Always needing a rescuer?
February 11, 2014 8:20 PM   Subscribe

My significant other (female, early 20s) is amazing in all respects, but whenever faced with a problem whether large or small it seems like her instinct is to depend on other people to come and rescue her. What is this called? How do I help?

She struggles with anxiety, and so insignificant things (to me) like getting a strongly-worded text from her boss become a full-grade world-ending problem, with her repeatedly sending an insane amount of messages, texts, and emails to me to try to get me to drop everything and "take care" of her, which I do when I can but is not always possible. I gather that this has worked for her with her parents up until now. I feel like when I give into it, I am encouraging an unhealthy dependence on other people.

I have trouble explaining to her that I can't drop everything every time something comes up for her, and that depending on other people to solve your problems every time is a really dangerous way to approach life.

I'd love to learn more about this concept of always needing other people to come to your rescue, as it is very different from how I was raised. I think my parents made a point of putting me into situations and explaining that I should fend for myself. It is also hard because it seems like her anxiety turns every problem into a life-or-death situation, and that is not always the reality.

I'm having trouble conveying the importance of an independent strength, or even the terminology.

Any help?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Learned helplessness? It was first identified by Seligman and Maier.
posted by scody at 8:26 PM on February 11, 2014 [13 favorites]

I was also going to say "learned helplessness." Researching anxiety treatments might be helpful for you, too -- generally, the more quickly an anxious person gets rescued and/or abandons an anxiety-provoking situation, the more it increases their anxiety next time.
posted by jaguar at 8:50 PM on February 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Mod note: One comment deleted; just saying "dump her" is not so helpful.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:50 PM on February 11, 2014 [7 favorites]

I had a friend like this, when I was in my early 20s and she was like 19-20. She eventually grew out of it and is now my rock.

My tactic back in the day was let her vent, on the theory that she just needed to get it out of her system. It usually worked, and what's even better, a decade later she does the same for me.

Is she specifically asking you to do actual tasks, or is it just moral support that she needs?
posted by Sara C. at 8:53 PM on February 11, 2014 [12 favorites]

Is she specifically asking you to do actual tasks, or is it just moral support that she needs?

I was wondering this myself, since I used to date a guy who accused me of always asking him to fix things for me, when I had actually never done so. He had assumed that whenever I mentioned anything difficult I was dealing with, it was because I wanted him to fix it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:04 PM on February 11, 2014 [37 favorites]

What is this called?

Maybe Dependent Personality Disorder? Depending on how bad it is.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:06 PM on February 11, 2014

I can't help a ton with the psychology here but one thing that you could look up is catastrophizing. Sounds like this is something she does.

I can understand the impulse to learn more about your girlfriend's various issues though I do hope you keep in mind that you likely aren't equipped to help change these behaviors and she possibly needs to work with a professional and/or seek a partner willing to acquiesce to her demands.
posted by JenMarie at 9:25 PM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was definitely like this around my early 20s, and a lot of it had to do with not having good ways to deal with my anxiety, so I sort of just threw up my hands and tried to get someone else to deal with it so that I could go hide under a rock. Once I dealt with my anxiety problem, it became almost a non-issue.
posted by Sequence at 9:36 PM on February 11, 2014 [8 favorites]

I think being in your early 20's and being female is a recipe for anxiety because in a lot of ways, you are preyed upon by others. Everybody wants a piece of you, is competing with you, or seeking to dominate you in some way....

Life experience helps. So does getting older/older looking.

Be kind when you explain whatever you have to explain?

But, no. I don't think this deserves labeling.

In fact, it helps A LOT to know people are in your corner throughout this stage. So please take that fact under advisement as you proceed.
posted by jbenben at 9:46 PM on February 11, 2014 [15 favorites]

fwiw...The Karpman Drama Triangle was used by my counselor to illustrate certain behavior labeled as 'rescuing'. As described to me - in a relationship context - a participant gets 'stuck' in one role (sometimes reliably moving between two). The practical guidance given me was, 'stop playing those roles and the qualities of the relationship will necessarily change.'

