Don’t Let a Loved One’s Health Problems Come Between You

Keeping a loved one's health problems from becoming a relationship problem.

Posted May 30, 2018

Kane I. Lynch, used with permission.
Source: Kane I. Lynch, used with permission.

Most people who identify as codependent admit to a personal history of trying to engineer the change of troubled or addicted people. They aren’t alone in trying to improve and fix the ones they love. But let’s face it: No matter our intentions and beliefs that we’re “right” in our recommendations, “pushing” our solutions is often fruitless and frustrating.

I’ve seen people with difficult-to-manage physical and mental health conditions (or hard-to-break bad health habits) who suffer in silence, without the support of some key people in their lives. They’ve stopped sharing their physical and mental health struggles with their friend or loved one because instead of the caring and empathy they seek, they end up feeling unheard, shamed, blamed, and disrespected. Meanwhile, I’ve seen people frustrated because their close other won’t follow their “excellent” advice. Sometimes they become so angry they withdraw their empathy and support. “What’s the point?” they say, “I want to help, but they don’t listen to me anyways, so there’s nothing I can do” (which, by the way, is untrue). Here are my suggestions for promoting a healthy helping relationship with a close other with physical or mental health problems:

Shut up and listen. When people share their difficulties, including their mental or physical health challenges, they aren’t necessarily asking for your advice or intervention. Most often they need empathy, or simply to talk things over. Resist your impulse to quickly jump in with solutions. Instead, say things like, “That must be hard” and “How can I support you?” 

Respect other people’s “health autonomy.” Once it’s evident the other person isn’t open to a particular solution or approach, don’t continue to push it. Adults have the right to manage their physical and mental health however they wish. They have a right to decline treatments, drugs, and lifestyle and dietary changes. They have a right to choose the approaches and strategies that are a good fit for them.

Consider that your loved one may have different values and priorities than you. It may seem obvious that the other person’s life would improve considerably if they would only [insert behavior here], but your solutions may not be a good or realistic fit for them. Their perception of the costs and rewards of your recommendations may make those solutions unacceptable to them. Meditation isn’t for everyone, pharmaceutical drugs may have unacceptable side effects, and depending on the person, particular types of health practitioners/practices may be a good or poor personal fit. 

Recognize that most of the time, you can’t scare, shame, or blame someone into good mental or physical health. They don’t need you to point out this wouldn’t be happening if only they had or hadn’t done “X” or that if they don’t do “Y” there’s bigger trouble ahead. All that does is make some people angry and more resistant to change. Sometimes all it does is make people feel badly about themselves, especially if they have low self-esteem or depression. When you do offer suggestions, mind your tone and don’t lecture. If you’re too emotional or authoritative, your “helpful advice” may sound like a shaming and blaming lecture devoid of empathy and respect. That’s unhelpful and hurtful.

Replace your frustration and anger with empathy so you don’t leave the other person without the support they need to cope with their condition or change stubborn habits. Again, while you may believe the other person’s life would improve considerably if they would only [insert behavior here], their perception of the costs and rewards of those recommendations may make those solutions unacceptable to them. Maybe you try to understand that. Also remember that you don’t do everything you should/could be doing to maximize your health. You don’t follow every physician or health practitioner recommendation. You, too, probably contemplate change for a long time before you actually do take action to change stubborn bad health habits.