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My boyfriend had a very traumatic childhood and some adult trauma. I feel bad for him but sometimes I feel more like his therapist than his girlfriend. How can I establish a boundary that has already been run over so many times (and uh, how can I get him to find a real therapist?)
– Pro Bono No Bueno
Dear Pro Bono No Bueno,
You happen to have come to the right place, because I’ve actually written an article for Dame about what to do when men try to use you as their therapist. Your situation exists within a cultural milieu where women are constantly expected to offer men free emotional labor. It’s important for women to be able to recognize when this is happening so that they can avoid the emotional fatigue that comes with it and challenge these longstanding gender dynamics, so kudos to you.
The best way to address this with your partner is probably to have a direct conversation with him about this pattern. You can start off by acknowledging that you sympathize with his struggles and wish you had the energy and expertise to help, but you unfortunately don’t. Try to avoid accusatory statements like “you always use me as your therapist” (“always” exaggerates the problem and makes the other person defensive) or “you don’t consider my feelings” (you don’t want to make any assumptions about what’s going on in his head).
Instead, focus on your own experience: “I’m dealing with a lot myself right now, and it can get overwhelming for me to hear about your trauma.” Or, bring it back to your concern for his well being: “I often don’t know how to help you or what to say, and that makes me think it’s important you talk to a professional.” If he’s someone who’s interested in examining problematic gender roles, it may also help to discuss how men are socialized to view women as free sources of emotional support and how empowering it can be for men and women to unlearn this behavior.
Even if this conversation goes well, there’s a good chance he might do it again out of habit. If this happens, gently point it out: “Hey, I know you don’t mean it, but I’m starting to feel like your therapist again.”
If he’s resistant to finding a real therapist, it may help to speak to him about why. Some people have had negative experiences with therapists or feel that therapists are there to pathologize or judge them. Remind him that there are many kinds of therapists out there, including those who avoid giving diagnoses and simply listen to clients and let them guide the session. A good therapist — when voluntary and paid — can change someone’s life.
If this continues to be an issue, perhaps you can seek out a couples’ therapist (you can find one by googling marriage and family therapists near you). This would give him some of the support that he needs and also give you two the opportunity to resolve this conflict together.
And make sure that you’re leaning on him for emotional support when you need it. It sounds like you’re someone who’s good at offering words of wisdom and compassion, so be sure that to the extent that you provide this for others, you’re receiving it as well.