Going to couples with SO who (I consider) needs individual therapy
February 9, 2024 8:43 PM   Subscribe

Help me to survive and maybe even thrive in couples therapy with my SO who (I strongly believe) would actually benefit from their own sessions.

This last year or two I have put considerably more focus on my own self-care, including regularly speaking with a therapist, changing my lifestyle and diet, and working on setting boundaries and changing my approach to key relationships.

Possibly partly due to this I have gained a lot more time and peace of mind to reflect on my repationship with my Significant Other, and begun to realize that our relationship problems do involve both of us, not only me.

Long story short, I Am Not A Therapist but I consider my SO to be suffering from BPD or something like it. They have been doing their own "internet diagnosis" (they told me and showed me the 10 second clips) but not seeing an actual live human to talk about it or AFAIK doing any personal reflection to actually work through their issues.

We have started seeing a therapist together for the second time - not a particularly experienced one but the best I could find.

The first time it was extremely painful for me, I got sucked into the BPD cycles very easily and came out fairly traumatised myself.

This time round I approached it by modelling the self-care and coping skills I have learned from BPD workbooks myself and got through the session calmly and expressing my emotions authentically.

But it was hard. Really hard. I still felt exhausted and emotionally raw.

Please give me tips *based on your experience* (I can go to my inner critic or ChatGPT for "reasons" I am barking totally up the wrong tree) for getting through this without burning myself out totally and maybe even helping my SO to start addressing their own past traumas (there are some big ones) and current self-defeating habits.
posted by KMH to Human Relations (16 answers total)
Best answer: First of all, it's great that you are going, and that your partner is going. I think for me, something that was important was to plan for the period directly following the session. Often, my partner would want to talk about what we had talked about. Sometimes this was really welcome, because I felt like the couples therapy had done the good work of helping me to be honest about something I would have been scared to bring up when we were alone, and the good communication pattern we had established in the therapy would hold over. But sometimes, it was really, really hard - far harder than the session itself, like suddenly all the risk of vulnerability had come back to bite me. In retrospect, I wish I had put in place a policy of some sort, to take a break and be alone first, or to make clearer that I might need to tap out pretty quickly.

All of this is to say, I don't know how you and your partner are currently handling this, but maybe if you knew you had some sort of safe relaxing thing waiting for you, it might help. In any case, here's wishing that the therapy is helpful, and that your partner realizes how much they can gain from pursuing it on their own as well.
posted by nightcoast at 9:14 PM on February 9 [4 favorites]

I was on the other side of this. My partner and I were in couples therapy. We were both seeing our own therapists. Mine was going nowhere, so I stopped. Then that became a thing in our couples therapy. It didn't help matters. Neither did my therapy. I changed my behavior anyway, hasn't mattered. The fact that I'm not in therapy has become a bigger issue that what therapy is supposed to accomplish.

Look for changes. Yes, good. No, OK maybe demand therapy. But forced therapy doesn't usually work.
posted by Windopaene at 9:56 PM on February 9 [3 favorites]

Best answer: First I would not carry the expectation around that couples therapy will only have any benefit if your SO is simultaneously doing individual therapy. That seems to be setting yourself up for failure. You don't know what this process will bring, maybe part way through your SO will decide to go to therapy themselves, maybe not. That is there decision. You can decide if that's something you can accept or not.

If therapy is tough right now, to be expected at the start, maybe space out the appointments more so you have more time to process.

Give yourself a little space and alone time for your individual processing.

Don't overly dissect each appointment afterwards either by yourself or together
posted by brookeb at 10:15 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: > especially do not diagnose your SO

Yes, this seems like generally good advice on the face of it.

But in my case, recognizing the patterns (after 10 years together!) and a coherent likely cause (known serious trauma) has helped me to take the pressure off of myself AND my SO a HUGE amount.

I know I'm not their therapist. Indeed I wrote that in the question.
posted by KMH at 12:16 AM on February 10

Best answer: When you think about your SO needing therapy, what is it you need as outcomes of that? These could be things in your ongoing relationship, or in and around this couples therapy.

