I want to help you with your pain but it makes my pain hurt, too.
February 28, 2013 10:03 AM   Subscribe

I'm four months into a fairly intense relationship, and drama and mental health issues have reared their ugly heads. As someone who has had recent mental health problems of my own, I'm feeling a little shaky about the whole thing; can the hive mind give me another perspective?

I started dating a woman, "J" four months ago. Before that we were very close friends - the term "work wife" almost applies since we work for the same company. We've shared highs and lows and helped each other through some of the toughest times in our respective lives over the six years that we've known each other - to put it in perspective, we've both been suicidal before and we're each responsible for talking the other down off the ledge at least once. It was only four months ago, though, that we both realised that our feelings ran deeper than friendship, and we decided to give a romantic relationship a shot.

Our relationship is very intense, and whilst I'm aware that that's the limmerent phase of the relationship running its course that doesn't mean that I feel it any less keenly. "I love you"s were traded fairly early on. We think alike about most things, we have very similar interests (but different enough to show each of us new aspects of the world), and we have very similar attitudes to life in general (and although I'm an avowed freethinker and skeptic, and she's more of a hippie, holistically-oriented person, we get on incredibly well). On top of all that, the sex is amazing - I'm being honest when I tell her I've never had better or felt closer to a lover, and she says the same to me (I have no reason to disbelieve her on this score). The only real downside to things most of the time is that we're semi long-distance, to the tune of ~250mi. We see each other at least every other weekend and we Facetime most nights to make up for it.

All of which would mean that we were both happy with how things were going. However, some recent changes at work put J in a bad space, mentally; she was unable to get out of bed for two days in a row. Now, knowing her history I know that this is a really bad sign; as we'd previously agreed when discussing such possibilities I called her therapist and her therapist in turn called her, and soon enough things were fixed up to the point where she could continue to function. But she's left feeling extremely paranoid about our relationship.

You see, J has had a bad history with relationships. She was in an abusive marriage for years and, like many abuse victims, still carries the scars around with her, in the form of the belief that by leaving that marriage she destroyed her ex's life, and that as a result she doesn't deserve to be loved. The upshot of that - and these are her words, not mine - is that she's self-sabotaged every relationship since then rather than let herself be loved in the way that she wants to be loved. The recent relapse into depression that she suffered has brought all of these thoughts back to the fore, and so she says she is almost expecting me to break it off with her.

I too have a rough history with relationships. I, too, was in an abusive marriage, though where J's was physically abusive the abuse I suffered was all in the form of control-freakery, verbal abuse and gas-lighting. One of my ex-wife's favourite ways to get me to come back after we'd had a row was to say that she wasn't loveable, that she didn't deserve me and that I should find someone else (all the time knowing, of course, that I would move to reassure her about all of these things, which I did).

So you can see how J's worries have been setting off alarm bells in my otherwise reasonably well-adjusted brain. I've reassured her that I don't want to leave her, and that I do see a shared future for us, but even so it sent me spiralling back into my own dark place to be having that kind of conversation again. I've made an appointment with my therapist to talk it over.

Were this person purely my lover, and not also my best friend of many years, I would be thinking hard about whether or not to bail at this point, mean as that may sound. At four months in I don't know if I have the capacity to support her in her darkest times, much as I love her (and much as I've done it before when we weren't romantically entangled). But the events of a recent weekend, in which my non-answering of emails (because I was out and don't check email on my phone by habit) caused her to send further emails saying that she was scared and asking if this was me doing the slow fade, have made me wonder just how much instability I'm capable of coping with.