This derives from transactional analysis, of which many elements are out-of-favor, but has (at least) this particularly useful surviving concept. So perhaps this idea can be a vehicle for you to drive deeper meditation or discussion.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:47 PM on February 11, 2014 [7 favorites]

People are different, and you two are definitely different from each other in the way you look at life. She wants a White Knight - she wants to be the darling of someone who wants to show her off and take care of her - probably very much like her father does - or grandfather or some other older man.

She wants an older man; she really isn't very interested in being independent and standing on her own. Being proud of herself as a can-do-it-all type person has no appeal. She wants a man who's been raised in an environment where the man earns the living, the woman keeps the house and raises the children and the man protects and cherishes his wife.

There are men out there who want to fill that role, even though it's way out of style today.

You need a woman who's oriented to be all she can be, someone to whom you can be a "partner" - and there are plenty of women out there who are looking for a partner just like you.

Honestly, I just doubt that you'll ever change her and she certainly won't change you. The fact that you think she needs changing and you want to help her do so puts you right smack dab in the father role you're not interested in being, and I'll bet she thinks you need changing.

I think there's room for both types of people in this world, but you two seem to be mismatched. Maybe it's time to find someone else. I don't think there's any point to therapy and redirection and personality disorder diagnosis in this case, though, of course, that's just IMHO.
posted by aryma at 10:19 PM on February 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

I think people in their early 20s have lots of growing and changing and learning ahead of them. I've changed lots! I am much more resilient and resourceful and confident now in my early 30s than I was at that age. If your girlfriend struggles with anxiety she probably has a bit of work ahead of her. Is she doing that work? Does she know she struggles with anxiety?

Where does the trouble come in explaining this? Is it hard for you to say it or does she not take it well? Or does she seriously not get what you are talking about when you raise it?

I don't know if it is a show stopper for you two, but I know for me it took a LONG time to learn certain things and someone further down the track got the benefit of seeds that were sown in those earlier situations. I got some really crappy templates for life from my parents, they stick pretty hard. You don't indicate she's otherwise into 'traditional gender roles' like armya mentioned, but it is a real thing that some women are taught it is unattractive to be self-suffient (yes, even still). Maybe she is just lacking some tools and skills?

In some sense what you're doing here is asking for a way to fix this for her. I suggest you instead start with telling her what it does to you and perhaps modelling non-freak out dealing with things. "Today the foo exploded. Boy it sucked, but then I bazzed and eventually we got there." Good luck with it. Things do change.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 10:36 PM on February 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Whatever the cause turns out to be, it's not, I don't think, your job to explicitly try to change her or teach her. Trying to construct your reactions to events like the ones you describe with pedagogy in mind is a bad idea, I think, for a lot of reasons. (May be seen as condescending or invalidating, for instance.)

I think you can help her out just by being honest about your boundaries and responses, so long as you express them respectfully. Based on how you wrote your question, I have every confidence you can do that. (Though that is a thing you could say, sometimes, when she's already set herself on course to do something constructive but is doubting herself.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:39 PM on February 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

When I have felt that a partner was asking more of me than I was willing to give, for whatever reason, what has worked for me is to decide how much I'm actually willing to give, and communicate those expectations clearly, and then stick to them.

For example, you might tell her that you're going to talk to her once a day at 7 pm, and you're not going to respond to personal texts/emails/etc until after class or after work. If she texts you during class or work, don't respond until after. When you respond, say something brief like "I got your texts and emails. Sounds like a sucky situation. Tell me all about it tonight at 7." Then call her at 7 without fail and let her vent without trying to fix the situation. Murmurs of sympathy are good. Mirroring her emotion is good (she says "can you believe!?" you say "no, I can't!") When tempted to offer a solution, you can say things like "what do you think you're going to do about it?"

Instead of trying to fix her personality flaws or build her life skills, just communicate how much support you're actually willing to give, and consistently follow through on giving that support. If that's not enough for her, she will figure out ways to get the remaining support she needs elsewhere. Maybe her parents, friends, a therapist, various coping techniques. But let her figure that part out herself.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:43 PM on February 11, 2014 [15 favorites]

You're doing really well in setting reasonable boundaries around your time and availability, and making it clear that you have your own needs which have to be met, such as the things you're in the middle of when she calls. I also like how you're refusing to take responsibility for managing her extreme emotions. With that said, it is also not your responsibility to tell her what the best ways to approach these problems are, to tell her that her anxiety does not reflect reality, to convey to her that being independent is important, and so on. These are her lessons that she has to learn.

