How to help my girlfriend overcome her past?
July 17, 2008 3:27 PM   Subscribe

Background info: I've been dating my girlfriend for almost 2years and we both love each other very much. However, every once in awhile she will get depressed because of her troubled past. She is my first girlfriend, while she's had a few bad partners who I would punch in the face if I ever saw them. Just to name a few, she was physically abused by one, had a "friends with benefits" she is extremely disgusted/ashamed about. Every once in awhile her past will come back and cause her a lot of suffering. I've been very patient, respectful, loving and understanding to her throughout our entire relationship. However, I feel helpless to help her overcome her past. I've suggested counseling but she thinks it won't really help. Has anyone gone through something similar? I want to help her but I don't know how? Do I just continue doing what I am doing? Thank you in advance
posted by HBomb to Human Relations (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You feel helpless to overcome her past because you can't. It's not your responsibility, nor is it possible. She has to deal with it.

Even if you were a trained and licensed therapist or psychologist, you might not be able to help her. We're frequently terrible at helping the people we love and want most to help.

Nearly everyone who chimes in here will suggest therapy. You know why? Because it works. Not for everyone, and not every time, and it can take a while to find the right therapist, but it does mostly work for most people. She's gone through all these years not having therapy, and that's not working, right? So give therapy a shot. The right therapist can literally take years of suffering off of you.

As for helping her - well, continue to be patient and loving and everything. But recognize that at some point, she has to want to help herself. Things like exercise, therapy, and medication (for some) can be hard and scary, but if she really wants to climb out of that hole and stay out of it, she's going to have to confront the devil she doesn't know, rather than sticking with the horrible one she does.

Good luck.
posted by rtha at 3:46 PM on July 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

patient, respectful, loving and understanding to her

Other than encouraging her to getting counseling - which will help - I'm not too sure there is much more you can do. You acknowledge she needs help in overcoming her past, but frankly, that may be better left to a professional.

When you say "her past will come back" does that mean that the ex-boyfriends creep back in? If that is the case, then consider encouraging her to not associate with them anymore. I don't know that your expressing that you would punch them in the face really helps things, but if that is how you feel, then that is how you feel. Just make sure you never, ever become anything like those people she is so ashamed of having associated with.
posted by jabberjaw at 3:47 PM on July 17, 2008

Not from personal experience, but anecdotally, counseling would be a good idea. Talk it through with her and build up her self esteem; also the past is past, let her look to the future with you.
posted by lungtaworld at 3:49 PM on July 17, 2008

I've suggested counseling but she thinks it won't really help.

This is a Problem. You, fundamentally, can't help her. You can try to nudge her in the direction of help but in the end it has to come from her own decision.

In similar situations that I've observed people have had to end the relationship because the other party would not seek the help they needed. I'm not suggesting an ultimatum or anything childish like that but be aware that refusing however politely or subtly to seek help is not a positive thing (and from my soapbox completely unacceptable in a relationship. But that's me not normative advice).
posted by Skorgu at 3:52 PM on July 17, 2008

You know what? Everyone wants to punch their SO's exes in the face. You're getting one side of a story that's always emotionally charged.

(You mentioned this was your first relationship, so just saying. It'll happen with every one, until you realize something odd is happening.)

I have friends who were, for example, tortured in foreign prisons or set on fire by their stepparents. They still manage to be functional human beings, though I don't expect them to magically forget their pasts... I don't know what "and cause her a lot of suffering" means in your example.

Are you maybe being too sensitive here, expecting her to never be unhappy? Unhappy is part of life. Maybe "getting over it" isn't as important in the wider picture as getting out of her way a little?

Sorry in advance if I'm presuming too much.
posted by rokusan at 3:54 PM on July 17, 2008 [4 favorites]

Here's a book that might help her sort some things out and get them back into perspective. Clearly she can't change her past, but she can certainly change the way she thinks about it.