I'm not one for walking away from problems; I'd much rather fix them. And I'm loyal to those whom I love. But this is hard for me to untangle, so I have to ask: can anyone give me any perspective on this? Is there a way I can make this work, or are we doomed no matter what?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think either of you are ready for a relationship yet, or a least not with a relationship with someone that is not yet grounded in themselves. I think your dynamic is unhealthy for both of you as both of you are repeating patterns from other relationships. And sorry, Facetime does not constitute a relationship (withthe caveat that if you first had spent a lot of time together and THEN temporarily moved apart with a defined end-date then that is a different situation). Realistically, you have spent about 16 days together over the past four months which really makes this more of a month-long relationship. From your description, she needs more from you than you can provide without overstepping some major boundaries. You should not have felt responsible for calling her therapist; that is taking away her agency and asking you to do that is playing into your trigger of manipulating you by making you feel responsible for other people's feeling and actions.

When someone loves you, they want YOU to be happy. She just can't afford the energy to focus on you and your your happiness in this relationship because she really needs to focus on herself. I am so sorry, I know this is hard, but it is better to end it know before either of you become too invested and entwined.
posted by saucysault at 10:28 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

What about you guys agree to cool it for 6 months, not see anyone else, and not see each other romantically, during which time you aggressively work on yourselves in therapy and any other ways you can think of?

I like the maxim "Be whom you want to date", or at least work towards it.

A lot can improve in 6 months, but I suspect that being together will not be useful during it.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:33 AM on February 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm not one for walking away from problems; I'd much rather fix them.

Sometimes things are problems because they shouldn't be happening. You fix them by making it stop.

(And stop trying to fix people. People get to fix themselves. It's neither your right nor your obligation.)

And I'm loyal to those whom I love.

Loyalty is, like, not stealing or being mean or siding with other people against them. Loyalty is not staying in a relationship even when it's not very good and actually might actively be bad for you and her.

This relationship isn't very good and might actively be bad for you and for her. It's thriving entirely on drama and intensity, propped up by the distance and exacerbated by what you're saying is a "work wife" (not actually the healthiest relationship dynamic in the world) and "best friend" relationship even though you live 250 miles apart.

Four months is too soon to be discussing shared futures. People recovering from abusive relationships need time alone and stable. People you saved from suicide should probably be taken out of your pool of future girlfriends since that's a pretty power-skewed dynamic.

Take a break, at least. You're in over your head and she seems to be diverting the last of her limited energy into it.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:40 AM on February 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Part of the problem here might be that you're not being sincere with her, and I'm sure she can sense it. You're asking her to trust you, but how can she if you're only telling her what she wants to hear?

If you have a pattern of giving constant, coerced reassurances to the women in your life, now is the time to break that pattern by making her a partner and a confidant. If the future scares you, try telling her. Let her know that you don't have all the answers, and that it's you who needs guidance and comfort too. Remind her of your past relationship's dynamic, and tell her that the one solid deal-breaker for you in any romantic relationship is that you not be forced into that position again. Even if it's not meant maliciously, that is a very manipulative behavior, and if she can't respect that boundary, for your own health and well-being you do not have a future together as a couple.
posted by piratesriding at 10:42 AM on February 28, 2013 [9 favorites]

You can't be someone's everything. It's not fair to you who needs to work on you and it's not fair to her who needs to do the same.

I think you need to cool things down. You do love her and care for her, but that doesn't mean you're good for each other right now. Maybe you can make a go of it later. Maybe it never happens. It's not quitting. It's acknowledging that, despite some great things you've experienced with her, this won't work long term based on what it is and where you both are right now.
posted by inturnaround at 10:44 AM on February 28, 2013

If she's in a place now where things like this happen, it's going to be a good long while of staying in therapy before she's in a place where things like this don't happen. That was my first thought. Here is my second.

I'm not one for walking away from problems; I'd much rather fix them.

People aren't problems, and you can't fix people. You also can't fix her problems; you can't take the initiative and be the pointman on her problems. I don't mean to say that it's a bad idea - I mean that you can't. She can make efforts to fix her problems, but the effort will be huge and it will take a lot of time. Can you keep this up for as long as it takes? Years?

Consider this:

she's self-sabotaged every relationship since then rather than let herself be loved in the way that she wants to be loved.

