As a psychologist who specializes in relationship issues, I see firsthand how some men and women go to great lengths to try to make a relationship work. Specifically, one of the most common trends I see in dating is the tendency for one person in a couple to try to help or save the other who is having emotional problems. This is what I call “playing therapist.” Please, if this is your issue, turn on the radio and you will almost immediately hear this narrative in song – and it almost always ends in heartbreak. The cold, hard truth: You can only help someone with problems if that person is willing to ask for help. When a boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife tries to help or save, they must understand that they are the wrong person to play that role. So, why shouldn’t you try to be the hero or savior and help them through their emotional problems?
You love that person, but love is not enough.
This is probably the biggest misconception about love – that you should go to the ends of the earth to help a romantic partner you love. Sadly, this is not a successful or psychologically healthy approach. In order to make a relationship work, each person needs to be clear on certain basic relationship principles from the beginning. Each person needs to be able to take care of himself or herself without financial or emotional assistance, and each person needs to deeply value the other person’s feelings. Love is not enough on its own, and you will better understand what I mean as you keep reading.
It’s a parent’s job to first teach a person life’s major emotional and moral lessons.
You may have met someone who is a rare gem, but who has major emotional issues. If you are a level-headed person yourself, you will probably see exactly what their problems are and you will have clear ideas about how to change their thoughts and feelings. However, that adult individual missed crucial lessons and moral guidance early in life, and as much as you try to be a Mother Teresa savior, they won’t truly absorb the lessons from you. What they need they probably didn’t get from a parent a long, long time ago. At this point, they will probably only truly be able to hear it and learn from it if the advice and guidance comes from a therapist, religious member of the church, or someone in a similar helping profession.
It’s not your job to get that person to a therapist or a priest.
Certainly you have ways to transport said individual to get the help they need. You could drive them to an appointment or walk with them to an appointment, but you’re not that person’s therapist or parent. Even a therapist can only be helpful if the person is open to help. (A great joke a professor of mine in graduate school shared: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? None. The light bulb has to want to want to change.) Don’t research places for them to get help or tell them you will take them there; tell them you need them to get help and that you are going to trust that they will do what they need to do in order to keep the romantic relationship healthy. (If they don’t, their inaction tells you what you need to do.)
Playing the role of therapist often results in your date no longer feeling sexually attracted to you.
If you act like someone’s unofficial mother or father, or you act like a therapist trying to help or even save them, your date will not look at you like an equal romantic partner. They will feel like you have your life together and have all the power in the relationship, and they will feel small and unable to be the partner you really want. They may not consciously choose to become unattracted to you sexually, but this result is a frequent consequence in relationships in which one person feels small and powerless.
The final way to decide when you should and shouldn’t help…
If the emotional problem with the person you’re dating is a small issue – your date does specific behaviors that bother you but don’t rise to the point of total deal breakers – tell them how you want them to change that specific behavior. But if the emotional problems with your date are big – fear of abandonment, major insecurities or a substance problem, for example – tell them you think they should talk to a professional; give them time to work on changing; and then decide in a month or two whether they have changed enough for you to happily stay!
Dr. Seth is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, Psychology Today blogger, and TV guest expert. He practices in Los Angeles and treats a wide range of issues and disorders and specializes in relationships, parenting, and addiction. He has had extensive training in conducting couples therapy and is the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.