When Problems Take Over a Relationship


Even when people are firing on all cylinders, relationships can be tricky. When there’s a persistent problem, like an illness or an addiction in the mix, they can be impossible. Persistent problems can be the source of much harm. The alcoholic you can’t rely on. The gambler you can’t trust with money. The depressive who won’t do anything. The phobic who won’t go anywhere. The narcissist who makes everything about her. The guy who can’t seem to keep his dick in his pants. When problems like alcoholism, compulsive gambling, depression, phobias, narcissism, or compulsive sex take over, it takes hard work to eradicate them and eternal vigilance to keep them away. Relapse can be expected. When we’re talking about addiction, it takes an average of seven real attempts before recovery feels solid and, even then, you won’t know if he’s going to need eight. Mental illness also tends to be episodic, and, if nothing is done about it, each new episode is worse than the last. People who have succumbed once to the allure of violence, sexual recklessness, self harm, suicide attempts, or self-pity are more likely to do it again. Moreover, problems will often go into hiding when they feel threatened, so that what appears to be recovery is really a more pernicious hidden phase of the same problem that caused so much trouble before.

If you don’t seem to be getting anywhere, maybe the person you have been traveling with, who you thought was your partner, is an impostor. If you looking at everything differently. If, what’s black to you, is white to him, up is down and in is out, and if, when you think you’re heading towards reconciliation, he says you’re pointing the other way. If it seems like you’re working off two different maps, you’ve got to consider that maybe the person you thought was your loved one, has been replaced by something else.

Problems, if they persist long enough, tend to take over people. First, the Problem tricked your loved one into thinking it was a good thing. Then it took control and spun him around. The Problem made itself the priority, the ultimate value, the meaning of his life. He’s not who you thought he was. He’s been replaced by the Problem. The Problem is now governing your relationship. Next, it’s coming for you.

You’re loved one may be very sincere when she says she wants to stop drinking, stop gambling, stop being depressed, not let fear rule her life. He’s speaking from the heart when he says he knows he’s been self centered. When he says he wants to keep his dick in his pants, he really means what he says. But, then another day comes, and it’s like nothing has ever changed. What’s different? Who’s in charge now? The Problem is in charge. It’s calling the shots today.

Problems have their own reality

If you look at My Wife and My Mother-In-Law, one way you see a young woman; the other way, there’s an old one. Both views are contained in the same drawing; but, in each case, it’s organized differently. That’s the way it is for your loved one and the Problem.

In the drawing, you might start off seeing the young woman. For the life of you, you can’t find the old woman in the drawing. Every feature contributes to the idea that this is a drawing of a young woman. Then something happens that causes you to re-interpret what you see. The young woman’s necklace is now the old woman’s mouth. Her ear is now an eye. As soon as you see the old woman, you can’t find the young woman anymore. In order to switch back, you have to go to a significant feature, the old woman’s ear, for instance, and say to yourself, no matter how absurd, it’s an eye. Then the young woman comes into view.

When a problem takes over a person that person’s frame of reference is altered. Everything is interpreted differently, in a way that supports the Problem. Just like in the drawing. That can’t possibly be an eye, you say, because it’s on the side of the old woman’s head. In order to switch back from Problem to Person, the person with a Problem has to be willing to believe the impossible.

In the case of alcoholism, that’s why the very things that seem to you to be reasons to stop drinking are, for the alcoholic in the grips of his alcoholism, reasons to drink. Lost your job? Your old lady’s mad at you? Your kids don’t want to see you anymore? Your liver’s shot? Got a third DWI? These are all reason for an alcoholic to drink, while for the rest of the human race, they are reasons to stop. But, if you say to them, stop drinking and you’ll feel better, everything will be better, they’ll think you’re speaking nonsense. That can’t possibly be true because when they stop drinking, they feel hungover.

As long as your loved one is under the spell of the Problem, and you’re not, nothing you say makes sense to him anymore. Your voice might just as well sound like a quacking duck. The Problem reinterprets everything to suit itself. Within its own little world, everything is perfectly logical. In order for the frame of reference to change, your loved one has to be willing to entertain the illogical and take a chance on something that seems crazy to him.