What makes this time different? More than that: If I asked that question of you, and of everyone else she dated before you who'd been told that, what would you be able to say that they can't? Be really honest with yourself here.

Whenever I've been in any relationship where the person tells me that a specific thing has happened in all their previous relationships with other people, I always feel a little dumb for thinking there was any reason to believe it wouldn't happen with their relationship with me. But I feel dumb after the fact. After the specific thing happens. Because it always does.

can anyone give me any perspective on this? Is there a way I can make this work, or are we doomed no matter what?

Depends on what you consider "doomed." I do think it's not a great idea for you to keep dating.

The thing is, the behaviors you're describing, they don't tend to become less frequent or dramatic as time goes on. The opposite, really. I don't think her intentions are malicious, and I don't even think she's doing this on a conscious level, but this is a period where you're being tested to see what she can get away with.

But the events of a recent weekend, in which my non-answering of emails (because I was out and don't check email on my phone by habit) caused her to send further emails saying that she was scared and asking if this was me doing the slow fade, have made me wonder just how much instability I'm capable of coping with.

Isn't this pretty much what your ex did? Controlling you by playing on your guilt and by displaying low self-worth so you'll have to reassure her?

If you have a difficult time handling having to be the one who's responsible and a caretaker all the time, you may want to reconsider dating someone who can be so set off by changes at work that she can't get out of bed for two days.

I know this isn't what you want to hear, but I think the best thing would be to take things a few steps back with her. This will upset her a great deal but in the long run you'll both be better off: you may work well as friends, but as lovers you're both playing out unhealthy patterns in a way that is not promising.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:52 AM on February 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

Both of you have issues of ongoing mental health issues. You're going to have to have a plan for self efficacy during mental health crisis in place. You have leaned on each other as friends and "saved" each other which presents a very complicated set of issues for creating a romantic relationship with clear boundaries about who is responsible for keeping who alive and mentally well. You're going to have to make a pact where each of you creates an action plan for times of emotional or mental crisis and what steps you will each be responsible for taking. You can decide what these steps are, but you need to agree what each of you is or isn't willing to be responsible for when the other is having a Big Crisis. Actions steps might include:

1. If I feel my life is in danger I will call a mental health crisis line, my therapist, or 911 to get immediate aid.
2. I will find a therapist comfortable with high quantity of visits so that I have regular access to someone to lean on during the rough spots.
3. If I am having trouble functioning I will identify the areas of impairment and look to hire supports to fill those needs. (I.e. cooking, cleaning, exercise-- are these things getting done? There is no shame in needing help and if help is needed, best to hire assistance rather that lay the burden on a romantic partner or family/friends.)
4. I will look into various therapeutic interventions to help me be my healthiest and ensure I am surrounded by as much support as I can provide myself.
(This list is about you and your goals but it's best that both you and she commit to what you will do for yourselves in a crises rather than assume leaning on the other is the first and seemingly only action step. This is bad news and doom all over it.)

You both saved each other and now, you feel like because you needed saving it means that you are thereby in debt to her if she needs saving. And vice versa, you WANT someone to be available to save you so you don't want to stop being available to her because you like the lifeline.

This is not the basis of a relationship but the basis of surviving misery and pain. You both saved each other and that is sweet but that in and of itself doesn't mean you're romantically compatible or suited to be with each other. If you were a lifegaurd and you saved a drowning person, would that mean you needed to commit to a lifetime of making sure they don't drown, staying by their side and ensuring they don't sink? You're both in deep water and having a hard time swimming-- the only way to know if you actually have romantic feelings for each other is to each get yourselves to hard land, get adjusted to standing on your own and finding professionals who can render whatever ongoing aid will help you stay on your feet and independent. If, after gaining that kind of strength you look back and find you feel the love was about more than just a shared experience of pain and high levels of need-- you can rekindle the romance.

