How To Not Become Your Partner's Therapist
And why you shouldn’t try to play that role in the first place.
Sharing is intimacy. And understanding their struggles is a big part of understanding your partner. However, and here comes the hard part, it’s essential to realize that you shouldn’t act like your partner’s therapist. Why? Well, you’re not a therapist, you can’t be subjective, and, chances are, you’ll race to problem-solve. You can — and should — offer support, but there’s a line that needs to be drawn.
So, how do you provide healthy support to your partner and not become their therapist and not come off as uncaring? It’s about understanding what proper support looks like, drawing up healthy boundaries, and prioritizing good habits. This is how to draw a firm line between support and therapy while still being what your partner needs.
1. Recognize Your Role
It sounds a bit trite but it’s important to remind yourself that the primary role in your relationship is that of a partner — not a professional advice-giver. “Assuming the role of a therapist can strain the dynamics of the relationship, blurring boundaries and causing imbalance,” says Elizabeth Campbell, a licensed marriage and family therapist and psychologist based in Spokane, Washington. “This can lead to added stress and resentment.” Of course, you may also lack the professional training needed to address complex issues effectively. “Attempting to solve problems without proper expertise can exacerbate the situation or delay the partner from seeking necessary professional help.” You also run the risk of your blanketed suggestions coming off as condescending or that you don’t “get” them.
2. Establish Boundaries
When discussing personal issues, it’s important to set up clear boundaries and respect them. Open communication regarding what should be discussed with your partner versus a licensed professional is vital. “Couples should create boundaries for how they talk to each other about difficult topics or conflicts, such as setting ground rules on what topics are off limits,” says Kalley Hartman, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Newport Beach, CA.
3. Be An Active Listener
The big question this all asks is how do you draw firm lines without coming off as callous? Active listening. That is, fully focusing on and understanding your partner’s thoughts and emotions without interruption or judgment. “Acknowledge and validate your partner’s emotions without dismissing or downplaying them,” says Sam Holmes, a London-based relationship counselor. “Show empathy by saying things like, ‘I understand this must be challenging for you,’ or, ‘It’s normal to feel that way in this situation.’” Ask questions. Offer support. But remember the hard boundaries you drew.
4. Be Clear That You Won’t Fix Them
If you feel like your partner is starting to become emotionally dependent, it’s best to name the problem and have a clear conversation about it. Be non-judgmental, and make sure your partner understands you are coming from a place of love. Explain that you want their emotional needs to be met in a healthy way.
“You can help them brainstorm their options, but they need to be in charge of the process,” says Giorgio Aprile, a psychotherapist, coach, and Lecturer at the University of Exeter. “Giving someone emotional support doesn’t mean fixing their problems. Be clear about what you can and cannot do. You want to give them love, acceptance, compassion, and a listening ear. But you also want to be honest when they need to seek help elsewhere.”
5. Don’t Share Your Analysis
The best way to not be your partner’s therapist is to not act like your partner’s therapist. “Do not share your analysis of your partner with them,” says David Helfand, a psychologist based in St. Johnsbury, VT. “Instead, assume you are right, and then do what you think they need for support.” For example, if you think they are upset with you because they are projecting some of their own insecurity, then assume that as possible and act in a way that helps their insecurity heal. “Maybe you need to hug them, perhaps they just need you to listen, or maybe they need a little space,” Helfand says.
6. Encourage Professional Help
Let your partner know that you care deeply about their well-being by being generous with comments about your unconditional support. “Showing empathy, you might say, ‘I can see how much you’re struggling, and it’s clear that you’re dealing with something significant,’” Campbell says. This leads naturally to saying something like, “I’m here for you, and I want to support you in the best way possible. Have you considered talking to a professional who can provide the guidance you need?”
A licensed therapist or counselor is trained to handle and provide guidance during certain situations — and isn’t already intimate with your partner. “If your partner is going through a tough time and needs someone to talk to, gently suggest seeking professional therapy or counseling,” Holmes says. “Emphasize that therapists are trained to provide the necessary support and guidance, ensuring a neutral and confidential space for them to share their thoughts and feelings.”
7. Prioritize Self-Care
Making healthier choices can help lift some of the emotional burdens your partner may be experiencing. One way to support them without sliding into a therapist role is to help them develop healthy coping mechanisms and self-care practices. Encourage them to participate in activities they enjoy, maintain a balanced lifestyle, and seek support from other friends and family.
This is, of course, crucial for you, too. “Taking care of your own emotional well-being is essential,” Holmes says. “By maintaining your own emotional health, you’ll be better equipped to provide the support your partner needs.”