If you don’t believe you’re getting anywhere, look to see if your loved one has been taken over by the Problem. The Problem may try to tell you what you want to hear, but the only reconciliation it’s interested in is you falling under the spell of the Problem. You threaten its existence. The Problem wants to confuse you, get you lost, and have you give up, so it can feast on the soul of your loved one all by itself. Then, if you’re still around, it’s coming for you.

How Problems Get Power

Persistent problems like an addiction or a chronic illness can take a couple into a dangerous territory where clarity turns gray and selfishness rules the day. This is a place where individuals disappear and are replaced by need; where loved ones are objectified, resented, and manipulated; where wedding vows, conceived to guide people to be the best they can be, are subverted into an evil parody no one intended. They take you into madness. It all starts when a Problem demands special accommodations.

People sometimes deserve accommodations. Reasonable compromise is at the heart of friendship, much less love. If you had the flu, your boyfriend shouldn’t expect you to be as attentive to him as he is to you. If you had a broken leg, your girlfriend shouldn’t pout if you didn’t take her out dancing. Loving partners soothe the nerves of a phobic spouse and cheer up a depressed one. They get you to the doctor, remind you to take your medicine, and not walk so fast if there’s a struggle to keep up. Few partners begrudge such kindnesses; most are willing to sacrifice quite a lot. Even those who freely break other wedding vows take in sickness and in health quite seriously.

However, there’s a danger that, if accommodations persist, they will change the character of both the person with the Problem and the one taking care of him. It ain’t pretty.

It starts like this. You have one person who needs accommodations because they possess a Problem. In time, as the person become possessed by the Problem, the needs of the Problem become so great that they push aside all other needs. Then there’s the other partner who’s just trying to be caring. She does everything she can to accommodate the person, but ends up accommodating the Problem at the expense of the person. If someone says to her, you’re doing too much, she ends up questioning the meaning of her life.

The person possessed by a Problem believes the Problem is all powerful, its demands insatiable, so she obeys. Obeying it gives it power. Problems are fed by the accommodations we make. The sick person who doesn’t eat because food makes her throw up, gets weak. The disabled who doesn’t push himself in his physical therapy, withers away. The anxious person who lets his fears control him, puts his fears in control. The depressed person who doesn’t open the blinds, doesn’t receive the healing properties of light. The alcoholic who believes she must drink, will drink; and no one can stop her.

The person become possessed by the Problem may not have given himself the Problem. The paraplegic may not have made herself paralyzed. Anxiety, depression, or alcoholism may all have a genetic component, but when a person makes themselves more ill, the Problem has taken over and is running things. My name for that is madness.

Having anxieties is not madness. It’s very normal, even desirable in some cases, to have anxieties; but, letting your fears run things is madness. Being depressed is not madness, but not getting up to start the day when you have things to do is madness. Having alcoholism is not madness, but drinking alcohol when you know you have alcoholism is madness.

Once the Problem takes over, resulting in madness, the other partner, if he does not already find satisfaction in self-sacrifice, finds that’s all he does, anyway. The needs of the Problem push aside all other needs. The other partner stops listening to his own desires. It makes little sense for him to acknowledge, for instance, that he needs to get out and see friends when he’s not able to do it, anyway. He has to stay home with his sick wife. He becomes more attentive to the Problem than to himself, until, at last, the Problem is in charge and there is no self left for him either.

It may look as though this couple is locked in a pattern from which there is no way out, but opportunities to change come up frequently. You can see them if you know what you’re looking for. The pattern can easily be broken when it arises if it’s recognized and the parties do the brave thing and intervene.

Who Owns the Problem?

When a persistent problem like an illness or an addiction comes between a couple, no one wants it. It’s your Problem, one says to the other. No, the other says, you brought it here; the Problem belongs to you. The couple comes to marriage counseling and asks, who owns the Problem?

No one owns the Problem, I say. The Problem owns you.

Problems Take Hostages

The more a Problem takes over, the more the life of the Problem-possessed person centers on it. The person with the Problem discards all forms of recreation in favor of activities that satisfy the Problem. All his friends become Problem-centered friends. The others drift away, and the person is drawn to those who don’t judge because they, themselves, have the same Problem. Sometimes particular careers are chosen for their acceptance of the Problem. Agoraphobics find a job that lets them work at home. Alcoholics become bartenders; potheads become musicians; drug users become drug dealers.