You can and should validate her feelings, because they are very real for her -- 'that sounds very upsetting', 'sorry to hear that happened', 'that sounds very hard'. At the same time you should do what you need to do for yourself, without apologizing for it. "I'm sorry you're upset -- that sounds really hard. I need to stay at work right now, but I'll see you / talk to you tonight/tomorrow/whenever." No apology or bargaining, just a clear statement of what you can give, and what you can't. If she pushes, "I'm sorry I can't be with you right now, but I need to get this done. I'll talk to you as soon as I can."

Be prepared that she might take this as a sign that you don't care about her and freak out a bit. Anxiety is funny that way. The good thing is you get to have your own reality, anchored in your own perceptions and what you know to be true about your own emotions. You get to have needs, and that includes not dropping everything at a moment's notice, and that doesn't mean you don't care. It may take her a while to figure this out, but experience will teach it to her if she is capable of learning it. Just stay solid and grounded in yourself.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:44 PM on February 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Having a flight response to stress is fairly common. She just seems to have a lower trigger point. Nth-ing the idea that she try therapy (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy would be good I think, based on my experiences) to come up with better responses to stress. Like don't try to deny her stress, she is totally within her right to think "ahh, this is stressful!" but then have a way to address it that isn't just "SO, fix this/comfort me!" because you can't always be available. Small things affect us in different ways. I find sitcoms really stressful which seems ridiculous to my spouse, but it's a fact and he doesn't tell me that I shouldn't be stressed out by dramatic tension.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:49 PM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I very much agree that you shouldn't be the one explaining to her what's going on, but learning what's actually helpful in anxiety situations (versus what untreated anxious people think is helpful, e.g., rescue) can make you feel more confident in setting your own boundaries, because it will reinforce that your instincts in not catering to her desire to catastrophize are correct and that resisting her desire to pull you into her drama will actually help her long-term.
posted by jaguar at 11:21 PM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't assume that this is pathological. She just moved out of the house. If her parents took care of everything for her, it's going to take some time to get her sea legs.
posted by empath at 11:57 PM on February 11, 2014 [9 favorites]

There's a lot written here, and I've notice how sometimes the last answer builds on the answer before that and on and on...except that somewhere along the way the actual question has become fuzzy.

I have trouble explaining to her that I can't drop everything every time something comes up for her, and that depending on other people to solve your problems every time is a really dangerous way to approach life.

I think you said it right there. Use that.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:33 AM on February 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Aryma brilliantly pointed out that you actually are being quite fatherly and teacherly here, whether you realize it or not.

Please don’t even bother denying to yourself that you’re making a value judgment of her and her parents, because you are. Just come out straight and be honest about it, IMO. I really hate when people hedge and say things like, “I’m not really judging” when they clearly are. Just own that shit, okay? Straight up own that shit. You’re judging. You’re most definitely judging her here. It’s okay. But you need to at least realize you’re doing it.

I would very carefully weigh your pros and cons, because, as many others have pointed out, changing someone and “fixing” them is often near impossible (even for professionals) and it’s putting you, paradoxically, in the role you don’t want.

Another thing you might want to realize- it’s totally and completely legit that you’re annoyed by her. It’s totally and completely legit that you do not want to date a person like this, and this is not your ideal relationship/woman. But I would hold back on the absolutes- you’re kind of veering into, “I am objectively right, she is objectively broken,” and it’s just my opinion that kind of thinking can be dangerous. It is completely possibly that by most people’s standards she is very, very needy and possibly (although, to be honest, I really doubt almost everyone’s internet diagnosis of their S.O.) her behavior/mindset even has a psychological name.