But really, don't tie yourself in knots trying to fix this for her. All that's going to do is reinforce her present view that she is in some way broken. Her reaction to her own past is her problem - she's the only one who has it - and she will deal with it in her own way, in her own time. As a loving partner, the best thing you can do is just stick around and keep on being that patient, respectful, loving and understanding person your beloved deserves to be with.
posted by flabdablet at 3:55 PM on July 17, 2008

As everyone will tell you, this isn't something you can help her with.

I do feel bad for you though, as it isn't a lot of fun to be constantly reminded of your ex's life with other people before you. The most wonderful times in a relationship are often those seize the day, living in the moment kind of times.

As much as you can, I'd suggest trying to get a bit more zen and having as much fun as you can with her right now.

If that's impossible because of her emotional problems with her past, then her getting counseling is the only option. You can't help her, you're not a therapist, you're her boyfriend, and you deserve to be benefiting from this relationship as well.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 4:04 PM on July 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

It seems like she's grieving. Some people become trapped in a cycle where they never fully grieve, and so the feelings involved come up again and again, as strong as they were originally.

She might want to take some time to herself. Maybe she can journal about it, or dig out old photos or emails and reminisce and cry, or call a girlfriend and get really angry about what happened, or listen to the songs they used to like and remember how great it was to be together.

She needs to really dig into these emotions and process them so she can start to move forward from them. Sure, she'll experience regret or sorrow or anger or shame about them in the future, but she should actively work towards a place where those feelings, when they arise, won't negatively affect her life.

I don't see how it would be productive for you to be there for this process, or involved in it in any way. She's not going to be able to be authentic while you're around, and if she is authentic, it would be very hard on you. Unless you want to be there when she talks about how she really did love him, and that one time they had sex and it felt so great, and how he held see where I'm going with this, right?

She has these feelings and she needs to express them without you around to be offended or hurt.

Unfortunately, she seems to rely on you as her sole emotional support, which is a lot for one person. Make sure to take care of yourself and take breaks from her when you need to. Caring for yourself is your number one priority. You won't be helpful if you're messed up and upset and unable to function.

She should gather other resources --family, friends, pastor, therapist, support groups, these are all options for her. Of course, you can't make her do this, but you can encourage her to talk to other people when she's upset.

If you feel like you are the only one who can really help her, or you need to be there for her or she won't make it through, you should research codependency and see if it rings a bell for you.

Good luck.
posted by sondrialiac at 4:13 PM on July 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just to name a few, she was physically abused by one, had a "friends with benefits" she is extremely disgusted/ashamed about.

I think it's revealing that you — presumably echoing her — lump together one shocking, never-acceptable form of behavior with one that is an utterly normal and enjoyable part of many people's romantic histories, as if they were obviously similar. I guess I bring this up because it makes it clear that this is not a simple question of trauma --> effects of trauma. The issue is not "the past" but her present-day attitudes towards relationships (including past relationships) which are causing you both suffering. "Getting over" things that happened previously doesn't mean much if you two head off into the future of your relationship with these attitudes intact.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 4:19 PM on July 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Counseling. Neither you nor she is well-equipped to deal with it alone (or together.) Playing psychologist to a SO is hell, and usually a very bad thing for a relationship.

You can be supportive but should not bear the brunt. If she has insurance or can afford it (and will consent), therapy could be a Godsend.

I'd be choosy about the type of counseling, though. Many people have trouble with, for example, psychoanalysis, especially if they end up with a psychologist who sits quietly, says nothing and expects the awkward silence to provoke speech from the patient, and then waits passively to become the patient's father figure/confessor. Okay, that's an exaggerated scenario, but it happens more often than you'd think... and some people respond very well to it. Others run away and head for a social worker or someone else prone to discuss actively, or maybe to a cognitive behaviorist. Point is, shop around and don't be afraid to switch shrinks.

