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What to Do When Someone You Love Is Being Self-Destructive

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
April 03, 2018
From the WebMD Archives

Your love runs deep, but something has to change. The problem may be with your spouse, child, or close friend. And it might be drug abuse, explosive anger, an eating disorder, or other self-destructive behaviors. While you don’t want to abandon the person, you also don’t want to accept their behavior. So, you feel stuck, unsure how to proceed.

People often try to be close and supportive to their loved ones when they are struggling a lot. While this is admirable, it can also result in you getting sucked into the chaotic swirl that can accompany serious problems. This puts you in danger and doesn’t help the person who’s struggling. So, it’s essential that you take care of yourself. Then, from a strong foundation in yourself, you will be better able to help.

There are no magic solutions, but part of the answer lies in learning to “detach” your loved one’s behavior from who they are as a person. In other words, you love the person but reject their behaviors. You value who they are at their core, but you don’t support their choices and the negative influences they bring to themselves and your relationship.

Detachment includes being less emotionally reactive, which can feel like you are abandoning the one you love. But you are not. You are not being uncaring or indifferent. Instead, you are stepping back emotionally. This gives you the space you need to draw boundaries and respond in constructive ways.

When you detach the person and their behavior, you can be clearer about what is acceptable behavior and what is not. If things have not gone well despite your best efforts, you may realize that you need to let go, not because you don’t care or won’t help them, but because you cannot control their choices. In accepting that you have done all you can reasonably do, you might make the conscious choice to distance yourself. But you might also remain available to help them if they make different choices – such as changing their behaviors or reaching out for professional help.

When you do not separate the person and their behavior, you might instinctively react with anger and want to retaliate. This is a common and totally understandable reaction. But if you act on that desire, you may live to regret it. Lashing back out in anger usually aggravates the situation and just escalates anger and hostility. You may also feel that you have just lowered yourself to their level of being irrational and emotionally reactive.

To help you understand detachment better, consider this example: Rather than reacting in anger to your partner for yet again insisting on driving drunk, you might decide not to get in the car with him or her. You might also decide to leave your home and not return until they begin treatment. And as a result of this plan, you might feel less desperate, be better able to calm your anger, and even have more compassion for their distress (because you don’t have to subject yourself to the immediate consequence of putting your life in danger or in sharing their downward spiral).

Detachment is not easy when you care about someone who is on a destructive course. But it can help you accept the person for who they are while not supporting their problematic behaviors. Even as you struggle with your own powerful emotions and inability to make your loved one change, detachment can help you to continue loving that person even when their behavior is wildly out of control.

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About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a licensed psychologist in NJ and NY, and is on staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset. She is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of Bouncing Back from Rejection and Insecure in Love.

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