It’s also completely possibly (and I probably would head a little in this direction) that she’s a fairly average but slightly more anxious than normal, young, scared, early 20s woman trying to navigate her way in the world, and most other people are going to cut her a little slack for that. It’s possible that she and her parents have a loving relationship that works for them and their family. I mean, I don’t want to lecture you too much- this does sound annoying, you have a right to boundaries- but I think in general in life it’s better to step back and be like, “from an outside perspective, maybe I could give her a little more leeway/benefit of the doubt.” That does not mean you are right for each other in a dating relationship right now, however.
posted by quincunx at 2:57 AM on February 12, 2014 [13 favorites]

I have trouble explaining to her that I can't drop everything every time something comes up for her…

Consider that while your girlfriend clearly has some issues, you may also have some, which her issues keep hitting on. Explaining that you can't drop everything shouldn't be a problem, you just do it. Presumably, you have work or school or various other schedule activities that you have to do. If you're at work, then you're at work and can't be spending hours helping her or leaving work.

And is is a matter of of you can't explain or she doesn't understand? It's not clear from your comments, though I suspect its the latter. I don't think you can make her understand, she needs professional help for that.

The best you can do is be explicit that you can not drop everything when she wants and then you have to stick to that. Enforce boundaries. If she's sending insane amounts os emails and tesxts, you have to ignore 99% of them. Engaging her like this just perpetuates the cycle of her sending insane amounts of messages. This may be hard, as you want to be there for someone you love and ignoring her at this times may make you feel like crap. If that's the case, you should consider whether this relationship is becoming toxic for you.

It's good to want to take care of your significant other, but you can't do everything for them and you also have to take care of yourself. Anyone who pushes those boundaries may not be right for you.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:03 AM on February 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Personally I wouldn't suggest therapy or suggest she change anything about how she handles stress at all. I would only suggest that she change how she expects you to behave in response to her having stress.

My suggested script:

Phone call/email/text: "Oh my god my life is falling apart please help"
Response (after determining that she is not dying and/or in danger): "I'm sorry, I'm a little busy right now, can this wait until I get home?"

At home: *Long sob story.*
You: "That sounds awful. Can I do anything to help?"

That's it. Don't make suggestions. Let her figure it out. If she needs something from you, wait for her ask you for it specifically.

And to be honest, if "I'm busy right now, can this wait?" doesn't work, then you just need to ignore her, and if that doesn't work, then you might want to consider heading toward the exit. If your SO doesn't respect boundaries and your personal space and time, then you are heading for a lot of pain in your relationship.
posted by empath at 4:23 AM on February 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

The thing is - depending on other people isn't always a dangerous way to approach life. As long as you have good people around you, and are also willing to be depended on, it's sometimes a great way to approach life - interdependent, sure, but not necessarily "helpless." It's called leaning on each other.

As your question stands, it's hard to know how she wants you to "take care of her." Just talk?
posted by corb at 7:02 AM on February 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

be careful about having expectations that people were learning the same habits or independence in their youth that you learned in yours.

in her family, maybe her parents handled a lot of things. she is still young and it will take her time as well as trial and error to learn how to handle stuff on her own. if she has been asking for a lot of help from parents or other people and that was solving the problems, she cannot un-learn to do this overnight. not even if you have the perfect terminology or the most eloquent explanation for why it's necessary to be more independent.

stick to listening to her and being empathetic and don't offer to do stuff for her. if she asks you directly and it's not something you want to help with, compromise and offer to do something else less involved that is still supportive. if she is contacting you too much in general you need to talk to her about that.

the fact that you phrased it this way "repeatedly sending an insane amount of messages, texts, and emails to me to try to get me to drop everything and "take care" of her," makes me think that maybe you two aren't a great match. sounds like you are having a stressful experience generally. and if i were here i would be hurt to read this.

you might be happier dating women who are older, more independent, and less anxious about handling their emotions/life logistics/errands/whatever she asks for your help with. it takes time away from family and living alone to learn to handle all that.

also, consider that this "my parents made a point of putting me into situations and explaining that I should fend for myself," might not have happened if you had a problem with excessive anxiety that turned little things into big worries, which is how you are describing your GF here.
posted by zdravo at 7:32 AM on February 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I would nth the calls to clarify exactly what your girlfriend is asking of you: is she asking for your sympathy? is she asking for your time? is she actually asking you to do things that it is not appropriate or practicable for you to do? Without some examples or explanation, we can't really judge her or your response to her.

