Hello, friends. In episode 314, I received a question from struggling to support their autistic partner through their past trauma, which in turn is negatively impacting their own mental health. In this post, I talk about the importance of good communication and outline the options to help move forward.
Hi, Dr. Mr. Señor Monsieur Duff,
My partner has birth-onset bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, as well as autism. We live in a Southern US state, and finding a therapist who is willing to work with her is impossible (she’s seen 10 different therapists, and BetterHelp didn’t work.) She’s recently been remembering and trying to work through a truckload of trauma from her youth, and while I try to be supportive, it’s ALL we talk about. All roads lead to Traumatown. It’s getting to a point where I hate talking at all now. I feel horrible asking her to stop, but she needs more than just me and that’s been difficult to find. But I feel like if this keeps up, I’ll stop wanting to be with her. I suffer from severe depression (unmedicated), and it destroys my mental health to talk about nothing but trauma. But I also love her and want to support her the best I can. Help?
Thank you for writing in and for caring to figure out the best ways to support her. Definitely a tough situation for her not being able to find an appropriate provider in the area. Your concern here is definitely valid, and I don’t want you to be ashamed to ask something like this. It’s a lot of emotional burden to take on. You care, but you are not her therapist. And you also have your own limits. That’s totally okay.
The autism piece of the diagnoses you listed is probably a pretty big piece of the equation here. People with autism are all different, but many people have a tendency to fixate on specific topics or interests. They might also have trouble understanding the nuances of communication with people that are neurotypical. The social thing means that your partner may have a hard time reading your cues. Things like body language, sounds you make, etc that would indicate to me that you are getting worn out or that you are focusing on something else may just not come across to her. As a result, she has this important topic that she is understandably fixated on, which she may not be able to recognize isn’t always the appropriate thing to talk about so extensively in every situation. So, when you say that you feel terrible asking her to stop, you may actually be doing her a bit of a disservice by not saying something plainly. As I said, she may not be able to pick up the subtle signs that you can’t handle too much more of the trauma talk. If this were the case, she wouldn’t know that she is causing you discomfort.
I’m not sure what communication in your relationship is like to start with, so you’ll need to consider what ways of communicating have been most effective for you guys so far. But it could be the case that you need to be very clear and straightforward in letting her know that you need to talk about the trauma stuff less. You could say, “Babe – can I ask you to adjust the way that we’ve been talking lately? I can tell you’ve been processing and figuring out many things related to your trauma, but sometimes it’s a bit too much for me to hear about as often as I do. Is there a way that I could let you know when I can’t emotionally handle too much talk about trauma?” As I said, this is a totally valid concern. You are allowed to be concerned about your own mental health. Setting boundaries is an appropriate way to care for yourself. If there is a way that she could talk about it that is less intense for you, you might ask her to adjust in that way. For example, you could ask her to go less into details about the trauma that she’s experienced when talking with you.
Therapy and other external support
It’s too bad to hear that it’s been hard to find a therapist. I’m not sure if she has been trying therapists online (aside from BetterHelp), but if not, remember that the way licensing works is that you can see someone anywhere within your state. So, you might search for therapists in an area that has a more appropriate pool of providers. For example, searching for therapists near a big university or in a metropolitan area may prove to be more fruitful for this situation. Betterhelp is a good tool, but it’s definitely limited when it comes to more intence or complex issues such as autism or schizophrenia. I wouldn’t call it the tool of choice for those.
Aside from therapy, if you aren’t finding the right support, you may look to people like life-coaches or autism-specific programs near you or in other states. There are also possibly online support groups for trauma that you can find. You aren’t wrong that she needs another way to process this information. You can’t be the one to shoulder all of it and try to be there for her while still maintaining the other parts of your relationship. Again, in communication with her, try to be as clear as possible. You can say that she isn’t doing anything wrong, that you aren’t mad at her, and that you’re proud of her for processing things. And at the same time, you need to talk about trauma less for your own sake. If you can suggest concrete alternatives, that would be even better. It probably won’t solve the entire situation from the start, but you can remind her if it continues to happen or come up with a good way to signal that you are not ready for trauma talk. Saying something like, “Hey, I need a break from talking about this. Could you find another way to process like writing it down and we can talk about it when I’m feeling more stable?”
In the end, you are also allowed to not want to remain in the relationship. That doesn’t make you selfish or a bad person. Asking for what you need is a good first step, but if that can’t be facilitated, this might not be the most healthy relationship for you. Aside from moving on from the relationship, there’s also the possibility that you both need other sources of support and interaction. If your relationship is your primary source of interaction, social engagement, comfort etc. and it’s your primary focal point, it can be hard to cope with things like what you’re describing. But if you are spreading your attention and efforts elsewhere and you have other things going on in your life, it might not be as intense for you.
Overall, I think you’re doing a good job and neither of you are doing anything wrong. I think the primary takeaway here is that there’s nothing wrong with your concerns, but you do need to do a better job of communicating clearly, so that she has the tools to try to be the best partner to you.
You can listen to this on Episode 314 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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