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The Do’s and Don’ts for Helping a Partner Who Engages in Self-Harm

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Self Harmby Lisa Ferentz, LCSW-C

As Valentine’s Day approaches couples become more mindful of the ways in which they can show their love through caring gestures and gifts. Flowers, cards, candy, and jewelry often communicate feelings of affection and gratitude. It’s easy to acknowledge and celebrate a meaningful relationship, especially when it’s uncomplicated and fulfilling. However, many people are in a relationship with a significant other who is grappling with some form of self-destructive behavior. This can manifest as an eating disorder, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, other kinds of addictive behaviors, or acts of self-mutilation such as cutting or burning the body. If you relate to this, you’ll understand that there can be a deeper and even desperate desire to “fix” or “change” your partner in an attempt to help them stop their destructive behavior.
One of the most important things to come to terms with is the fact that no matter how much you love someone, you don’t have the power to make them give up a behavior they are not ready to relinquish. And no matter how much your partner loves you, it’s extremely difficult for them to let go of a self-harming behavior that provides short-term relief or a sense of numbing or self-soothing until they have new, healthier ways of coping. Typically, the self-destructive behavior is just the symptom, and there are deeper, untapped, and unresolved issues that not been identified, processed, or healed.
Although it’s understandable that your love and concern gets harnessed in an effort to “help” your partner, it actually can set you up for feelings of resentment, frustration, anger, and helplessness when all of your attempts inevitably don’t work. These efforts are always well-meaning but they are often fueled by desperation and anxiety. If your loved one is entrenched in their self-destructive act, they may misinterpret your passion about wanting them to be healthy as judgmental, critical, or motivated by anger. They may accuse you of not being supportive or not understanding their needs and their pain. They might try to rationalize their behaviors as they look for ways to make excuses for or justify what they do.
It’s common for people who self-harm to downplay the seriousness of their excessive drinking, drugging, bingeing, purging, starving, cutting, or other addictive and self-harming behaviors. They also underestimate or are even oblivious to the impact their actions have on them, and on your relationship. Some people are in full denial about their behaviors, even when you have solid, objective evidence that confirms what they have been doing. When your loved one is invested in continuing their behavior, they may act in ways that are selfish and even attempt to “protect” their actions by lying to you. Without guidance, it is difficult for you to know how to respond.
Here are some Do’s and Don’ts that can help you gain clarity about how to navigate a difficult and emotionally charged issue:
DON’T:
•    Obsessively worry about your partner’s behaviors. This has no actual impact on their actions and can emotionally, physically, and mentally deplete you.
•    Attempt to motivate them through guilt by saying things like, “If you loved me enough you’d stop.” This always backfires and creates even more guilt that can fuel the self-destructive behavior.
•    Use shame or humiliation in an attempt to change your partner’s behavior.
•    Take their actions personally. It’s not about you, it’s about your partner’s own unresolved issues and pain.
•    Tell your partner that they are “sick” or “need help” as this can make them even more defensive.
•    Ignore your own responsibilities or right to self-care in order to “cover up” for your partner and the consequences of their self-destructive acts.
•    Collude with secret keeping.
•    Take on the role of being your partner’s therapist. You couldn’t possibly have the objectivity to be effective, and it’s not your job!

DO:
•    Let your partner know you love them and you care about their well-being.
•    Show compassion by letting them know that you understand the struggle they are grappling with and how challenging it can feel to let go of something they experience as helpful in the short-term.
•    Tell your partner that “they deserve support” when attempting to connect them to resources.
•    Communicate your belief in their ability to learn new ways to cope and to genuinely heal with professional guidance.
•    Be clear that it is not your problem to fix and you don’t have the power to change another human being.
•    Get the support that you deserve to safely process any legitimate feelings that surface for you, and to learn how to set and hold appropriate boundaries.
•    Know that you have the right to end a relationship when it is abusive, unfulfilling, one-sided, or when your partner adamantly refuses to do what they need to do to be healthy.

Lisa Ferentz is a nationally recognized Psychotherapist, Clinical Consultant, and Educator, specializing in the treatment of adolescent and adult trauma, abuse, and neglect. She is the founder and president of The Institute for Advanced Psychotherapy Training and Education, Inc. She was given “The Social Worker of the Year Award” by the Maryland Society for Clinical Social Work in 2009 and is the author of Treating Self-Destructive Behaviors in Trauma Survivors: A Clinician’s Guide, now in its second edition, as well as Letting Go of Self-Destructive Behaviors: A Workbook of Hope and Healing. For more information visit www.lisaferentz.com.