So you both feel like you NEED a person who will save you if you start to drown. That is a thing that exists in the world. Unfortunately the reason these feelings are so compelling is that professionals charge for the service of saving you and a friend/romantic partner will do it for free in exchange for your willingness to do the same for them. Do you have any family or friends that might agree to be that person-- who if you're stone broke will help you access support services if you need to be talked down from the ledge? You need to have an action plan for ensuring you can be alive and ok in the world that does not involve your romantic partner being in charge of that. It's TOTALLY OK to need social support with that goal, many people with mental illness do, but you need to create the plan and network with the supports so you know your safety net is in place and reliable and there is nothing that will fall on your romantic partner in terms of carrying the weight of your mental health issues. You this both for yourself (because that kind of safety net won't just disappear like romantic partners can and should be free to if needed) and also for your romantic partner. This will free you to have romantic relationships based in genuine compatibility and enjoyment of each other, not in using each other as crutches for survival. Though I will say, there is not shame in needing or being a crutch. And yes of course, you COULD happen to be drowning and saved by a woman who turns out to be your true love. These things can happen. But you need to separate and each get on your feet and stable before you can figure out if you're in love with each other or in love with being saved itself. It's a common romantic fantasy and completely understandable that being cared for in times of need and desperation brings up romantic and sexual feelings. But you can explore those feelings with a chosen mate who you're really fully compatible with and enjoy each others company without LITERALLY drowning and needing them to save you as an ongoing way of relating. This is what role playing is for matey.
posted by xarnop at 11:05 AM on February 28, 2013 [8 favorites]

You need to take a BIG step back. There's a lot of language in your post that indicates your relationship isn't very healthy:

we're each responsible for talking the other down off the ledge at least once

Hold on, there. Nobody is responsible for talking anyone off a ledge. And more than once?

After she became upset over a work incident, she took to her bed for TWO days and you called her therapist and her therapist in turn called her.

This is really, really unhealthy. First, taking to your bed for two days because you're upset about your job is pretty severe behavior. And that you, as her 4-month-long long-distance boyfriend, had to call her therapist to get her help? Really unhealthy.

But most importantly is that you see exactly where this woman is pushing your buttons, and you're allowing it to happen. You didn't respond to emails immediately and she thought you were breaking up with her? Why needs this type of partner??

I'm sorry if this reads as harsh, but from what you've written, you're allowing yourself to be pulled into a seriously dysfunctional relationship with someone who is going to completely drain you.
posted by kinetic at 11:09 AM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think I would tell her that based on the long standing friendship, which is strong evidence of mutual caring, you would like to give it a shot. Then explain some of the things that are a big problem for you.

The odds are poor that either one of you will "get better" and then seek a healthy relationship. I don't know any perfect people. I don't know any perfect relationships. These kinds of problems only really rear their ugly heads in a relationship and that seems to be where they really get worked out.

You need to come up with a better answer than rushing to assure her. It is unhealthy for both of you. You are too focused on making sure she has no "pain." Pain comes from somewhere. You need to be focused on where it comes from, not on assuaging her pain. If you don't answer your phone and she wigs out, you tell her honestly you were out, you aren't in the habit of answering your phone while out and it meant nothing. Remind her you have been friends for years and you aren't these other men. Give her a bit if time to create new, healthier habits.

If necessary, see a couple's counselor together. Find a way to break these habits for both of you.
posted by Michele in California at 11:28 AM on February 28, 2013 [9 favorites]

