What to do when your boyfriend or girlfriend is going through awful times and pushes you away

snowball18 asks: My boyfriend lost his sister 5 months back, his grandfather is in a hospital, his mother is depressed, and his parents might be having a divorce. I tried to support him all I could but he is letting out all his anger and frustration on me. I tried to be calm and even said sorry for mistakes that were not mine. I was crying in front of him because he had downloaded Tinder, and he tried to console me saying he just wanted to see what it was about, but I couldn’t stop crying and he got angry and was about to leave, leaving me alone but came back and consoled me. He has been sending some pretty inappropriate posts to my friends, and when I asked about it, he said he was just casually flirting and I should trust him. I did, but today I couldn’t handle it and behaved a bit cold, told him I don’t want to talk, and he got angry and blocked me. His behaviour has been fluctuating a lot – he is all loving one minute, and I say something or disagree on something, and he gets angry and doesn’t talk with me, but just ignores me. I get it, he is in lots of problems, but how do I support him if he acts like this? What should I do?

Hi snowball18 –

I am so sorry you’re going through this.  And I’m not surprised at all.

It’s very normal for people – and dogs – to act really awful when we’re experiencing something completely nuts.  In fact, I’d argue your boyfriend is actually going insane – in a way.

We all hate it when sad things happen to us.  But usually they’re things that fit into the way we see the world.  A person who drives on a fast freeway every day is in an accident that smashes up their car.  Someone loses a beloved grandparent who’s been battling an illness for years.  I think I’m going to get that last piece of pizza, and Handsome eats it without even looking at me.

But when bigger things happen, or (as in your boyfriend’s case) too many things happen at once, it does a lot more than make us sad.  Our brains actually have to reconfigure – our whole world changes, and we have to adjust to it.  We see this a lot with victims of war or terrorism, where their world literally has been blown up.  But it can come from other directions too – a spouse suddenly leaving their family, an unexpected death (especially of someone young and healthy).  A lot of people in my country went through this three years ago when everyone “knew” one person was going to win the Presidency, and another one did – one who most people were against, and tens of millions found repugnant.  Everyone had experienced elections being won by someone they didn’t like before, but not with such a shock. 

And your boyfriend has gone through – and is still going through – a series of those shocks.

So what’s going on in his brain?  Well, part of it, I’m sure, is about you.  I’ll bet he’s afraid to love you too much, as he’s experienced the shock and devastation of losing people he’s loved so dearly.  I’m sure he craves your caring, and resents that he does.  I’m sure he wants to feel free and unattached (which would explain the Tinder download), imagining that’ll feel like a break from all his misery.  And at the same time, I imagine he’s terrified of losing you, who’ve been so wonderful through all this.

Sounds pretty insane, doesn’t it?

So what should you do?

The first thing I want is for you to

take care of yourself.  Have you ever flown on an airplane?  Did you notice how they always tell the passengers, if the oxygen masks should drop, to put them on themselves first, before putting them on others?  (I’ve never flown, partly because of this – my nose is so long that those things would never fit me!)  Well I want you to do just that.  Yes, take care of him as best you can, but make sure you’re taking care of yourself first.  And that includes telling him how bad he’s making you feel, making him apologize, and perhaps snapping at him too every now and then!

But then, I also want you to do all you can to understand him.  To try at least – which is all anyone can do.  And when he does something completely ridiculous (like the Tinder), to realize it’s part of his desperate attempt to deal with everything going on. 

Do these sound like I’m contradicting myself?  Well, kind of.  But let’s come up with a couple of scenarios.  I’ll use the Tinder incident, since it’s so perfect for this.

First, you see the Tinder, you tell him off and storm away, and don’t return his calls for a month.  He feels even more alone than he did before, and falls into an even deeper depression.

Second, you see it, realize it’s just him acting out, and act as if all is fine.  He feels even more weird (you don’t care about it?  You must not really care about the relationship!), hooks up with some girls there he doesn’t even like, gets involved with one, and you’ve lost him.

Third, you see it, tell him off, insist he get rid of it… and then forget about it.  Because you know it was just him acting out.  He’s seen that you care, and he’s been “awakened” to a reminder that you’re an individual with feelings, and the world kind of makes sense again.  But also you’re there, loving and accepting him at his worst.

So it’s that third version I’m after.  Sure you should get mad, he’s looking at other girls!  And sure you should forgive and forget, because he’s going through the worst experience of his life.

But again, what I want most is for you to, when he’s really making you feel awful, go off and take care of yourself.  However you do that – night with girlfriends, a liter of ice cream, sad old movies… anything is fine. 

Because you are important to me.  And more important to him than even he realizes right now.

You’re Just Wonderful!


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