Intimate relationships are changed when feeding the Problem is more important than taking care of the relationship. The only loved ones who stick around are either the type where the loved one picks up after the Problem and helps the person escape the consequences, or the type where the relationship is all about the shared Problem.

Things go like this until the person enters recovery, then he finds that all the things he loves are all connected in some way to the Problem. He can’t see his friends because all his friends use and are unlikely to support his recovery because it would challenge their own Problem. The alcoholic bartender can’t return to work without being tempted to drink; the marijuana smoking musician has to watch what she does on breaks; the addicted drug dealer has to sell something else. Otherwise innocent forms of recreation, hobbies, or art may put the recovering person at risk. A writer who cannot write without a bottle of scotch at hand is stuck; a painter who seeks inspiration in LSD has to find a new muse.

Even intimate relationships can be trouble if they were associated with the Problem. The wife who drinks is an obvious threat to the recovering alcoholic’s sobriety. But, so is the wife who lovingly keeps the alcoholic’s refrigerator stocked with the beer he likes, even though she hates his drinking. She’s almost as much trouble as the beer itself. She is too accommodating to the Problem.

The general principle is this: first the Problem takes the person hostage, then it takes everything he loves hostage. Even if the person gets himself free, the Problem still has the other hostages in its clutches. This is how the Problem tempts the recovering person back. You’ve seen enough hostage movies to know it’s dangerous to free the hostages. It’s a good way to get captured, or re-captured all over again.

The Problem is coming for you

Even if you didn’t start off as the person with a Problem, you soon will be if you love a person with a Problem. The Problem will be so demanding of them that it will take priority over you. We see this clearly in the case of the addict who chooses their drug over their relationships, but it’s also the case with other types of problems. A person possessed by anxiety, for instance, may regard her anxiety as the primary thing she’s concerned with. She will do nothing or go nowhere if it might make her anxious. If she does get anxious, as her partner, it’ll be your job to calm her down. At first, you’ll gladly hold her when she’s scared, validate her fears, and reassure her when she encounters her insecurities. After a while, you learn to anticipate the anxiety, and shield her from the things that make her anxious. Now you’ve made the Problem worse. How? Two ways. One, she has not learned to cope with the anxiety; you’ve done it for her. Two, you have made her Problem, your Problem.

When I say the Problem is coming for you, I don’t mean you’ll have the same Problem your Problem-possessed partner has: generalized anxiety, for instance. Maybe, but not necessarily. The Problem changes shape on its way to you. When it takes you over, it looks like something else. You become resentful of her and her Problem, so resentfulness becomes your Problem. You feel injured by a person you are told you cannot blame because she has a Problem out of her control. So, feeling like a victim becomes your Problem. You grieve for all the things you might have done if you did not have to dealt with this Problem. So, grief is your Problem, now.

When you make her Problem, your Problem, its needs are so great that it pushes aside all your other needs. Then you’re easy prey to be picked off and possessed by some Problem that is all your own. You get sick because you haven’t been taking care of yourself. You get your own depression, perhaps, because you feel so hopeless. You get your own anxiety because you’re on your last nerve. You get your own addiction because you’re looking for some relief.

Pretty soon, you’re not a partner; you’re a hostage.

Are you a Partner or a Hostage?

How can you tell if you are you a partner or a hostage? What’s the difference between the two?

• Partners have choices. Hostages have to do what they’re told.

• Partners can leave and speak. Hostages are captive and silenced.

• Partners share power. Hostages have no power.

• Partners compromise. Hostages adjust.

• Partners are trusted. Hostages are checked up on.

• Partners are loved. Hostages are blackmailed.

• Partners’ boundaries are observed. Hostages’ boundaries are violated.

• People take partners. Problems take hostages.

So, which is it? Are you a partner or a hostage?

Which do you have? A partner or a hostage?

How to Cope with a Problem Without Accommodating It

  1. Create Problem-Free Zones
  2. Feed the Person with a Problem, starve the Problem
  3. Don’t play the Problem’s game
  4. Team up with the Person with a Problem against the Problem
  5. Get Help to Defeat the Problem
  6. Learn to walk


Previously Published on Medium.


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