Dear Carolyn: Is there a limit to how long one must indulge their partner’s grieving period?
To make a long story short, my boyfriend’s father committed suicide several years ago, before I met him. He is a great guy, but he has used the suicide as an excuse or justification for a lot of his own problems since we’ve been together. He was having trouble finding work, and it was because he was depressed about his father. He often gets into tiffs with his mother and brother, and it is because his family won’t let him express his resentment of his late father. Most recently, he agreed to an errand his grandmother asked of him without regard for our (long-standing) plans that day, and when I asked him about his reasoning, he said he wouldn’t have to help her so much if his father were still around.
Help! I feel like a callous and coldhearted person when I think about bringing this up with him, but all of the aforementioned situations were actually due to his inaction, his speaking without thinking and his trouble with saying “no” respectively, not his father. I know that he is still very sad, and I am willing to support him through that, but I feel like he is using the tragedy as a get-out-of-jail-free card to avoid having to deal with his own problems.
Is there a kind way to express this to him, without sounding like I’m trying to invalidate his grief? Or am I just made of ice?
A: His inaction, his speaking without thinking and his trouble with saying no could all actually be due to his unresolved grief (or depression) from his father’s death. So, while your concern might be valid, what you see as a cause might actually be an effect.
Fortunately, if anything about this sad story can be fortunate, it’s that it’s easier to bring compassion to an inquiry from the you’re-acting-injured angle than the you’re-injuring-others position. Compare the two: “I still hear a lot of grief in your words and decisions – understandably, but I also think it’s hurting you,” versus “I think you’re using your father’s suicide as a get-out-of-jail-free card.” I’d certainly prefer to hear the former.
When people have been shattered, there’s no future, unshattered version of them waiting to emerge. There is only the possibility of their being formed into something new, whole, even beautiful, from the pieces.
He has to want that and work on that for himself, of course, but an understanding partner can help. That is, if you want to be that for him.
To answer your direct question, you don’t have to stand supportively by forever, or even at all; it’s not cold or callous to recognize that for either of you to thrive, the relationship has to work on its own merits. Sometimes ice, gently applied, is just what we need to heal.