Setting Sympathetic Boundaries
They aren't personal — they're just what they are.
by Bina Breitner
When Jess broke up with Vicki a month before their scheduled marriage, he was scared enough to seek counseling. For two years, he'd given her several thousand dollars a month, yet she always needed more. He'd just learned that her start-up company, in which he'd invested a lot of money, was defrauding its suppliers on her orders. And she continued to be "too busy" to spend much time with him. Altogether, he said, he'd awakened from a nightmare.
He'd almost married her! What had he been thinking? Or rather, why had he been not-thinking? He knew she was gorgeous and he was crazy about her physically. He knew he felt sorry for her childhood suffering and abandonment. He recognized his wish to "fix" her, because it resembled the 30 years of trying to fix his ex-wife, Karin. Both had been abused, both had addictions (Karin to alcohol, Vicki to spending money), and he'd hoped to make the difference.
We talked about his family, his mother's early death (in her forties, when Jess was a teen), the former marriage, his relationship with his dad, his children, his friends, etc. As with any family, there was a lot to know.
A few weeks later, Vicki asked if she could have one more month to clear out the storage locker he'd rented. He blew his stack and responded like a scolding parent: "Typical of you," "You'll have to pay for any extra time," and so forth. So we started wondering what triggered him.
It boiled down to his subliminal assumption that whatever someone else needed defined what he had to give. And that went back to his mother, as well as Karin.
During his mother's prolonged illness, his father had avoided his wife's distress. So Mom had turned to Jess. One moment during a hospital stay after a mastectomy, she said to him, "I feel I've lost my womanhood."
How was a 15-year-old supposed to handle that? He was overwhelmed, and he froze. His mother was suffering in a deep, important way, which he could barely understand, and he couldn't fix it.
Of course his mother never expected him to fix it. She felt it profoundly; he was there; she said it. As a caring, responsible mother (which she tried to be), she probably never imagined he'd take it upon himself — the idea was absurd. But he didn't know that. He heard the gravity of her distress, he loved her, and it felt like his to manage.
So he "learned" that what someone else needed defined what he had to give. At least he had to try. Her struggle was primitive and deep; his father wasn't there; Jess loved her and wanted to fill the vacuum.
Over time, this distorted sense of responsibility (which looked like generosity) made him untrusting. He kept giving to others, but what about him? Oh, well, that's the way it was. He was a healthy guy; he was loving; he could try. And the lesson had been obvious. Ask anyone whose mother has cancer — doesn't that trump his needs? And Karin's childhood had been horrendous — didn't that trump his needs?
Then Vicki, who had already disappointed him, asked for another month of storage fees, and he was enraged. Her need, again!
He realized all his efforts to fix other people's problems had failed. In hindsight, he felt like Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill but never making it to the top; every time the boulder fell to the bottom, he had to start over.
He did not want to do this anymore. What could he do instead with any future partner?
"Look for someone who doesn't need fixing!" he offered. I said that didn't exist. There's no one who doesn't need some kind of fixing. Better to learn how to manage it.
Start by acknowledging what needs fixing. Don't pretend it isn't there or that it isn't important. Don't pretend love will cure it. Sympathize with it, and validate it. That's basic emotional respect for the felt reality of the other person.
"But tell them I can't fix it!" Jess chimed in.
"Well, what about saying 'and' I can't fix it?" I asked. "If I say to you, 'I'm sorry you're depressed, but I can't fix it,' I'm defending myself, answering an implied request (from me or from you) by refusing it. I'm also making the conversation more about me, and what I can or can't try to do, than about you and your depression.
"It's different if I say, 'I'm sorry you're depressed, and unfortunately I can't fix it. I wish I could.' With that, I'm saying there are two separate realities: your depression is one of them; my abilities, or lack thereof, is another. Both are valid."
That's a bigger difference than seems apparent. "But I can't fix it" says, "Don't look at me! Not my problem! I'm sorry you're suffering, but, hey, all yours." I've been pushed (perhaps only by my own sense of responsibility), and I'm pushing back.
Sympathy followed by "and I can't fix it" is a statement of fact that includes both of us. I see your cancer, the after-effects of your terrible childhood, your anxiety.... And I'm clear about my limits. I honor your feelings, and I'll help you find what you need, but what you need does not define what I have to give.
This way I'm not mad at you, because I'm not under any pressure to perform miracles, and I don't have to try — and fail. Furthermore, since I'm not mad at you, I'm available to strategize with you so you can get what you really need (which is beyond my capacities).
Jess's mother needed her husband and/or a support group to help her accept her tragedy. Karin needed a good therapist (which she did eventually find). Vicki needed a therapist and a financial advisor. Jess wasn't any of those. But he'd been trying to be all of those, and more, for decades.
He could see the source of the misunderstanding. His mother was "losing her womanhood" just as his adolescent sexuality was developing its full strength. Was he bad, was he disloyal, if he moved into manhood, if he didn't stay with her emotionally?
Ideally, he never would have had to hear his mother's despair. But once he did, someone should have been there to say to him, "This is not your job. The person she should have spoken to is your father, her husband. You are not her life partner, you're her son, and you're in a different life phase — you don't have cancer and your body can't stay back with her. Your job is to keep growing, keep developing, become the best man you can be. I'm sure that is what she would want for you."
When I said that out loud, Jess started sobbing. He'd been torn about moving forward in his own life for four decades, because it felt like a betrayal of her. But it wasn't. He could sympathize. He could grieve for her and with her, and for himself (losing his mother was immense). And — had he known how — he could say to her, "I'm so sorry this is happening to you, and I'm unable to change any of it. I wish I could...."
Then it's clean. Still wrenching, but grounded. The cancer and everything with it belong to her. He and the other family members will live with their own consequences of her illness and death. He is not responsible for anything that's happening. He is heartbroken, and horrified by what cancer does to a body, and helpless, and bereft, but he is not responsible for what's happening or for fixing anything.
Taking on others' existential tragedies hasn't healed anyone. It's only made him feel excessively responsible, a failure, and distrustful of real intimacy. How much wiser to sympathize with others — and with his own limits.
Bina Breitner, MA, is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) in private practice in Tucson. She can be reached at (575) 538-4380, or (520) 820-7930, on Skype at bina.breitner, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.