be nothing, it's hard to tell), it might be kinder to let her go and be with someone who hasn't got the baggage the two of you have. Neither one of you should have to live like this.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:46 PM on February 10, 2012

Anon, let me tell you about what happens in my DBT therapy sessions.

My therapist says "tell me about anything I'm doing that's interfering with you being able to make progress and get stuff out of therapy."

I say, "$thing really bothers me, and makes me unhappy, and all I can do is focus on it, and so I'm not able to do the work I need to do."

Therapist might say: "Oh, okay, that's a reasonable thing to be distressed by, and me changing this behavior makes total sense even outside of this context, and it's unlikely that you're going to grow much by me asking you to think of better ways of dealing with it. I'm going to make a note right now to try and stop doing that, and you have permission to stop me as soon as I start doing it, and I promise I'll try to stop when you remind me, because this is important to us making progress in here."

That's happened, like, once. Usually, it's more like:

"That sounds really difficult. What are some different ways of thinking about the situation? What are some strategies you could use to head off that kind of reaction? Do you think it might be helpful if you spoke up when you became a little distressed, right at the start of it, and we could stop and do a mindfulness exercise, and refocus? Do you think that becoming better able to handle this sort of incident might make your life easier?"

(BTW, I am SO GLAD I only do therapy for an hour a week, because it's a LOT OF FREAKING WORK the entire time I'm there.)

The point here is: this is why your girlfriend needs to be in therapy, and why you need to focus way, way more on making yourself happy with yourself and able to set good boundaries, - and way, way less on handling these (frequent, obnoxious, painful-for-everyone, totally unnecessary, possibly symptoms-of-serious-illness) episodes.

I recommend (for what has to be the twentieth time on Ask) the NAMI Family-to-Family course.

Pro tip: I have learned that the acronym is pronounced "nahhhhhh-mee," where the first vowel rhymes with the first vowel in "coffee," rather than "naaaah-mee," where the first vowel rhymes with the first vowel in "happy."
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 3:55 PM on February 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

This is no way to live. She is either seriously ill and needs medical treatment or is being incredibly unfair to you. I have also noticed that some really really easily upset and irrational people (like people who could be upset at a color or a common item like toast) just plain stop doing it when the people indulging them leave them.

Allowing some things to be okay makes them seem acceptable and this is a terrible trap to fall into (and you're now stuck not able to wear blue and without toast). The person will also feel like they must continue to act up like this, because otherwise they are an awful terrible person who inconveniences their loved ones and friends for fun.

I think the best thing to do is leave them, even if they agree to treatment they will feel obliged to draw it out painfully because otherwise they are again a person who inconveniences their loved ones and friends for fun. Leaving is about the best you can do for both of you.
posted by meepmeow at 3:58 PM on February 10, 2012

i agree that she's likely dealing with a mental illness, or PTSD, or both. but you know what? none of that matters. it also doesn't matter that she might just be manipulating you.

what does matter is that she is not taking any responsibility for her behavior and that you are not getting what you need out of this relationship.

you are not responsible for her, and you have no obligation to be her caretaker.

if she was an addict, would you stay through all the addiction behaviors without demanding that she seek treatment?
posted by unlucky.lisp at 4:56 PM on February 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

Not an either or - she could be seriously ill and also conditioned to use these actions to shut down anything that makes her the least bit uncertain.

She needs help. She cannot behave this way and be happy. There is nothin you can do to change that. She has to change that.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:00 PM on February 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Let's change the story around a bit, because I think it may help you to reconsider what sort of situation you're in.

Suppose your girlfriend is bleeding. Suppose there is a giant, gaping wound, right at her neck, and blood is pouring out from it. You are both freaked out. You say, "Holy shit! What do we do!?" And she says, "You need to stop the bleeding, that's what!" But you are not a doctor. You are not a paramedic. You do not have the skills. And so you say, "I don't know how to do that!" She responds, "Why don't you know how? Isn't it your job? You're not meeting my needs, if you don't stop the bleeding!" You say, "I'll call 911! They'll help!" But she yells, "NO!" You say, "But you need help! And I can't give it to you!" And she says "NO!" And you're starting to panic, because she's getting pale, and your knees are getting weak, and you're feeling yourself start to tear up inside. She yells, "No! I won't see a doctor! This is something you have to do! You have to get me to stop bleeding!" Now you're starting to feel guilty, and you're terrified, and she's looking at you in such a way that you think you're going to throw up from the guilt and the anxiety and the pain, but, all the same, you don't have the capacity to help her.


