Lisa Ferentz LCSW-C, DAPA

Healing Trauma’s Wounds

How to Help a Self-Destructive Partner (and What Not to Do)

Start by looking out for yourself.

Posted Feb 09, 2015

Sad woman sitting on when end of a couch with her knees folded up to her chest
Photo: Luis Sarabia, Flickr

Whether it be through flowers, cards, special dinners, or nights out, 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 grapples with some form of self-destructive behavior. This can manifest as an eating disorder, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, or acts of self-mutilation such as cutting or burning.

If you relate to this, from your own experience or that of a friend or relative, you’ll understand that there can be a deep, even desperate desire to “fix” or “change” the partner in an attempt to help them stop the destructive behavior.

One of the most important things to come to terms with is that no matter how much you love someone, you don't have the power to make them give up a behavior they are not ready to relinquish. And no matter how much your partner loves you, it’s extremely difficult for them to let go of a self-harming behavior that provides short-term relief or a sense of numbing or self-soothing.

Typically, the self-destructive behavior is just the symptom of deeper, untapped, and unresolved issues that have not been identified, processed, or healed.  

Although it's understandable that your love and concern get harnessed in an effort to “help” your partner, it actually can set you up for feelings of resentment, frustration, anger, and helplessness when all of your attempts inevitably don’t work. These efforts are always well-meaning, but they are often fueled by desperation and anxiety. If your loved one is entrenched in their self-destructive act, they may misinterpret your passion for wanting them to be healthy as judgmental, critical, or motivated by anger. They may accuse you of not being supportive or not understanding their needs and their pain. They might try to rationalize their behaviors as they look for ways to make excuses for or justify what they do.   

It’s common for people who self-harm to downplay the seriousness of their excessive drinking, bingeing, purging, starving, cutting, or other addictive behaviors. They also may underestimate or even be oblivious to the impact their actions have on them and on your relationship. Some people are in full denial about their behaviors, even when you have solid, objective evidence that confirms what they have been doing. When your loved one is invested in continuing a behavior, they may act in ways that are selfish and even attempt to “protect” their actions by lying to you.

Without guidance, it is difficult to know how to respond. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts to help you gain clarity about how to navigate a difficult and emotionally charged issue:

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 their 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. It's not your job, and you couldn't have the objectivity to be effective.
wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Do:

  • Let your partner know you love them and you care about their well-being.
  • Show compassion by letting them know that you understand 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” 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 that 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.

Facebook image: Song_about_summer/Shutterstock