My boyfriend has been incredibly supportive since I got my HIV diagnosis over a year ago. He got educated on HIV, he has gone to a couple of doctor’s appointments with me, he’s always there to listen when I need to talk. So you’re wondering, what am I complaining about?
Here’s an example. Yesterday, I was feeling a little under the weather. No big deal, just a little touch of something. Again, I emphasize: No big deal.
“Shouldn’t you be resting?” he asked when I got dressed and went out to get the mail.
“I know you’re full, but have a little more of this.” It didn’t seem to matter that I had insisted I didn’t need any more scrambled eggs.
And then, “Are you sure you took your medication? I didn’t see you take it today.”
I was feeling a little frustrated with him. Maybe a lot frustrated. “I know what I’m doing,” I finally said, as calmly as possible. “You don’t have to worry about me so much.”
I was trying to keep my cool but I was thinking about how he was treating me like a child who couldn’t be trusted to make sound decisions. Being watched that closely is disempowering, even though I know he means well. And his constant hovering is stressing me out. All I needed was to be able to have some quiet time to relax and recover.
Dr. Gary, I already have one mother. And by the way, she doesn’t hover over me half as much as my boyfriend does. What can I do to get him to lighten up without hurting his feelings?
Your question is ironic in a way. I talk with clients who have unsupportive partners, who don’t give them much help at all. And then I have clients who, like you, would like it if their partners would back off and not be so micromanaging.
Let’s start with this thought: Coping With parental behavior begins with understanding your partner. And here’s how to do that:
Be patient. It’s easy to feel on edge emotionally when you aren’t at your best physically. And what you may wish for the most is to be left alone. However, you and your partner are a team, and your teammate wants to be by your side.
Recognize what’s behind all that parenting. In a word: helplessness. One of the hardest things in life is to watch someone we love suffering and not be able to make it all better for them. Your boyfriend is feeling helpless, and he is trying to manage his helplessness by hovering over you. So all that excess attention coming your way is about you, but it’s also about your boyfriend.
Let them know how you’re feeling. It’s all to easy to assume that your good intentions are being interpreted as such by the other person. So it might be helpful to let him know that what he feels is support is being experienced as lack of trust in your ability to do for yourself in managing your HIV and to speak up for yourself. Even something as simple as, “I know you’re worried about me and I really appreciate that. But you’re coming across as kind of parental. And that makes me feel like you don’t trust me.”
Be gentle, but also firm. And specific. Follow up by letting your boyfriend know what he doesn’t have to do to help you, and what he can do. Try to find a balance between doing what you want and need to do for yourself in managing your HIV, and letting him give you a hand. “Please know you don’t have to worry about ____________________. I am on top of that. But you could help me a lot if you would ________________.” You may have to repeat this a few times. Again, your boyfriend is only making you feel like he thinks you’re helpless because he’s feeling helpless.
Think out loud. It might also help to do a little more verbalization than you might normally do. “I took my meds on schedule this morning” or “I feel up to getting out for awhile.” This may keep you from having your boyfriend submit you to what feels like an interrogation. While also helping him to feel less worried. In other words, helplessness is the elephant in the room. So do what you can to address it.
And by the way, if you’re reading this and you’re the one in the relationship who may be guilty of all that parenting, here’s some help for you:
Take a step back. Ask yourself: What’s going on with me emotionally? Am I being helpful or am I at risk of pushing a little too hard. Is it possible I’m starting to become badgering? And also ask yourself: How is he/she reacting to my prodding and questioning? Am I creating calmness or stress?
Recognize your own helplessness. Cope with helplessness by first admitting to it. You’re feeling helpless because you are helpless. At least, helpless to make whatever your partner is dealing with go away. While your heart’s in the right place, this is one thing you aren’t in control of. But look at it this way: When you admit to what you can’t control, you can stop fighting yourself. And when you stop fighting for control, you can also be clearer on where you can help.
Consider the impact. Put yourself in your partner’s shoes. How would you like it if you weren’t feeling well and someone was standing over you and treating you like an irresponsible child? Think about what might be helpful to you if you were experiencing a rough time due to a chronic condition like HIV. What would you find helpful?
Ask, and listen. Yes, it’s that simple. “Honey, I know you’re having a rough time. It’s hard to watch you not feeling well and so I’m feeling kind of helpless. HIV scares me. Can you let me know what I can do to help?” Listen to their response. And try to act accordingly. Even if it means biting your tongue a few times to keep from jumping in with a question or an order.
It’s hard to watch someone we love not feeling well. And it’s hard to not feel well and have someone treat you like you need supervision. Let’s try to be more aware of each other’s needs. Along with being more patient. And let’s communicate with compassion and clarity. We’re all in this together.
Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. He maintains a website, www.JustGotDiagnosed.com.