Ask Elaine: He worries dealing with trauma will hurt our relationship

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Dear Elaine: My boyfriend (of 3.5 years) and I both have past traumas. We have recently started to discuss them at a high level, taking our time and acknowledging the pain they bring up. I was able to process my trauma with a therapist before dating my boyfriend, however, he had not.

Unsurprisingly my boyfriend is now having anxiety and panic attacks. He recognizes that he needs to get some help from a therapist but he is nervous that “doing the work” may bring things up that could negatively influence our relationship. He wishes that he had worked through some of this before meeting me. What advice do you have for a couple that is just now, together, uncovering past traumas? Do you think this work has to be done alone? Or is it good to process it with your partner?

M.: It is actually a sign of a healthy relationship that your partner is able to recognize and communicate that his trauma is surfacing and that he needs help. We all enter relationships with some baggage. And it is normal to uncover new opportunities for healing with an intimate partner. When old wounds resurface in new ways, doing the work on ourselves helps us avoid creating unhealthy patterns, like codependency or trauma bonding.

Do not make the mistake of avoiding therapy for fear of losing each other. It will only jeopardize the health of your relationship in the long run. Ignoring anxiety or panic attacks will not make them go away. This is a wake up call to attend to his mental health and to grow, both as an individual and as a couple. Remember that no matter how much you love each other, you cannot heal each other. Healing is like schoolwork, and you are only responsible for doing your own.

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You should absolutely encourage your boyfriend to seek help from a professional. But a therapist and a partner must play two distinct roles. It is important to delineate them upfront. A therapist, in addition to being equipped with professional training to deal with the full spectrum of mental health issues, offers a different kind of psychological safety as an objective third-party expert with no personal stake. You can support your boyfriend by helping him research therapists to find and vet a good fit. You can also join him separately in couple’s counseling as he navigates his own path and to understand more about your attachment styles. But ultimately, he has to be ready to take on the commitment to his own healing. This is not work you can do for him.

I do believe that partners can play a significant role in creating an environment together that is conducive to this journey by modeling empathy, compassion, acceptance and boundaries. You can also help remind him when these tools are needed and celebrate his progress along the way. Since you have already had some positive experience with therapy, you can share some of the different methods that have been helpful to you. If being in two different places in your healing journeys feels intimidating to either of you, explore why. Talk openly about your fears in couple’s counseling. At its best, romantic love nurtures a deeper love for and within ourselves. But it cannot and will not replace the self love we are required to foster in order to love anyone else at our best.

True intimacy leaves you with nowhere to hide. I have a theory that meeting our soul mates can trigger our deepest wounds the most, not to torment us, but to call attention to what in us needs healing the most. Pop culture often depicts romantic love through a passionate or sexual lens, but intimacy is formed when we remove the masks we wear for the world and do the vulnerable work of healing what is underneath. This can feel terrifying and exposing. But when both people can lean into what comes up and fully commit to the work that is needed to grow, love can be the greatest classroom to learn more about ourselves and what we need.

Without knowing either of you or more about your specific traumas, I cannot say if your relationship will weather the path to improving your boyfriend’s mental health. But I can say with full confidence that you should support him in pursuing it anyway. Keep asking yourselves and each other the important questions and keep doing your own individual therapy. Doing your individual work is the key to unlocking the highest potential in your relationship.

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