Should I Ask My Boyfriend to See a Therapist for His Issues?

Should I Ask My Boyfriend to See a Therapist for His Issues
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I am a 25-year old woman living in North Carolina. I’ve been with my loving, consistent boyfriend (also 25) for a year now and I’ve been impressed with how easy and natural the relationship is. We live separately but see each other at least 2-3x/week and have keys to each other’s places. However, we spent the holidays together this year and it’s become apparent his family and childhood issues still haunt him.

His parent’s awful marriage and a genetic predisposition for mental illness left him in bad shape. I have no room to judge as the anxious child of a bitter divorce, but after 3 years of therapy and dozens of self help books I know I’ve done my part to become a healthy person and partner. He went to therapy as a child and a few times in college, but since then hasn’t been back.

Even though he has always been emotionally available, some of his habits make me want to ask him to see a therapist. He gets jealous even though he’s never been cheated on, and if he has one too many beers, feelings and tears usually follow. He often agonizes over what people think of him and will go to events he doesn’t even like so friends won’t be upset (and expects me to attend). When I ask him why he’s like this, he’s very self aware and explains to me how he’s feeling and why he feels that way. For example, he has jealousy issues from witnessing his father’s affairs growing up.

I love him and want to accept him as he is, but is it fair to ask him to go to therapy and at least try to work through these issues? If so, how can I approach the subject without making him feel attacked? We’ve already discussed marriage as a possibility in the next few years and I really want us to have a healthy relationship. Thank you!

Karima

I appreciate your sensitive and self-aware letter, and applaud you for getting the help you needed to become a healthier partner.

I, too, am a self-help person. Even though I grew up in a stable, loving family. Even though I was given all the self-esteem and resources one could ever hope for. There’s always something to learn and improve. You and I have what is known as a growth mindset.

My wife, on the other hand, is not a self-help person. She, too, grew up in a stable, loving family, and is generally a well-adjusted, happy woman. But when we were first dating, I’d hear her complain about her work and offer to help her communicate with her boss or maybe start her own company, and she’d immediately tune out. I’d tell her about a book I read or a seminar I attended and encourage her to check it out. Nope. Not interested. My wife has a fixed mindset. Change, in general, is unwelcome and scary. Probably comes from her family. Everything’s okay. Nothing to see here.

About one year into our relationship, I cornered my future wife on this question of why she refused to look inward. Her answer bowled me over.

“You do all this self-help stuff but I’m happier than you are.”

Mic drop. There really wasn’t much to say after that. I’ve largely stopped asking her to do formal self-help. But I still lapse into my ways — the self-help professional know-it-all, while she digs into what she calls “the most stubborn passive person you’ll ever meet” persona.

My wife may be crying because she’s tired and overwhelmed, but will she change? Nope. She’s going to do things her way, even if her way isn’t making her happy. I would guess, Karima, that most people are a lot more like my wife and your boyfriend than like you and me.

People don’t change because YOU want them to change. They change because THEY want to change.

I didn’t mean to hijack your story, because they’re not perfect parallels, but I do think it’s instructive to recognize something that is essential to understand about relationships. People don’t change because YOU want them to change. They change because THEY want to change. You can’t sign up someone with a personal trainer against her will. You can’t get a guy a better job if he’s too lazy or scared to change careers. And that’s the frustrating part of relationships with those who have fixed mindsets. The good part is that you know EXACTLY what you’re going to get from your guy in the future — more of the same.

So does your boyfriend need therapy? You betcha. Is it your job to force him to go therapy? No way.

If, in the context of a conversation where he tearfully describes how frustrated he is, and asks for your guidance, you can certainly SUGGEST therapy, but you can’t foist it upon him. That’s exactly what happened to me last December when my wife pulled a bunch of all-nighters due to stay-at-mom overwhelm. I saw this as my opening. I bought her a book called “Time to Parent — Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best in Your Child and You” for Christmas. It’s still sitting unread on her night stand. If it’s going to get read, I’ll have to do it and give her the Cliff Notes, which will be skimmed, but not absorbed. This dynamic will continue for the rest of our lives.

Long story short, you can’t save anyone from himself. Your leverage — if you choose to exercise it — is to let him know that because you want to build a stable, happy marriage, you’d like him to look into some form of self-help that will ensure success for both of you.

If things are that bad — and you really don’t feel safe in staying if he doesn’t change, then, well, you’re going to have to walk away and find a man without his issues. The question is whether you’re willing to do that, and no one else can answer that question except you.

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Comments:

  1. 1
    S.

    Huh. This situation is very familiar to me because as Evan says very few people have growth mindsets. I often get torn between accepting the person as they are and also having a front row seat to witnessing their suffering. I think it depends on the depth of suffering and how much it bothers you. If the person is really in the depths of despair and/or you are really hurting watching them sort amble through it, you have to go.