Best of luck.
posted by Shane at 4:25 PM on July 17, 2008

I agree with all the counseling suggestions. But to add something from a girlfriend's perspective: Having a partner with whom I felt safe, who I trusted, who never judged me, who was genuinely attracted to me, who appreciated me most when I was at my best helped me build up my fragile trust in men. You can't fix her, nor should you try. But being the best, most honest, trustworthy, supportive, reliable partner you can be will help her in her task if and when she tries to fix herself.
posted by JennyK at 4:34 PM on July 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

It's not up to you to repair her - this is her own past, and she needs to deal with it herself. All you can do is be loving and supportive, which it seems you are.
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:09 PM on July 17, 2008

Would you be more relieved or saddened if she walked out on you tomorrow? If relieved, then get out of the relationship - it's over. If saddened, then get her to seek therapy. If she refuses and this is still causing a lot of friction in your relationship, leave. Being with a depressed person who mulls over the past and doesn't want to fix it is not an easy life.

It's your first long term relationship, realize that you don't have any real obligations to fix people and your life is for you to enjoy.
posted by benzenedream at 5:50 PM on July 17, 2008

What is a "friends with benefits"?
posted by A189Nut at 6:02 PM on July 17, 2008

Just to name a few, she was physically abused by one, had a "friends with benefits" she is extremely disgusted/ashamed about.

I was going to bring this up, game warden beat me to it. Why is she "extremely disgusted" about having casual sex with a certain person regularly in her past (did the relationship somehow turn scary, or did she decide it was morally wrong for her to be having casual sex? or....???), and why do you want to punch the guy in the face?
posted by the bricabrac man at 6:30 PM on July 17, 2008

If I understand your question correctly it sounds like the real problem here is that she suffers bouts of depression. Are you sure that her past relationships play a significant role in this? Or is that just a cover?

Unless these past relationships are physically intruding into your own (i.e. ex boyfriends are showing up or still harassing her) I think you have to look more closely not at her past issues, but at what is her ongoing battle with depression.

Even the pain from very bad relationships should fade with time especially if she considers her relationship with you healthy and supportive.

My worry is that you're both using her past as an excuse for her bouts of depression. Depression can certainly have an emotional cause, but it's also a chemical issue. Depression, so severe that it is disrupting an otherwise healthy relationship, should not be left untreated.

You need to urge her to seek help. Unfortunately it sounds like she is incapable of taking the first steps toward getting help on her own - this is where you can help. You should take it upon yourself to find a place where she can get help. Do some research in your community, find a center or a doctor. Get all the information together (phone numbers, locations, etc.) and then lay it all down in front of her. Tell her, "I love you, I want you to try this even if you think it won't work, and I want you to do this for me and the future of our relationship."

If she won't do it then, you probably should re-evaluate your commitment level.

had a "friends with benefits" she is extremely disgusted/ashamed about

I too am troubled by this aspect. It's fine to be embarrassed by not-so-great past relationships, but "extreme disgust"? Then again, maybe she's just telling you this because she likes you more, but misses the hot, steam, dirty monkey sex she used to have with her friend.

"Oh that? Oh, it was disgusting! I'm so ashamed!" [Longing glance into the distance...]
posted by wfrgms at 6:57 PM on July 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Keep in mind, you can help her, but you can't fix her. As her SO, your job is to provide love, comfort, support, laughs and sex. Listen to her and hold her and make her laugh and you'll be fine.

In short, continue what you're doing and let her work out her issues.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:48 PM on July 17, 2008

I've been where you are. And looking back, at least 30 percent of the problem was me. Some of the "issues" were only issues because she knew i had problems with them. Other issues were real, and like your girlfriend, the person I was with refused to get counseling for the issues of abuse in her past.

There is nothing you can do. Your attempts to help the real problems will only make them worse, and your attempts to help the problems that are partially of your own creation (your first-relationship projections on her prior behavior) will only widen a rift between you. The only way to survive this is to create some space, and be her shoulder to cry on instead of being her shrink.

In all likelihood, she is broken, and unless you are broken too, this will end and she will go looking for someone else who is either 1) an abuser or 2) has problems of his own, so she can be with someone who isn't always fixed on what's wrong with HER.
posted by Happydaz at 7:58 PM on July 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Happydaz, can you explain what you mean when she says she is broken? I never understand what people mean when they say this. It doesn't seem like a very useful or helpful label.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 8:34 PM on July 17, 2008

How often is "every once in a while"? How much is a lot of suffering? Maybe you can talk with her and ask her what it is like for her when this happens. Is it a problem for her? If she feels like it isn't that often and isn't that bad (in other words, not interfering with her general overall enjoyment of life) then there is the option of deciding that it is OK that this happens. Yes, be supportive and everything but instead of thinking "Oh my g-d, she is miserable, somebody do something!", you might choose to stay calm and think, "She's having one of those bad days. She'll feel better soon."