The best way you can help them address their past traumas or current habits is usually not to do the work with them, but to communicate what's at stake in it for you.
posted by away for regrooving at 12:18 AM on February 10 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: >> what is it you need as outcomes?

I need to have that authentic listening time, as maybe someone mentioned earlier.

It's SUPER painful that SO is not apparently willing or able to also listen to me, but I am willing to deal with that given I have the therapist as some kind of support.

What I WANT is for SO to find their OWN happiness, WHATEVER that looks like, because at the moment they expect that of me (hence again why I understand this better through a BPD lens).

I am fully prepared for SO to take whatever paths works for them.

>> not to do the work with them, but to communicate what's at stake in it for you

YES. Thank you for putting it better than I could. That really helps.

I try to do this in little ways already.

I think therapy is partly about this authenticity too.
posted by KMH at 3:52 AM on February 10 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My personal experience has landed me very firmly in the position that it doesn't matter what you call it or why it's happening: if it is dysfunctional, destructive, or otherwise not working for you, the impact is what matters when it comes time to make decisions. You can communicate and make requests, and it's up to them to act. If they're not willing to make changes, or not able to, or not able to make changes at a pace that is survivable for you, you make your calls based on that. You can have empathy for whatever is shaping a person's unhealthy responses without it meaning that you have to stay romantically committed to them. I was with someone who was going to therapy and even making some improvements, but my therapist was clear with me, and I could see, that it would take them years of work to get to what felt like a safe and functional baseline to me, and I could not gamble myself and what the relationship was doing to my life on the possibility that they would one day get there. I did put in some time sacrificing myself on the altar of 'not being ableist' (this was one of my ex's favorite accusations in response to my voicing any objection to their behavior, because in their mind trauma was not just an explanation but an excuse, and something to be unquestioningly and unfailingly accommodated) and the result was, yeah, trauma for me.

Yes to establishing boundaries around revisiting what was discussed in sessions. Yes to dedicated time to reflect by/for yourself on how the process is going. I found that trying to be honest in couples therapy landed me in a world of trouble post-session, and that was.. good to know. Also, be evaluating the counselor's words and actions and don't take them as beyond reproach just because they're the expert. The couples counselor we saw said a few absolutely bonkers things that made it clear that they were not identifying the emotional abuse that was happening and that they were going to be validating things that were actively harmful to me. If you do have a PD situation, it's really important that you're working with someone who has experience in that area because it is just not the same as a non-disordered relational environment. I worry about the 'not particularly experienced' piece for you. It's great that you're noticing how exhausting the process is and how raw it leaves you. I will offer that this is not the way a good relationship should make you feel. Keep on with the noticing (document it if you're not already; looking at the trends can be powerful). Wishing you the best in your continued efforts towards tending to your own health and happiness.
posted by wormtales at 8:43 AM on February 10 [7 favorites]

Since everything from C-PTSD to NPD to actual BPD can end up diagnosed/misdiagnosed as BPD... more and more I'm hesitant to recommend couples therapy in situations where one partner isn't willing to actively address their own issues individually. Too often, it seems to end up with the partner that IS willing to work on themselves being victimized by the resistant partner.

Rather than get caught in the trap of recognizing traits and then "diagnosing" someone, it's often helpful to reframe it as "my partner has some of these traits, let me learn skills for surviving and thriving in a relationship with a person who has these traits". It sounds like you're already on that path, but you're discovering there are still boulders in the way, because those need a two-person lift. Or at the very least, you need your partner to stop sitting on top of the boulder, adding their weight.

Thing is, it's difficult if not impossible to move beyond coping techniques to actual relationship improvement when one partner isn't putting in something close to 50% of the effort. Seeking your couples' therapists help in encouraging your partner to address their own therapeutic needs might be effective; some choose not to even work with couples who aren't already in their own individual therapy.

It concerns me a bit that you mention the therapist is "not particularly experienced". If your partner's issues lead to abusive behaviors toward you, even an experienced therapist can miss those signs, and in effect, end up being an unwitting enabler of the abuse.

