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Learning To Set Limits

Question:

My boyfriend has been living with me for 4 1/2 years and I have supported him entirely. He has had many health issues and I have helped find help for each of these from dental to other aliments. He was recently diagnosed with what could have been a fatal disease. He is progressively getting more insecure and showing signs of mental problems. I have been in the emergency room with him 5 times including tonight for various things form OD, heart, stroke symptoms, but he still continues to drink heavily and I dont feel he appreciates the financial burden that he has placed on me. My friends and family are at their wits end with the situation. When I mention that I can not do this any longer he gets more insecure and agressive and aggitated. I have talked to his family and they don’t want to deal with him. He will try to get help but pisses everyone off and is burning his bridges. I need to move on but do care for him and find it hard to simply dump him off at a Salvation Army due to his mental condition. What can I do to protect my self and move on.

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  • ‘Anne’ is the pseudonym for the individual who writes this relationship advice column.
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Answer:

When someone is drowning in front of you, what you are supposed to do is to toss them a life preserver. You are not advised to get into the water with them and try to bring them to safety. Why? Because if you do swim out to the drowning person, they may frantically climb on top of you in a desperate struggle to survive and drag you under so that you both drown.

You’ve been in the water with a drowning man for 4 1/2 years, and you now are showing signs of drowning yourself. So the thing you need to do is to swim away from this man some so that he cannot climb on top of you. Once you are a fair enough distance away from him, you can toss him a life preserver.

So much for the analogy. What I’m suggesting you do is that you learn to set limits on how you will care for this fellow. He is in a very tragic circumstance it seems with his various illnesses (physical and perhaps mental as well). Apart from those illnesses, he is in emotional pain. As a caring and empathetic person, you are drawn towards helping him; feel obligated to help. This reflects well on you, but at the same time, everyone has their limits. When someone is utterly dependent upon you, it is easy for you to start feeling resentful towards them. Even mothers start feeling resentful towards their babies from time to time. You have far less on the line with your boyfriend.

Setting limits doesn’t mean making ultimatums or kicking him out of your house (or dumping him at the salvation army). It could mean those things, but it doesn’t have to mean them. What I have in mind is that you should write down a list of the things you are okay to continue providing for this man, and those things that you are feeling resentful about providing. The things on the list could be literal things (like a bed, or food), and they may also be intangible things like your time and attention for coordinating certain health matters. Once you’ve listed each thing you provide, write down next to each thing whether you begrudge providing that thing. Make a priority list of the things you are most willing to continue to provide, and those things you are getting upset about. Then, determine which things you will stop providing. A fair way to do it is to give a copy of the list of things you won’t be providing anymore to your boyfriend, and tell him that you will stop providing these things by a certain date (whatever you choose to set). This will give him some time to prepare. You need not be harsh in delivering this message and hopefully you won’t. You can simply say that you are doing this to preserve your own sanity; that you are getting worn out and need to do this to preserve your ability to provide the rest of what you will continue to provide.

Whenever anyone start setting limits on another person (or animal (like a dog you are training)) that has previously run free, it is natural that that person or animal will push back against the limits and test them so as to see how firmly they are set. If the limits pass the test, they will be respected. If testing the limits demonstrates that they are flimsy, however, the new limits will be eroded back to the previous free-running position. So, when you deliver limits to your boyfriend/patient, expect a reaction, which might vary in nature from moment to moment. Asking you for things you’ve said you will no longer supply and looking pitiful while doing so should be expected. Acting helpless and depressed should be expected. Agitation may occur. As the limit setter, your job is to hold your new limits, even if it breaks your heart to do so. If you are a soft touch here, you will find yourself back to the pre-limit-setting position in a hurry. Again, there is no need for you to be nasty or defensive in holding to your limits. You can be kind, but you also need to be firm. The only situation that should trigger you to reevaluate your limits is whether you decide that it really doesn’t bother you to provide something that boyfriend desires.

Finding the proper balance between preserving your own space and resources and wanting to help this man you care about will be emotionally difficult to accomplish. I wish you luck in figuring out a path that works for you.

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