The story above is a situation that I think is analogous to the one you're in. Now, the case I describe is one in which your girlfriend's very life is on the line, and it doesn't sound (from what you describe) like your girlfriend's physical wellbeing is at risk. But what you describe still sounds very serious. She's in need of very serious help, and the help she needs is not help you can give her. (This isn't a failing on your part.. You just don't have the training. You can't perform the necessary surgery to take care of a huge, gaping neck wound, and you also can't give the psychiatric help needed to handle the sorts of issues you describe. That's why doctors and psychiatrists both charge so much.) In the case above, it's totally ridiculous for her to think that you have the means of helping her, that she can cope without the assistance of professionals. In the case above, the only thing you really can do is point her to the professionals who can help. In the case above, if she absolutely refuses to seek professional help, nothing will happen except that her situation will deteriorate and you will suffer.

The only real difference between a person with a horrible neck wound and a person with a serious psychological disorder is this: people with horrible neck wounds can recognize that they need a doctor, usually. The tragedy of mental illness is that those who suffer the most are the least able to recognize their need. Your girlfriend is refusing therapy, but that doesn't mean she doesn't need it. Going just from what you describe, she desperately, seriously needs it.

Someone with a gaping neck wound who refuses to be seen by a doctor is someone who will die. Someone with the sorts of issues you describe who refuses to be seen by a therapist or psychiatrist is someone who will suffer terribly and stands to (potentially) ruin the lives of everyone around them. I'm sorry. I'm terribly sorry. But if you've described her condition accurately, you're not in any way in a position to help her. You're not in any way able to help the situation unless she gets the help she needs. The pain you're suffering through and the strain this is putting on your relationship is collateral damage.
posted by meese at 7:07 PM on February 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I recommend (for what has to be the twentieth time on Ask) the NAMI Family-to-Family course.

What everyone else said about you not being able to adequately help her, but yes, absolutely this, whether she chooses to get help or not. This was invaluable in understanding my mother (bipolar) and is probably the main reason I still speak to her today. The most important thing I learned: you cannot reason with an irrational person. Stop and think about that for a good long while. It's a very concrete tautology.

But being a person who has not had the same experiences myself, I still sometimes cause problems by not being hyper-aware, hyper-considerate to her feelings.

Were you abused as a child? This is the way people who have been abused act and it becomes second nature. It affects their adult relationships. They feel responsible for provoking the other person and taking care of them. You are being abused now, in any case, whether she has control over it or not.
posted by desjardins at 7:41 AM on February 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

Don't stay in an unhealthy relationship because you feel guilty. Sometimes the truly compassionate act is to separate. If not permanently, at least for a significant amount of time where you can both seek help and become stable as individuals. Otherwise you are just enabling each other's unhealthy behaviors.
posted by abirdinthehand at 12:54 PM on February 11, 2012

I'm going to disagree with the majority of people here and say you are being WAY too vague to offer ANY sort of advice. You say you're trying to help her, but you say you've also CAUSED some of the problems.

I really think you should be giving more details on the information before anyone starts diagnosing your SO as severely mentally ill. You say she freaks out at "numbers" - when my SO cheated on me, I knew the license plate of the person he was with (for a records thing) and driving behind cars similar to that plate number would make me anxious. Is it something like that? Or does she see "three" and freak out? Again, it's all quite vague.

I'm kind of getting the feeling that you're a serial cheater, but now that you've stopped you're trying to remove yourself from any responsibility of the damage you've caused to the relationship and to your SO simply because you've stopped and said "sorry". If that's not the case, sorry, but again, your descriptions are so incredibly vague, I don't know how anyone could even think they could offer you reasonable advice or make judgments on your SO's frame of mind. I mean, is it a metaphorical or physical ledge you have to talk her down from?
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 4:53 AM on February 12, 2012

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