Helping a partnerAs Valentine’s Day approaches couples become more mindful of the ways in which they can show their love through caring gestures and gifts. Flowers, cards, candy, and jewelry often communicate feelings of affection and gratitude. It’s easy to acknowledge and celebrate a meaningful relationship, especially when it’s uncomplicated and fulfilling. However, many people are in a relationship with a significant other who is grappling with some form of self-destructive behavior. This can manifest as an eating disorder, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, other kinds of addictive behaviors, or acts of self-mutilation such as cutting or burning the body. If you relate to this, you’ll understand that there can be a deeper and even desperate desire to “fix” or “change” your partner in an attempt to help them stop their destructive behavior. Here are some useful Do’s and Don’ts that can help you navigate this challenging issue without personally burning out.

DON’T:

  • Obsessively worry about your partner’s behaviors. This has no actual impact on their actions and can emotionally, physically, and mentally deplete you. 
  • Attempt to motivate them through guilt by saying things like, “If you loved me enough you’d stop.” This always backfires and creates even more guilt that can fuel the self-destructive behavior.
  • Use shame or humiliation in an attempt to change your partner’s behavior.
  • Take their actions personally. It’s not about you, it’s about your partner’s own unresolved issues and pain.
  • Tell your partner that they are “sick” or “need help” as this can make them even more defensive.
  • Ignore your own responsibilities or right to self-care in order to “cover up” for your partner and the consequences of their self-destructive acts.
  • Collude with secret keeping.
  • Take on the role of being your partner’s therapist. You couldn’t possibly have the objectivity to be effective, and it’s not your job!

DO:

  • Let your partner know you love them and you care about their well-being.
  • Show compassion by letting them know you see the struggle they are grappling with, and how challenging it can feel to let go of something they experience as helpful in the short-term.
  • Tell your partner that “they deserve support” rather than “they need help” when attempting to connect them to resources.
  • Communicate your belief in their ability to learn new ways to cope and to genuinely heal with professional guidance.
  • Be clear that it is not your problem to fix and you don’t have the power to change another human being.
  • Get the support that you deserve to safely process any legitimate feelings that surface for you, and to learn how to set and hold appropriate boundaries.
  • Know that you have the right to end a relationship when it is abusive, unfulfilling, one-sided, or when your partner adamantly refuses to do what they need to do to be healthy.

What “Do’s” or “Don’ts” would you add to this list?

14 thoughts on "Helping a Partner Who Engages in Self-Destructive Behaviors"

  1. Kelly says:

    Thank you!

    1. lisaferentz says:

      You’re most welcome Kelly.

  2. Chance says:

    This is a very helpful article. I really think this will help me learn how to better love someone in my life. Thanks!

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Thank you for your response and the clear compassion that you are demonstrating!

  3. Diane Richmond says:

    wow this is something I needed to see, I have been experiencing this, and it is written in a very easy way to understand, I was sexually abused as a young woman, and it has affected me in my relationship, even though I went through the sexual abuse program, it was not enough. So reading this makes me understand my partner I am sure he was abused also but does not talk about it.

    1. lisaferentz says:

      I am so glad you found this helpful and hopefully it will allow you to continue to grow and heal in your recovery!

  4. C says:

    Husband and I have been together since 2001 and married for 11 years. In April, my husband finally admitted to having an affair with a friend of mine which I had suspected and challenged for a long time. I know our relationship was going down hill and part of it was due to me. Anyway, I have been through a lot of trauma in my childhood from age of 6 months to 16 years being one thing after another. I managed on my own not out of choice but simply because I was on my own and believed I made it proudly as a “normal” person, found my perfect husband and at last my perfect life where there was no drama or trauma.
    We had couple counselling for a short while after the affair was revealed but moved on to and individual counselling on my own to revisit the past and find new healthy life paths. I feel I am getting no where as there is still the uncertainty of my husband not knowing what he wants to do and I feel it is dragging me even more down right now. I wish he understood that all these years, I did not lie to him, I did not mean to hurt him and that I am working on new ways but it would be nice to actually see some compassion and hear sometime that although hard, it will be ok. I then often think that his love for me has gone and it is too late. Feels like making one step towards getting better and then 100 steps backwards.
    He believes that by me getting better, he will get better and what I see is the total opposite.
    If you are the one facing someone going through trauma recovery, don’t ignore them. Don’t ignore the pain and recluse yourself. I know you are most likely desperate for answers, you want your share of happiness and want to protect yourself from pain and hurt but the one in front of you is 1000 times worst off and doesn’t know how to be, what to think or sometimes even how to love. I wish I had a normal life growing up, I do. Do I want to be in this predicament for me and my husband… no! but it is reality and won’t go away.
    I just keep praying that he will one day understand and we can move forward. Till then, I hurt even more reading what he possibly could do to help me and help him. After all, it is allowed to dream 😥

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Thank you for sharing such a personal and difficult experience. I think the most telling sentence is your husband’s belief that if you get better than he’ll get better. In truth, it doesn’t work that way. You are only responsible for you, and no matter how hard you work, it won’t change his behaviors, feelings, or thoughts. He has to do that himself. My hope is that you’ll find the courage to not own his work, and that he learns to take responsibility for his own actions and personal growth.

    2. Jeff says:

      I’m in awe of how close this statement is to my life. I’m the husband and the cheater. Married 11 years as well. So much confusion around my life in a relationship with a victim of trauma. We are in counselling now but the damage is done. I see the person she is and have nothing but regret for not seeking help before I myself floundered mentally…the trauma shapes every aspect or our lives I see now.

      1. lisaferentz says:

        Jeff, thank you for your courage in taking responsibility and being accountable for your actions. You are right to suggest that trauma impacts so many arenas of life, which is why it’s so important to continue the conversation and encourage healing. I wish you all the best in your journey.

  5. Monica says:

    I appreciate the end statement about also being allowed to leave a relationship that might be too one-sided to fix if the other person isn’t willing to change or hasn’t come to grips with their destructive choices.

    1. lisaferentz says:

      As difficult as it can often be, leaving a relationship that is unhealthy is incredibly brave. I think clients sometimes need permission to not keep running up against an immovable brick wall!

    2. Christina says:

      The author’s permission to leave is the part of the article that touched me most, as well. I deeply love a person who was abused as a child and he can’t seem to untangle love from violence and conflict. That’s only one part of him, and there are a million ways he’s a wonderful partner and friend. That one dysfunctional part (which is not even his fault) is devastatingly damaging and I can’t seem to help him get a handle on it. I have a strong sense of loyalty and compassion and reading that a professional says it’s ok to leave is comforting to me. Thank you so much.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thankyou, this is very helpful. I have been dealing with this for 2 and half years now. We are engaged and getting married next year. Although i am trying to now figure out how to deal with my trauma of what has happened in our relationship up until now whilst trying to support him as much as i can i now feel destroyed. Low self esteem, trust issues, worry and concern that destructive habits will arise again. And now that im the one that needs support he cant seem to give it. I enabled his behaviour for so long that i lost myself.
    I dont know what to do. I love him so much but dont want to enter a destructive marriage.

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