Dear Therapist: My sister's boyfriend is struggling a bit with his mental health and I've witnessed her take on a lot of his problems as well, which has taken a huge toll on her. He’s started to go out more with friends on weekends and drink a little more than he used to. They have stayed together because she's afraid of leaving him on his own, even though she is unhappy in the relationship. How can she be supportive without feeling like it's on her to be responsible for him?
Let me start by recognizing the uncomfortable position you are in by witnessing your sister’s unhappiness due to the challenges in her relationship. I can appreciate the concerns you have for your sister. Witnessing a loved one in a relationship that is affecting their own happiness can be a difficult position to be in by wanting to fix the issue for them while also being respectful of their relationship and of their ability to make their own decisions.
Your sister is taking on an unreasonable amount of responsibility for her boyfriend’s well-being at the expense of her own. She can support her boyfriend without jeopardizing her own mental health by setting boundaries and clear expectations in the relationship.
Setting boundaries is a way in which we establish limits on how we interact with others. Boundaries are meant to help preserve ourselves while maintaining a healthy relationship with the people around us. She can start by knowing when to set them: ( she may notice her needs aren’t being met, her happiness has decreased, or she may feel exhausted from trying to meet the demands of her boyfriend’s mental health that she isn’t able to prioritize her needs) Knowing how to set them: (assess if she is overcommitted herself and being honest with herself and her boyfriend on what she can and cannot take on, and being open with him about how his current actions are impacting her.). Additionally remembering why she set them: (let’s face it, many aren’t receptive to our setting limits on how they can treat us. She may get pushback from her boyfriend when she begins to set boundaries so it’s important to remember her “why.”)
You’ve also mentioned they have stayed together due to her fear of leaving him on his own and feeling like she is responsible for him. At times we do things for other people and think we are giving them what they need, but we are actually giving them what we think they need. Your sister can ask her boyfriend how she can support him and determine from there what she is willing to do, that once again, does not jeopardize her happiness and well-being.
It’s normal for her to be concerned to this extent for him and want to do everything possible to improve his mental health. His ability to change and address his mental health challenges are his responsibility and not hers, and the outcome of him not addressing these things are not tied to what she did or did not do. Given the mental health struggles he’s experiencing, she could even ask him what are his thoughts about his drinking and mental health and is he concerned about it. She can then assess his motivation for change. She may see an issue with something that he may not be concerned about, which will impact his willingness and ability to change the behaviors that are impacting his mental health as well as other factors in their relationship.
About the Therapist: Folake Ike is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and Certified Perinatal Mental Health (PMH-C) clinician. She operates her private practice in San Diego, CA, providing individual therapy services to women adjusting to the waves of life, or struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression.
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