When Someone You Love Is Unhappy
A patient of mine has a mentally ill brother who’s depressed and anxious, as well as manipulative and stubborn. He often refuses to take medication that’s helped him in the past and as a result often ends up lying at home in his bed, unwashed and unkempt, for days at a time. When my patient discovers him in this state, she tries various things: taking him to the ER (which she’s learned leads nowhere), contacting his therapist (which sometimes helps, sometimes not), and even walking away, both figuratively and literally. She struggles with how much she may be enabling his behavior and with how unhappy his unhappiness is making her. She vents to me on occasion, and I try to walk a fine line between encouraging her not to give up on him and supporting her decision to protect herself emotionally. Recently, he had a particularly bad episode and it got me wondering: how can we best manage the unhappiness of people we love?
Love leads to many things good and bad but perhaps one of the most challenging is the way it links our happiness to the happiness of others. This connection largely explains why we often become frustrated or angry with the ones we love: in loving them, we frequently come to feel they’re actually a part of us, and if they behave in a way we don’t like, we feel an urge to put a stop to their behavior as if it were our own; their behavior may wound us and directly injure our own happiness, and our attempts to change it may be motivated out of a desire to make ourselves happy; and finally, we may genuinely respect the lives of those we love as distinctly separate from ours but feel frustrated or angry that they’re acting in a way we think will harm their happiness.
HOW SHOULD WE APPROACH THE UNHAPPINESS OF OTHERS?
First and foremost, we must realize that everyone is ultimately responsible for their own happiness and simultaneously that everyone exerts a powerful influence on the happiness of those around them. A study by a former colleague of mine, Nicholas Christakis, suggests that we influence the happiness of people close to us physically as well as the happiness of people close to us personally up to three degrees of separation (meaning not just the friends of our friends but their friends as well). How might this influence come about? Not by the advice we give or the action we take to try to make others happier but simply by being happy ourselves. Emotions, it turns out, are as contagious as infectious diseases (possibly as a result of the mirror neuron system). Some of us seem to be more contagious than others and some of us especially susceptible to being “infected” by others, but most of us have had firsthand experience in bringing others up or down with our moods and in being brought up or down by the moods of others.
The most effective way to help others become happier, then, very well may be by focusing on becoming happy ourselves. This may strike some as selfish, but we can easily imagine flowing readily from our own happiness a heightened ability to encourage, support, and inspire. One strategy we shouldn’t adopt, no matter how tempting it may be, is to give our unhappy loved ones what they ask for automatically without carefully considering the consequences. What unhappy people want is so often not what they need that this knee-jerk approach must in the end be considered unwise at best. We may feel compelled to give them what they want by our own sense of urgency to pry them out of whatever unhappy box they’re in. But this urge often rises from our discomfort, not theirs, and causes us to suspend our good judgment in favor of what seems expedient.
To counteract this impulse, remember that suffering is necessary for growth (I’m not pointing this out to rationalize suffering, but rather to suggest our focus should be on using it as a catalyst). If we can resist the impulse to treat suffering like a fire that must be extinguished immediately, we can consider with a clear mind how to best respond to the unhappiness of the ones we love. But if instead we give in to our impulse to take over responsibility for someone else’s suffering, we may find ourselves cheating them out of an important growth experience. True happiness comes from strength. If we solve every problem for the ones we love, how will they ever learn to solve problems themselves?
HOW WE SHOULD PROTECT OURSELVES
Often, however, the people we love behave as if they don’t want to feel better. They want to wallow, or are so debilitated by their suffering they can’t even get out of bed—like my patient’s brother. Sometimes the unhappiness of the ones we love is like a black hole, threatening to pull us into darkness ourselves. How can we orbit around such a strong negative force without being crushed by it?
It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle our mood from a loved one’s mood without swinging too far in the other direction, becoming disinterested and emotionally cut off as a means of self-preservation. Living with an unhappy person is, in many ways, like living with someone who’s ill: the illness is theirs, but the experience belongs to the caregiver as well. Thinking of a loved one’s unhappiness as an illness brings to mind the following points that may apply:
- Maintain appropriate boundaries. Remind yourself constantly that your loved one’s unhappiness is not your own. You may become unhappy in response to their unhappiness, but your unhappiness then becomes your responsibility. You will be tempted to resolve your unhappiness by trying to resolve their unhappiness (also in a time frame that suits you), but that way leads only to frustration and resentment. Treat the two as separate things that require separate solutions.
- Allow your loved one space to be unhappy. People often become unhappy for good reasons, i.e., as a result of a blow or a loss of some kind. After a while, most people most of the time (though, it’s important to note, not all the time) find their level of happiness returning to its baseline. Be patient. You often don’t need to do anything at all but tolerate their dip in mood. If you’re dealing with someone who dips frequently or regularly, learn to recognize the signs. Dialogue with them when they’re in a good place to ask how you can best support them when they’re in a bad place. Then try out whatever they suggest. It may work—or it may not. If it doesn’t—if they don’t know themselves how they should be supported—try other things until you hit on what works best.
- Give yourself space from them. When people are unhappy, being around them is difficult. In giving them space, you give yourself space as well. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking they need you around all the time to handle their unhappy feelings.
- Defend your own happiness fiercely. Misery may think it loves company, but in the long term it doesn’t. It’s more than just all right to remain happy while someone you love is miserable: it’s imperative.
- Suggest professional help. When things seem not be returning to normal, sometimes consulting a professional brings new clarity to the problem.
- Detach with love. Sometimes people are simply toxic by nature, a fact that often dawns on others around them only after time. Sometimes people refuse to take steps to make themselves feel better. As a result, sometimes you have to love them from a distance. This can be an intensely difficult decision, but sometimes it’s the right one. Give yourself permission to entertain the thought and consider it seriously if consider it seriously you should.
My patient found herself thinking about detaching from her brother frequently, and in fact would do so for long stretches of time. But then she’d learn he’d locked himself in his house for days and couldn’t stop herself from being drawn back into his life. After this last episode, however, she found herself more focused on maintaining a safe emotional distance. She still cared, she confided to me, but had come to a new understanding about her limitations. She knew some part of her brother still wanted to be happy, but it seemed covered up by a part that reveled in misery. She would keep tabs on him, she decided, and intervene when he seemed in real danger, but she refused to continue suffering on account of his suffering. Which for her meant allowing him to suffer alone.