Who Helps the Helper?

My partner is by far the dominant personality in our relationship and struggles with crushing waves of negativity towards herself, but that’s not why I’m writing.I’ve read advice columns since I was a kid, I know all about how people don’t change in the fundamentals, and I long ago made my decision that even though I can’t and shouldn’t be responsible for convincing her of what a good person she is, I do see and appreciate her myself and it’s worth being there for her and supporting her however I can.

Here’s the thing, though: it wears me down. I wish I were one of those people who is totally secure in themselves and can provide support without being dragged under, but I’m just not. Add in two young kids with age-appropriately volatile emotions that have to be honored and managed as well, and I am watching my scarce time and strength drain out into the never-ending work of helping everyone else be okay. Sometimes it’s me who’s not okay, and there’s nowhere for me to put that.

What can I do on my own to maintain my own mental health? Can you recommend any good books?

Thanks,
Not Okay

Dear Not Okay:

Oh, honey. Have I ever been there.

And I can see how easy it is to get there, in small steps and stages. Someone has a rough week. Someone has a rough month. Someone starts just expecting that this is how it will always be: the person supported, the person supporting. “Someone” meaning “everyone.”

We fall so easily into these roles, and it’s so hard to change the dynamics.

Have you tried telling her you had a bad day and asking for a back rub?

Now, this seems like a simple enough and rather stupid solution, but what Ireally want to know is this: how did you feel when you read that? Frightened?Anxious? As if this were impossible?

If not, simply do it. Start asking for help and a listening ear. You’d be surprised by how asking for advice, a massage, help dealing with a kid problem, or just a ride to work can change such a dynamic rather quickly.People who are using their partners know they are using them. They at least subconsciously don’t like it much (assuming they are basically good people).They are often pleased by how good it feels to help someone else, or to offer good advice, or to lend an understanding ear.

But if you DID feel frightened, anxious, and as if it were impossible to ask such a thing of your partner, you may have fallen into a codependent dynamic with her.

I define codependency as a need to identify yourself as the Strong One saving the Weak One, or the Sober One propping up the Drunk One, or the Mentally Stable One supporting the Mentally Unstable One. It doesn’t matter which — whether it has to do with drinking, mental health, or even gender, it’s all the same. We have to be the one who you can always depend on. The one who will always come through. The one who always offers a shoulder to cry on or a hand up to people who struggle.

I say ‘we’ because I am a goddamned codependent myself, and I hate it.

While it is good to offer a shoulder to cry on, offering a shoulder to cry on and not mentioning that your own shoulder is actually dislocated is reallyreally crazy – and it’s not actually as helpful to the person who needs to cry.While it’s good to come through for people, when you are the only one doing this it hurts you (fills you with resentment) and it hurts them (fosters helplessness and dependence.)

So now I am going to say something hard: codependents are often at least half to blame for this dynamic. Or even MORE to blame.

Shhhhhhh. That’s actually good news, because that means you can do something about it. You can break the pattern. You can, you can.

The best book on this one is a classic: Codependent No More, by Melodie Beattie.

You’ll find a lot of pristine copies in used bookstores, because while I truly believe that people can break the pattern of codependency, it’s really hard.Sometimes people either find it too exhausting or they have so much invested in being everyone’s Savior that they just can’t change.

If you weren’t the parent of very young children, I would also suggest Al-Anon meetings — whether or not your partner drinks. (That part doesn’t matter. Codependence, as I said, doesn’t depend on a substance or an addiction. It’s a dynamic that turns into a self-identity.) If you work full-time, there are sometimes lunchtime 45 minute meetings in large cities that might really help. But I only suggest that if it’s possible. I know what it’s like to have kids take up so much of your time.

Now: kids.

Our relationship with our kids must always be one-sided. It is not codependent to put aside your crappy day to console a three-year-old who is utterly beside herself because her shorts are the wrong color. We have to be there for our kids, and we have to put aside our own needs for them, often.

That said: how much kid work do you do compared to your partner? Have you had a break from your kids for a day or two at any point in the last year?Some parents can’t afford for both to leave kids at home for a getaway, but surely you can get away for a night at a friend’s house?

And if the thought of leaving your kids with your partner is an impossible thought, and your children are both older than two, this means even MORE that you should do it. Recharge. Let your partner show you how responsible and caring she can be (and show herself).

That can be a first step.

This letter appeared originally in bitterempire.com on June 25, 2015.

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