On the other hand, if she agrees that she is suffering when this hits and it happens often enough that you are worried then she is probably has some really serious, unresolved baggage that she will need professional help to sort out. (And if there is child abuse or parental domestic violence then she almost certainly needs help.) She would want someone who has experience specifically in dealing with women who have been subject to physical and/or emotional abuse - there is a lot know about how women heal from those hurts and have the kind of healthy relationships that they deserve.
posted by metahawk at 8:35 PM on July 17, 2008

Being in an abusive relationship can taint a person's self-esteem for years. As a woman with a similarly troubled past and a former proclivity for abusive men, I can confirm that therapy helped me move on with my life and to help me fully appreciate the very sweet, gentle man (now my husband) who has patiently stood by me. He still wants to punch some of my ex's in the face, so I guess that is not an unusual response!
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:57 PM on July 17, 2008

Squirrel: By broken, I mean she is has a problem that is affecting her ability to be an equal partner in the relationship. Further, she cannot or does not want to seek professional help that would allow her to deal with her past and heal her. It seems these things can heal with time, but the problems almsot always outlast the current partner.
posted by Happydaz at 11:07 PM on July 17, 2008

OP, not me nor any of the other posters know what's going on with your girl. I can say this because I had a something going on in my early twenties that seems similar, and for a lot of what's being said up there, I'm going, "what? No!" like, disgust = yummy hot sex, for example. However, in the spirit of fairness, sure, I don't know that it's not a cherished reminiscence, and yep, my viewpoint could be way off.

However, that said, I shall tell you what i think anyhow.

Counselling helped me some, but the right counselling. It's so easy to end up seeing someone who says, "oh dear, don't worry, that happens to everyone" (no, it doesn't), "stop whinging and get on with your life" (gee, thanks), "you should go to church" (huh?), "I'd listen, but I need to take my lunch break now." (oh, so this isn't the helpline I thought it was.), and if your girlfriend has experienced any of these responses, sure, she's going to feel like counselling is not going to work. I would recommend to her that she seek an older female professional who is not faith-based. Secondally, the Dr Burns handbook everyone trots out is worth a look, particularly for why she is disgusted in herself. Hey, some people are raised (me too) with a really unpleasant view of sex, and can not (initially) see consentual experimentation as healthy as it is. Also, some girls are raised with the idea that sex is dirty, they should save themselves for marriage, girls who enjoy sex are sluts etc etc. Even if the girl intellectually disagree, I believe it takes a bit of work to get over the earlier messages that were embedded in the psyche.

I think you are doing a very much right thing. One of the reasons I think I feel so good about myself, and relaxed about my past is that I have a partner who loves me unconditionally, and isn't disgusted by me. It doesn't mean he cured me, but he certainly didn't put any stress on me getting past those particular issues.

Maybe look for some books that deal specifically with female sexuality. Vet them first. I accidentally gave some sex-development books to my kids that seemed fine but had very different values to mine in them, quite um conservative. Luckily my kids found these and we threw the books away, but your girl doesn't want someone else telling she's soiled, damaged goods etc.
posted by b33j at 3:31 AM on July 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

While you can't "fix" her yourself, you can be the supportive, kind, healthy, thoughtful, non-judging partner that she may not have had yet, and that she might not have previously believed she deserved. Don't underestimate that for a second. Just being a good partner can go a really long way towards adjusting's someone's attitude towards relationships and self-worth.

Like others have said, avoid putting your own judgments on her past. Wanting to punch guys in the face isn't going to help you or her. Really, it only reinforces whatever negative feelings she already has about them - and about herself for having chosen them.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:25 AM on July 18, 2008

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