It doesn't matter what someone's trauma, mental health, or even neurotypical/neurodivergent status is, it is NOT ok for them to inflict any sort of abuse. If they are, and they're NOT willing to address the root cause, you have a problem that you cannot unilaterally solve, even with the help of a couples' therapist.

I'm NOT saying this is what you're dealing with. I don't know that. But there's enough suggestion of the possibility in what you wrote that I felt like it needed to be said.

Sometimes, we think (or are told) we're the problem, so we work on ourselves to make things better... only to come to a place where the only real option is walking away. That's something our individual therapists can help with, too - is recognizing and accepting when we've reached that point. The sunk-cost fallacy is an especially easy trap to fall into.

Remember, you can leave a relationship for any reason. ANY reason. Even ridiculous or petty or "you just don't want to anymore". You don't have to justify it to anyone.

And a relationship partner who refuses to even TRY to meet you partway? That's a pretty big reason.
posted by stormyteal at 8:52 AM on February 10 [5 favorites]

Mod note: Several comments removed. Please just focus on helping the OP with their question and avoid lecturing them about therapy or diagnoses. They've already addressed that, they're looking for other help.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (staff) at 9:16 AM on February 10 [2 favorites]

I suggest staying far away from diagnosing your partner, and focus on what you need in this relationship, what kinds of support you can offer to your partner about the things they choose to focus on. You are not a therapist, you are not a clinician, and diagnosing your partner is unlikely to support them or you. Practice noting your needs and asking for them.

I need to have less chaos in my life. I would like to ask you to find a way to manage x specific behavior so that we have fewer crises.

I care about you deeply and I hate to see you suffering. What supports can you imagine helping you and how can I help you to get those supports? Would you like any suggestions of other ideas?

Bring the couples therapist in to this process - they are the one who can offer specific therapeutic referrals - not you.

Best of luck to you - this sounds really hard.
posted by latkes at 9:18 AM on February 10 [2 favorites]

When I read your reply, i could see that you had already started to make the kind of shift in thinking that I was going to suggest. You know that you can't make them change. Instead, you can focus on using the therapy session to show up as authentically and as vulnerably as you can manage. You can talk to them about what is like for you when you when they do/doesn't do certain things and you're longing to be a relationship where you feel seen and valued.

Couples therapy can also be a place where you learn more about yourself. What gets triggered in you by SO's behavior and what you do to protect yourself when that happens. This will help you in whatever relationships your future might hold since these patterns have as much to do with you and your history as they do with SO's behavior.

Couples therapy will also give you a chance to get to know your partner better. Hopefully, they will let you inside and you will be able to understand better why they do what they are doing. In the best case, this understanding will help you give them more grace and they will be able express an underlying love that might not be showing much in the relationship right now. In the worst, you will have a better understanding of what is possible for them right now and that will help you assess whether this relationship has the potential to become what you want and need.

Finally, as an extension of all this, I would say don't focus on wanting him to be happy. They may or may not be able to make the choice for happiness right now. Be true to yourself and your own happiness. I assume there is enough good or potential good that it makes sense for you to stay around for a while and see what this can become. But as you find out more and see your partner's reactions, you don't have to wait for them to decide what they are going to do. At every point you have your own choice if you want to continue to stay or if you are ready to leave. That choice is based on SO's choices, of course, but it is your call, not theirs.
posted by metahawk at 11:31 AM on February 10

I'm sorry, but the cold hard truth here is that you can't change other people. You can't cajole your partner into changing, you can't logic your partner into changing, and you can't create a perfectly supportive therapeutic environment that will inspire them to change.

The only thing that you can control here is your own behavior. Use therapy as an opportunity to clearly state your needs and identify the behaviors that you are unwilling to tolerate. At the end of the day, though, your partner may well be unwilling or unable to meet your needs or address their trauma. That gives you only two options - leave, or stay with the expectation that things will never, ever change.

