DEAR CAROLYN: My partner has what I believe to be untreated anxiety (I am not a medical professional). Whatever the root cause, he often has varying levels of mini-meltdowns when things don't go exactly as he envisioned or fall short of his expectations. I can mostly handle these moments, though they are often unpleasant. However, at least a few times a month, my partner tries to kick me out of our shared bed to sleep on the couch because I am "giving him anxiety." I hate this; if he needs to control his environment 100%, then he can choose to sleep on the couch. I took this stance last night, and he stormed off only to wake me up at 3 a.m. screaming to get out of the bed — which I eventually did, once I convinced him it was a concession I could make if only he asked politely and stopped framing it as the result of behavior on my part. He is otherwise a loving, supportive partner and we are talking about our future together. I have begged him to get professional treatment, but he flat-out refuses to see a doctor. He is a small-business owner and I believe the economic crisis from the pandemic is exacerbating his symptoms. Is there anything I can do here beyond leaving the relationship? I do love him deeply.
ANONYMOUS: I am so sorry.
Small-business owners are under enormous stress right now. And while I, too, am without credentials, I have spent time with anxiety up close and it does indeed rob people of their flexibility to handle the disappointing and unexpected.
But we can be sympathetic without subjecting ourselves to people who take their stress out on us and allow their emotions to go unchecked. He can't fix the economy or the pandemic and he didn't choose a mental-health challenge. However, the way he treats you is right before his eyes. He can hear himself blaming you and kicking you out of bed. He can see you suffer from his actions.
This is where the line has to be.
Even well-meaning people can make mistakes or fix on irrational things. We can love imperfect people because there is no other kind. That's why we have to look to their actions after a mistake or misbehavior for cues to what to do next.
I'm not even talking apologies, because those can be insincere, self-serving, abuse-perpetuating. I mean this:
1. Recognition of harm done;
2. Acceptance of responsibility for their own actions and feelings;
3. Absence of a pattern. If you're tiptoeing around something? Pattern.
If there is a pattern of mistreatment, then:
4. Recognition of a need to change;
5. Willingness to humble oneself to the process of change — or else it's just a performance by someone committed (wittingly or un-) to doing the same harm;
6. Enough progress toward change to make a credible case it will happen.
To stay together without these, all of them, is for both of you to tolerate your harm.
And that's when you need to channel your inner Samantha and say, "I love you, but I love me more." ("Sex and the City," meet 2020. Yikes.) You can love your partner utterly and still need to leave, if you're the only one taking care of you.