I don't think you should bail, you clearly care about her and want a future together. Of course, she is going to need support from you and others given her state of mind, but I'm willing to bet that anyone you meet will need some support along the way. The question is how much are you willing to do? I don't think people necessarily become worse given the opportunity, like having an enabler, some people get better once they are assured they are in a safe environment. Plenty of people come from abused backgrounds and go on to have healthy relationships. That is a fact. Of course, some folks don't have healthy relationships at all, but there is hope. Give her more reassurance, time and get a promise from her that she will be trying her hardest to understand what is going on. She needs to do this for her own sake, and as long as she can see that what she is doing is hurting her, there can be progress. If she refuses to see she has a problem and get help and accept your help, well, that is another story. I hope it works out, you sound like a very caring person and deserve a loving partner.
posted by waving at 11:44 AM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I actually agree with Michele here, I think frequently people who say "You're relating in an unhealthy way, get better and then date" frequently have not lived with ongoing mental health issues that are resistant to treatment. I say that because it sounds like both of you have accessed therapy before and know all too well that is not a panacea for everyone nor does accessing mental health services create a linear path from "mental health symptoms" to "total self reliance" for every person. In fact it's quite common for mental health services to mostly assist with symptom management rather than turning mentally ill people into normal "healthy" people who think and behave like normal healthy people.

Regardless of whether you date her or someone else, you'll need some tools to make that safe for you and your partners, and so will she. I'm not going to rule out that you can make this work because I have no idea about that, perfectly healthy compatible people try at relationships and fail all the time, and people who are in really difficult spots wind up making each other happy and being good for each other despite all societal grumbling they're too dysfunctional to ever have a good relationship.

I do think you need to change how you relate to each others mental health issues and emotional crises though. I personally think it's ok to caregive for romantic partners but it needs to be thought through very carefully and it's ALWAYS important to ensure each person is taking every step possible to manage their own health and wellness and to not hurt or overwhelm the other with their needs or demands. People who know a lot about pain are often going to want to nurse each others vulnerable areas because in truth most of us do that for our romantic partners. Healthy people just have less to nurture and repair in each other and the burden doesn't seem so heavy or cause as many problems in the relationship. If my romantic partner needed to be talked down from a ledge, heck yes I would talk them down. But it brings to question free will and what you expect your partner to do with the free will she does have and how accountable they can really be for doing that. I would expect my romantic partner to do everything in their power to keep themselves alive and if they not only are drowning but they're shredding the life vest to pieces and spitting on the lifegaurd trying to pull them out of the water I'm going to have a problem with that. Try relating to your partner with the idea that you CAN have behavioral expectations, you CAN break up if those aren't being met, and you're going to have to shake up the "we NEED each other" way of relating to "we WANT to be with each other for xyz reasons". I don't think there's anything wrong with carrying a romantic partner in times of need or being carried in times of need. The problem is understanding under what circumstances this would make sense and under what circumstances you being manipulated into carrying someone because they simply find it more convenient for you to... and considering there is a world of mental health and other services out there, those resources need to be part of the picture. It feels good to need and to be needed. But you're going to have to learn to asses your own needs, what you're willing to do and what you're not willing to do- and give her some expectations of what things you want to see her do when she is down (that you will also agree to do when you are down).
posted by xarnop at 11:55 AM on February 28, 2013 [7 favorites]

I say that because it sounds like both of you have accessed therapy before and know all too well that is not a panacea for everyone nor does accessing mental health services create a linear path from "mental health symptoms" to "total self reliance"

Definitely true. Therapy has been of limited help to me, but Al-anon helped me immeasurably with situations very similar to the OPs. Whatever works! Maybe some people have magic therapists, but with the exception of a brief and situation-oriented foray into EMDR, I haven't been so lucky.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:12 PM on February 28, 2013

I guess to pick up on xarnop's theme, you can be mentally ill as an ongoing condition of your life, but you can still do that in a healthy way or a sick way.

Honestly it seems like you're getting drawn into doing this the sick way.

I think malicious people should be summarily dumped, but it's not at all clear to me that this woman is malicious. She is however drawing you into situations that harm her and you. So, you either develop a plan to handle this stuff in a healthy way and you stick together on it, or she turns out to have gone too far down the black path, for now, to be safe with you or for you.
posted by tel3path at 2:20 PM on February 28, 2013

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