To a certain extent there's no way to make this less distressing - having difficult conversations and using emotional muscles that you haven't exercised in years is going to be challenging at first, but the more you do it the easier it gets. Breathing exercises, meditation/mindfulness, journaling, and other coping skills can all help lessen the intensity.
posted by fox problems at 12:27 PM on February 10 [2 favorites]

I would not continue seeing a therapist who is so inexperienced that you're leaving the session traumatized.

FWIW --some of my most productive experiences in therapy came about when I stopped thinking that "because I have x, I am y" and some of the most positive growth in my relationships came about when I stopped thinking that way about other people.
posted by sm1tten at 2:03 PM on February 10 [3 favorites]

As someone said above, you can't control other people only yourself. If your SO is behaving in a way that you feel traumatized then you should not go to therapy for couples but to simple get out now. Many couples who have gone to therapy end up breaking up / divorcing and that was facilitated by understanding what really was at stake and what could change and what would not. I think I remember previous posts of yours and nothing seems to have changed. Keep working on yourself that's all you can do.
posted by mxjudyliza at 3:57 PM on February 10 [1 favorite]

You’re in a dysfunctional relationship. It is such cause you’re both kinda forked. You’re doing the hard work to get yourself straight. Your SO isn’t. You’re not gonna be able to change them, but you’re are gonna need to be able to demonstrate to/show/explain to them that doing the work is the plan you’re on and very important to you and for the relationship to work they’re gonna need to do it too. The model is a couple of loving alcoholics, they need to get sober tougher, cause just one doing it is not sustainable.

SO doesn’t need to necessarily be in therapy, cause maybe not their thing, but you need them to be working on issues and making progress like you.
posted by ixipkcams at 10:23 PM on February 10

There is a lot going on here.

First of all, self-diagnosis as "BPD-ish" is really not going to work with something as serious as this. BPD is a serious psychological issue. This is not your responsibility to fix it, it is your partner's responsibility. "Couples therapy" is a trap here; when a couple goes into a joint therapist with one of the pair having a serious untreated issue, the sessions will invariably drift toward the issues of the untreated partner and further ignore the issues of the other. This is very bad. Continuing with such couples therapy is, at best, an indirect way of addressing your SO's problems at your own expense. At worst, it's hurting both of you and taking your money.

Another thing: this therapist sounds like crud. I echo the concerns of others that a proper therapist wouldn't do damage on the path to resolution. I would immediately work on how to disengage gently from this practitioner without it becoming a point of further relationship stress.

Taking you at your word, your partner needs treatment of some sort -- at a minimum, a diagnosis if there is past trauma and issues that are affecting them. And that would not be a stain on them, but it'd be hope for progress and resolution! I am going to refrain from further speculation, but you'll want any other diagnoses and treatments for your SO to be stabilized and working before having therapy on the relationship. It's cutting corners to start the couples therapy before personal therapy results have taken root.

Your description of your own trauma and unmet needs in the relationship indicates that you have very good reason to question continuing in the relationship. Is your SO's change a nice-to-have or a need-to-happen? I can't decide that for you. But if your gut is screaming need-to-happen then you cannot wait around for it. It may *never* happen. How do you survive these circumstances without burning out? Well, how haven't you burned out already?

I'll give your SO the benefit of the doubt and assume they will be focused and invested in this work. You can address the separate individual issues, then try another go around with couples therapy with a better therapist, and see if circumstances improve. Perhaps the situation will not require more drastic measures beyond that.

But you cannot lifehack your way out of a partner's acute failure to functionally maintain their own mental health & their close relationships. You do not owe it to anyone on Earth to be strong enough to survive the onslaught of a partner's dysregulation while permanently shelving your needs. If you haven't been doing so, you now need to treat your needs as critical. Your SO needs to be totally on-board with that, with action and not just words. You have my permission to rectify that logically and methodically, including pursuing a separation if your needs are not met. Do not back yourself into a corner by taking reasonable stakes off the table. Because that is definitely how you burn-out.
posted by brianvan at 3:18 PM on February 13

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