Also, I would caution against looking for specific terms or explanations for her behaviour, because that veers close to armchair diagnoses that will not be helpful for you or for her. You already know that she suffers from anxiety, and that anxiety is severe enough that her ability to cope with stressors is impaired. If I were you, I would let her know that she has your love and support, but she needs to see a doctor who can diagnose her with authority and get her on the road to treatment.

In the meantime, make time for her to tell you her issues in a safe space where she can benefit from your love and support. You don't need to fix her problems, just listen and understand them.

You're right to be wary of her growing dependant on you, because that is unhealthy, but you should also be wary of leaving her to fend for herself, because that isn't healthy either. The old cliche of 'a problem shared is a problem halved' applies here - lending a kind ear and showing compassion for your girlfriend's emotions may help her feel validated, and over time you may find that her feeling validated gives her enough confidence to tackle stressors on her own.
posted by dumdidumdum at 7:41 AM on February 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Does she actually expect an immediate response? Can you clarify this with her explicitly: "You can text or email whenever if you want to blow off steam or feel connected or ask for support, but unless it's a true emergency I have to wait until I get home to call or meet with you about it."
posted by blue suede stockings at 8:16 AM on February 12, 2014

Have you talked about this in calm moments, in person? Or does it only come up when she is panicked and trying to get you to provide reassurance?

If the latter, try having a conversation when she is in a good place.

If you've already done this and she isn't understanding why you need boundaries around this, consider couples therapy.

I don't recommend making your point by diagnosing her. Stick to your needs and your comfort. "I handle anxiety like this. I care about you and want to help when I can. It puts a lot of strain on me when you won't accept that I'm not available. I can comfort myself and do, in addition to seeking comfort from others when it seems appropriate."

Not everyone learns good self-soothing skills in childhood, and the realization that those skills can be acquired, and are important, may not yet have happened for her.
posted by bunderful at 9:04 AM on February 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

First - most likely this is an immature and ignorant fallback on what has always worked for her. If so, she needs experience being a grownup. (And if she's seeing someone about her anxiety, you should probably talk about what's going on there - does not sound like she's using prepared strategies for managing the daily upsets.)

On the other hand, this type of helplessness is often a form of bullying and control.

And you, my anonymous OP, need to make sure you don't get anything positive from rescuing her. Anything that doesn't further her autonomy hurts her. Try to keep that in mind.

Either way, bunderful's suggestion and other tips for having her work through this apply.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:47 AM on February 12, 2014

Also, I would caution against looking for specific terms or explanations for her behaviour, because that veers close to armchair diagnoses that will not be helpful for you or for her.

Yeah, pathologizing other people's radically-different-from-your-own personalities rarely ends well if you want to keep them in your life, even if you don't come right out and say it to them. They know you're looking at them and treating them differently, with an even bigger hint of superiority than before.

The OP has the freedom to say no to his SO. If she's unhappy with her personality, she can seek therapy. If it's making his life a misery, he can manage his own reactions, suggest joint counseling, or end the relationship.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:09 AM on February 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

The thing is - depending on other people isn't always a dangerous way to approach life.

Yeah, but what happens if for some reason nobody can come to her rescue and she can't function without someone saving her? That's where the danger comes in. She needs to be able to take care of herself as much as she can before immediately looking for help.

My mom is like this--always demanding help if anyone else at all is around. She's like that because she's only had to learn independence in the last ten years or so. I'm not saying she can't function alone because she's had to learn to, but if there is anyone else around at all she will immediately be expecting and demanding they help her. I'm the opposite because most of the time if I need help I can't find it, so I've learned to not ask unless I'm freaking desperate. Different strokes and all that.

I do see the problem that she's never had to function alone before--and now that she has a boyfriend, she doesn't really have to learn either. I suspect you don't really learn how until you are hung out to dry all alone and HAVE to! I concur with Bentobox Humperdinck that you should limit your availability so that she has to learn to deal alone at least for a few hours. Maybe that will help break her in gently.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:50 PM on February 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just out of curiosity: How many years has she been on her own and how many years have you been on your own?

Any chance you're expecting a bit much in the way of maturity for a very young, very inexperienced woman?
posted by aryma at 9:44 PM on February 12, 2014

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