Does Your Lover Double as Your Therapist?

Having someone to help you reach the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is one of the best things about being in a relationship. But when your lover crosses the line from "supportive partner" to "therapist", it can have catastrophic results - both for the relationship, and also for your health.

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One of the best things about being in love is that you have someone to share your days with. You have someone to enjoy the good times with, and someone to help you get through the bad. When it comes to the latter, having a supporter, a confidante, and someone who can wrap their arms around you is a godsend - in fact, having someone to help you reach the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is one of the best things about being in a relationship. But when your lover crosses the line from "supportive partner" to "therapist", it can have catastrophic results - both for the relationship, and also for your health.

Why it's bad for the relationship

About halfway through 2008, I fell into a spell of clinical depression. I should've gotten help right away, but at the time, I didn't know what clinical depression was - I thought I was just going through a rough patch as opposed to suffering from an illness - and when I was eventually diagnosed nine months later, my GP gave me some awful advice and told me that I didn't need to see a therapist. So from day one, instead of getting the help I needed, I sought my salvation from a close friend called Sylvia. She was a really good listener, gave really good advice, and always managed to fill me with hope that I would get better, one day. Over time, we started to develop feelings for one another; by the end of 2009, we'd become more than friends, and that was great. She was a terrific girl, and like I said, when you're going through a gut-wrenching time, it's a blessing to have someone to hold your hand through it.

But as 2009 bled into 2010, I continued to spiral further and further downwards, to the point where I was extremely suicidal on an hourly basis. And the more depressed I became, the more I relied on Sylvia for advice and support, and the more I came to depend on her just to get through each day. Our relationship became extremely unbalanced - instead of being on an equal footing, she was effectively my de facto therapist, and I was her mentally ill patient in desperate need of support. It got to the stage where I became very needy, and started asking too much of her. And when I did, she felt so pressured and scared that she started to pull away from me.

"Look, Danny," she said, "I know I've been distancing myself from you lately, but I have my reasons. You're depending on me more and more and . . . I care about you, OK, and I want to be there for you - but you've got to understand that it's putting a hell of a lot of pressure on me. I'm only human, Danny, and I'm not a qualified psychologist either. I'm doing my best to support you and help you get through this, but you have got to realize that it can be very hard for me, particularly when all you seem to feel is depressed these days. You're not even getting any outside help, so you're depending solely on me. It's all just a lot of pressure, OK? It's scary. It's too much for me right now and I don't know how to deal with it."

To cut a long story short, when she aired these sentiments, I started feeling too self-conscious and uncomfortable to open up to her any more. Not surprisingly, once we ceased being able to communicate, we slowly dribbled apart, and after a couple of months, we stopped speaking altogether. At the time it was devastating, because I knew I'd pushed a really good person out of my life, and there was no telling whether she'd ever come back.

Why having your lover double as your therapist is disastrous for your health

After things blew up with Sylvia - two years after I first started suffering from depression - I finally began seeing a therapist to get the help I so desperately needed. It worked wonders, and combined with me taking medication, reading self-help books, and making a number of positive lifestyle changes, I was able to recover, and these days am happy and healthy. After I'd gotten well again, I thought a lot about why things went awry with Sylvia, and also about why I never managed to get lastingly better during the first two years of my depression from 2008 to 2010. Interestingly enough, the reasons were the same:

Sylvia was doubling as my lover and my therapist.

Below is an excerpt from my memoir, where I recount something my psychologist Dr Gregor said to me about this very thing:

When you have a mental illness, it's great to talk to your friends, your partner and your family and to have their support, but it's never good to rely on someone to such an extent that they become a substitute for a therapist - which is exactly what was happening with you and Sylvia. It's not good for the relationship, as you've seen, and it's also detrimental to you on a broader level. When you have a mental illness and you rely on someone as a substitute for a therapist, then you're not getting the help you need. Love and support from the people closest to you is invaluable, but it can't take the place of professional help. It needs to be in addition to it, not as a replacement for it. Think about it, Danny: if you had a physical illness or injury - a broken leg, diabetes or cancer for example - you'd never refuse professional help and rely solely on the support of your loved ones to get through it. And it's exactly the same with a mental illness - nothing should take the place of professional help.

And that's why for the first two years of my illness I never got better. Sylvia was wonderful - as caring and supportive as a person could be. But she wasn't a therapist. And when you have a mental illness, unless you see a therapist and do the other things you're supposed to do to beat it, you never will.

So if you're suffering like I did, then don't make the same mistake. Definitely talk to your partner about it, but also make sure that you're seeing a therapist so that you get the expert treatment you need.

Like Dr Gregor said: if you had a broken leg, would you refuse professional help and rely solely on your lover to get you through it?

Of course not.

So why would you do so if you have a mental illness?


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