Loving a Self-Harming Partner
One of the hardest things about caring for someone is that when that person hurts, you hurt. It's only natural to want to make the pain go away. But when you love a self-harming partner, things are rarely that simple.
You Can't 'Fix' a Self-Harming Partner
Partners of self-harming individuals know that nonsuicidal self-injury isn't a cold or a broken bone. You can't melt it away with chicken soup or a warm bath. You can't set things right with one swift, decisive action like you can set a fractured femur. Like most mental health concerns, recovering from self-harm takes time and patience, and there is no clear finish line to cross at the end of it. In fact, more often than not, there is no end to recovery—recovery is an ongoing journey rather than a clear destination.
The thing those with self-harming partners need to remember is this: recovery is also a choice, but one that is not yours to make. It is up to your partner, and only your partner, to decide when to begin walking down that road and how quickly. You can't force that decision any more than you can force your partner to be well.
But you aren't helpless in this situation, either.
Caring for a Self-Harming Partner
The most important thing you can do for your partner, always, is simply to care and to show it. Answer your phone when it rings. Listen when your loved one needs to talk. Encourage your partner to seek help, but don't force the issue unless the situation becomes critical. Be prepared for emergencies—keep medical supplies somewhere easily accessible, and keep doctor's phone numbers and addresses handy. Save a few free hotlines in your contacts list in case you, or your partner, need them. And if you're afraid, unsure, or simply know you don't know nearly enough about this subject, educate yourself ("Self-Injury Information, Resources & Support").
Above all, withhold judgment and criticism. Your loved one may struggle with a range of symptoms and emotions related to self-harm, such as negative self-talk and haunting guilt or regret. Don't add to your loved one's grief by implying (or directly expressing) disgust or offense, as it can only exacerbate the situation. If you feel let down by your loved one's reluctance to pursue recovery or a relapse, remember that you are likely not the only one who wishes things could be different.
As for recovery, try to see yourself as a cheerleader rather than your partner's champion. You can't fight your loved one's battles yourself, but you can provide encouragement and a shoulder to lean on or to cry on. Celebrate victories together, no matter how large or how small, and give comfort when the going gets tough. Offer to help with finding the right doctor, the right insurance, or anything else your partner might need to begin or continue the healing process.
It may not feel like much, but to your partner, it might mean everything.
Coping with Loving a Self-Harming Partner
If you're thinking, "My pain is nothing compared to my partner's," stop. While what you are going through is certainly different than what your loved one is dealing with, that does not mean your feelings don't matter or that you always have to be the "strong" one or even the "healthy" one.
Likely as not, you have your own hardships to deal with. And loving a self-harming partner is its own unique challenge, too, that often requires a little extra help to navigate successfully. Feelings of frustration, helplessness, distress, guilt—all are possible side effects of being in a relationship with a self-harming partner, and all can be extremely difficult to cope with on your own.
Your partner deserves your respect and compassion, but so do you. I wouldn't advise talking to mutual friends or family about the situation without your partner's explicit consent (except when absolutely necessary, as in the event of a crisis), but there is a lot to be gained from speaking with therapists or other medical professionals about your circumstances. These individuals will be able to not only help you cope with your own emotions but also offer expert guidance on how you can best support your loved one's recovery.
Love, after all, is a two-way street. And, for those who love a self-harming partner, the road to recovery is wide enough for two to share, though they may each be on their own separate journey.
Kim Berkley (2021, January 21). Loving a Self-Harming Partner, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, October 4 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/speakingoutaboutselfinjury/2021/1/loving-a-self-harming-partner