Today I’m thinking about this: It’s possible to love someone, hugely and entirely, and not love every single thing about them.
We see romantic declarations in media where a woman feels insecure about herself and lists off a few flaws, and her romantic interest insists that he loves ALL of her, including her flaws, because they are what make her the person that she is!
Now, that’s a totally valid way to love someone, if you actually do love their flaws. It’s not difficult to find charming an aspect about a person that doesn’t impact your happiness. But sometimes we love people who have problems that make our lives extremely difficult. That’s when we have to do some mental and logistical gymnastics.
- Mental gymnastics, in that we need to do the math to decide if that aspect of our loved one is impactful enough that we may need to take a step like ending a friendship.
- Logistical gymnastics, in that we need to make accommodations and changes in order to get around the inconvenience of that aspect.
Something I want to make clear: I am NOT talking about stubbornness or rudeness or unkindness or a willful lack of respect or safety. Those are things about a person that they can control, and you are allowed to expect them to change in ways that show respect towards you. I AM talking about things like addiction or trauma or mental illness. This is not a thing that you can change about a person. These are things that may be positively influenced through hard work, therapy, and time, but are not things you can ask a person to stop.
You can’t ask a partner to stop having anxiety. You can’t tell a parent to quit an addiction cold turkey. You can’t berate (or love!) a friend out of depression. And obviously, these are things that largely affect the people who are actually dealing with it. It is far worse to have anxiety than to love someone who has anxiety. But let’s be quite real here: it affects everyone.
I’ll use a personal example, so it doesn’t look like I’m attacking anyone. I have crushing anxiety. I take a mild SSRI to help control it, so *mostly* I don’t end up sobbing at my desk at work in the middle of the day for no explainable reason. But there are some nights when I am unable to, say, go to a gathering that I planned to go to (and let me tell you, the fight between social anxiety and breaking-plans anxiety is a MESS), and a partner is left in a sticky spot. Do they drag me to the gathering, knowing I’ll be paralyzed and nauseated? Do they stay behind, and miss something they want to do, and deal with my guilt all evening? Do they leave me behind and go to the event, and know that I’m home crying furiously? There isn’t really a good answer for them. They can’t just tell me to stop being anxious. But neither can they fix this situation in a way that allows everyone to be happy.
This is an instance where that partner of mine is allowed to be upset that I have anxiety. Not angry at me – no, it’s not my fault – but there can be some serious fallout when a loved one has an illness.
So what can we do about this? Well, both “not much” and “a few things”.
Like I said, you can’t love someone out of a mental illness. So there’s not much we can do about that. But if you have a loved one with a problem that negatively impacts your life, don’t lie to them about it. They KNOW that their trauma or illness negatively impacts you, and if it causes you trouble and you lie and say that you’re fine with it, they won’t trust you to set appropriate boundaries in the future. Use your judgement, but be honest, if possible. Say “yes, this is difficult for me,” because once you acknowledge that it’s difficult for you, you can then start looking for solutions or support. If you keep quiet and say that you’re fine, you don’t have an outlet for your stress.
Ways to get support when your loved one’s difficulties make your life stressful or hard:
- Reach out to friends. Vent, if nothing else, to people who understand that you’re stressed.
- Set boundaries. Understand that it may hurt your loved one, but that taking care of yourself is EXTREMELY important. You can’t pour from an empty cup.
- Help your loved one find a broader support group. You can’t do all of the supporting yourself. In the above example about me and my anxiety, one potential solution is for my partner to help me text a friend to come over to be with me, to distract me from being alone and upset while they go to the gathering.
- Find a balance between being honest about how it’s hurting you, and not blaming them for dealing with trauma or mental illness.
- Have hard conversations in advance of logistical conversations. Give them time to process between saying “this is hard for me” and saying “how can we make modifications to meet both our needs?”
TL;DR You don’t have to love someone’s trauma or mental illness, and you’re allowed to be hurt by things that other people can’t control.