On Healing 3/20/2006: He wants to help needy girlfriend

Dr. Dan: I read with great interest your last column about the woman who was traumatized when she was young and now suffers extreme abandonment anxiety. I felt as if I were reading about my own relationship with a young woman experiencing many of those same issues. And while your advice was directed at Barbara, I wonder what I am to do as the guy in the relationship.

My girlfriend is a wonderful person and I love her very much. She was abused at an early age and again later in life (as you said, girls who are abused in childhood are more at risk for being abused in adulthood).

I met her soon after her last boyfriend left her, essentially because he felt he couldn’t meet her need for attention and love. The same thing has been happening to us, and we’ve been separated more than once over her mood swings, outbursts, and unrealistic emotional demands.

And while she acknowledges that she has these issues and desires to get better, she continues to rely on me as a crutch to feed her need for security. I really want to be with her and help her to heal, but I don’t want to be a crutch. Still, she says she doesn’t know if she has the strength to pursue therapy on her own.

I am really at a loss. Should I stay with her and try to wean her off of me as a security blanket, or create distance for her to learn how to cope with her emotional distress?
– A Reader

Dear Reader: A person’s first responsibility in any relationship is to be honest – with oneself. You said she is a wonderful person and you love her very much. Do you love her enough to commit to a relationship with an apparently terrific, loving and disabled woman?

If so, I recommend you find a good marital therapist who is equipped to deal with complex psychological issues and begin to work on the relationship.

The behavior of the woman you describe sounds consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder or something called borderline personality disorder.

In the long run, both syndromes will require intensive individual psychotherapy. But a marital therapist will help you set boundaries and make the relationship feel safer for both of you.

That is easier said than done, and many people report they feel as though their partners are holding them hostage by their intense moods or even threats. But anyone in a relationship without clear boundaries is going to feel uncomfortable. This woman might sometimes feel out of control. So setting boundaries, while difficult to establish and even harder to enforce, is an essential first step.

Just as she must learn to tolerate her own anxiety about abandonment, you will have to determine how to bear your discomfort about saying no to her and maintaining your boundaries in the face of her intense emotions.

Eventually, she will be able to do her own work in therapy and not be as dependent on you.

But let me warn you – if you decide to stay, do so with integrity. Be in a relationship with the woman she is and not the woman you think she could be or will be.

Many men get involved with women whom they see as wounded, and then try to rescue them from their injuries. Please don’t do that. It’s disrespectful, and it almost always fails.

Which brings us to the second question. If her disability feels too overwhelming to you, the best thing you can do for her is to deal with it honestly. Having her “wean” off of this relationship is giving her a mixed message, not to mention that it’s pretty paternalistic. Often when one is in a relationship with someone who is this frightened and desperate, he or she stays out of guilt, or fear of what the other person will do if they break up. Neither position works. If you choose to say goodbye, do so with kindness.

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