    If the person has minor issues and it’s just minorly annoying to you that they have no wish to improve you might be able to live with it. Like Evan, you just have to not be troubled too much that suggestions and books go unread and unacted upon. With your guy, he’ll keep being jealous and anxious to please his friends. Whatever you do, don’t think he’ll change this because of how much he loves you. That’s not the right reason, anyway. He should change for him, not anyone else.

    My last point about what issues you can live with–these are his. Can you live with them if nothing ever changes? Because the next guy will have issues too. Just maybe not these. The next guys issues may be even more difficult to live with. Or less.

    Growth mindset people can be annoying in their way when they are pushing *you* to grow before you are ready. Just a matter of which mindset you prefer to live with in your life’s partner.

  2. 2
    Noquay

    Karima

    I too come from an abusive family background, actually two of them, so I feel I can speak to this issue. When you have had a bad upbringing, there are two things you generally do; one, break free of the family dynamic and perhaps the family entirely, work on yourself so that the cycle of abusive/bad behavior is broken; two, you stay in the family dynamic emotionally and remain affected although you’re now an adult. Folks that do this tend to perpetuate the cycle of abusive/bad behavior, although they may be unaware of it. You and I are the former, your boyfriend is the latter. Hardship can make folk strong or it can devastate them. Evan is right; people resist change. You cannot force or fix folk to self improve or force them to get help. Another obvious issue is that your boyfriends locus of control is entirely external; he gets all his validation, sense of worth from others. This is very unhealthy.

    You say you want to accept him as is; that is the person he is right now and it didn’t read as though you’re OK with him. Your choices are to embrace him wholeheartedly as is or to walk away. Again Evan is right; you can suggest therapy but don’t expect him to jump on that bus unless HE really wants to change. I don’t know if you’re seeing him as potential husband/family material but if so, proceed with extreme caution as nurturing behavior is learned, not instinctive, and it doesn’t seem as though he was nurtured himself.

  3. 3
    Kath

    @Karima   – I applaud your maturity and coming to terms with your upbringing and doing the necessary inner work to become a well adjusted adult. You are fortunate to have become of age at a time of growing awareness of mental health. I have to agree with EMK here; your boyfriend has to come to his own self-realization. Love alone will not be enough to keep you together. He has some deep-seated issues that only intensive therapy will help him – but, he has to be willing. If your boyfrend won’t, and you continue this relationship into marriage, you are in for a rocky ride. I’m saying this from a place of experience, having been married 18 years to a man from an alcoholic and avoidant home. You both are still young. Do not rush into marriage. See if he will consider therapy-especially if he knows that it could mean losing you if he doesn’t.

  4. 4
    Clare

    I’ve been in relationships with guys who desperately needed therapy but wouldn’t go. Once I practically frog-marched an ex-boyfriend to a therapist’s office after the third suicide threat when he’d stayed out half the night and had me out of my mind with worry. He went a few times because I insisted, but of course, he didn’t keep going.

    Of course, I agree with Evan, in that you cannot foist therapy or self-help on someone. The desire and motivation has to come from them, and you can certainly offer encouragement and suggestions. As to whether or not you should stay in a relationship where a person needs help but won’t get it, that is very much a personal choice and also a question of degree. Some anxiety and depression and a bit of tearfulness and people-pleasing is probably surmountable. If they are abusing substances or becoming aggressive or controlling or jealous because of their issues, these are good reasons to leave.

    If your partner is simply struggling with their own issues, but they are not inflicting their problems on you too much, I would say there is another option to possibly effect change, and that is to lead by example. I too am a very growth-oriented person and I have sometimes been able to inspire a friend or family member because they see a particular strategy working for me. I think a lot of people do not learn or heal by  talking  about something, as in a therapy situation – they learn by seeing something done in practice and then trying to apply it in their own lives. Some people are more practical and visual and perhaps feel frustrated by the idea of talking about their feelings for hours on end. But again, the desire and motivation to change has to be there somewhere.

  5. 5
    Stephanie

    Karima, I agree with the others that you cannot ask him to get therapy. However, it is perfectly reasonable for you to talk about how his words and actions make you feel. Jealousy is toxic to a relationship and it is appropriate to tell him that you are hurt and/or upset by his jealousy. Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements to get your point across.

    I think you still have some work to do to be a healthy partner. Don’t we all? As I said above, jealousy is toxic and the feelings/tears that come out when he is drinking may be a sign of depression, PTSD or some other mental health issue. Some of the other things you said, however, sound more like your own pet peeves than serious mental health issues. Everyone is insecure about something and it is unfair, not to mention unrealistic, to expect someone to self-help away all their faults. If you can’t accept the fact that he goes to parties in order to avoid upsetting his friends or that he worries too much about what others think, some of this is on you.

    Therapy is not a magic bullet. It is often the best option; it is sometimes the only option. It is not a cure-all. He may not be fixable even if he wants to be “fixed.”

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