When a poz partner’s efforts to stay healthy leaves the other partner feeling left out in the cold.
Since my boyfriend received an HIV-positive diagnosis, he’s become a health nut. He works out every morning and his counters are lined with bottles of supplements. He says I can’t understand what he’s going through. I feel like he’s got this new life that he won’t share with me. It’s like HIV is the third wheel in our relationship. How do I tell him I’m dating him, not his HIV?
I often talk to clients about the importance of taking responsibility for their health, but I also understand that as the HIV-negative partner, you can feel sidelined. This is one of the challenges of being in a serodiscordant relationship, where one partner is poz and the other isn’t.
Here are some ideas to get the communication back on track:
Think, before you react. Take a step back and get some perspective on the situation. Consider your boyfriend’s position. Living with HIV and staying healthy means staying on top of your treatment regimen and everything that goes along with it. Having a partner living with a chronic condition like HIV means being in a supportive role where his HIV regimen is concerned. If he was recently diagnosed he may still be figuring it all out.
Of course, so are you. In that way, you share the diagnosis. Talk about that. Get specific about what you need most from your partner. How can he support you while you support him? What do you miss the most when your partner is focused on his regimen and self-care, and how could you get more of what you need? Getting together with friends, or spending quality time together?
It can be hard to sit down and have a conversation about needs and expectations. These conversations can veer into dangerous territory, and nobody wants to walk into a conflict especially when you or your partner may experience some raw feelings. But also keep in mind that talking about your relationship can make it stronger. Make that your goal.
Avoid accusations. Use “I” statements. Give examples. Start on a positive note: “I really care about you. And I know you are dealing with a lot.” That’s a good way to not make your partner feel defensive. Follow this with: “I want to be your teammate in this. I want to support you in taking good care of yourself. I want to understand your treatment regimen.” Follow this by affirming what you would like to have more in your relationship: “I would really like it if we spend more time just being a couple and getting together with friends.” Lay out the specifics with each other, as well as what your boyfriend needs from you and what you need from him. No elephants in the room, okay?
Most of all, be patient. Learning to live with HIV is an ongoing process adjusting to the drug regimen, making healthy lifestyle changes, and coping with the emotions that come up, as well as issues like disclosure. All of this requires lots of patience with your boyfriend and yourself. If you can keep the line of communication open, without accusations or defensiveness, you will be more able to avoid hurt feelings and resentment. While life may feel out of balance right now, the two of you will find your new normal as your boyfriend gains his footing on the road ahead. Remind each other every day who number one is, then back up your words with action.
Are You My Boyfriend or My Mother?
Sometimes a well-intending partner can turn into a mothering, micro-manager when it comes to their poz partner’s health.
My boyfriend has been incredibly supportive since I got my HIV diagnosis. He got educated on HIV, he has gone to doctor’s appointments with me, and he’s always there to listen. The problem is, he’s sometimes too helpful.
He’s treating me like a child who can’t be trusted to make sound decisions. Being watched that closely is disempowering, even though I know he means well. And his constant hovering is stressing me out. I already have a mother. What can I do to get him to lighten up without hurting his feelings?
Your question is ironic in a way. I talk with clients who have unsupportive partners, who don’t give them much help at all. And then I have clients who, like you, would like it if their partners would back off and not be so micromanaging. Let’s start with this thought: Coping with parental behavior begins with understanding your partner. Be patient.
It’s easy to feel on edge emotionally when you aren’t at your best physically. And what you may wish for the most is to be left alone. However, you and your partner are a team, and your teammate wants to be by your side. Recognize what’s behind all that parenting in a word: helplessness. One of the hardest things in life is to watch someone we love suffering and not be able to make it better. Your boyfriend is feeling helpless, and he is trying to manage his helplessness by hovering over you. So all that excess attention is about you, but it’s also about your boyfriend.
Let him know how you’re feeling and that his support feels like a lack of trust in your ability to take care of yourself or speak up for yourself. Even something as simple as, “I know you’re worried about me and I really appreciate that. But you’re coming across as kind of parental. And that makes me feel like you don’t trust me.”
Be gentle, but also firm and specific. Follow up by letting your boyfriend know what he doesn’t have to do to help you, and what he can do. Try to find a balance between doing what you want and need to do for yourself, and letting him give you a hand:
Say something like, “Please know you don’t have to worry about ________. I am on top of that. But you could help me a lot if you would _________.”
It might also help to do a little more verbalization than you might normally do: “I took my meds on schedule this morning” or “I feel up to getting out for awhile.” This may keep you from having your boyfriend subject you to what feels like an interrogation, while also helping him to feel less worried.
By the way, if you’re reading this and you’re the one in the relationship who may be guilty of all that parenting, I suggest taking a step back and asking yourself, What’s going on with me emotionally? Am I creating calmness or stress? Recognize your own helplessness. Cope with helplessness by first admitting to it. You’re feeling helpless because you are helpless, helpless to make what your partner is dealing with go away. While your heart’s in the right place, this is one of those things you aren’t in control of. But there are things you can do and places where you can help.
Put yourself in your partner’s shoes. How would you like it if you weren’t feeling well and someone was standing over you and treating you like an irresponsible child? What would you find helpful?
Ask and listen. Yes, it’s that simple. “Honey, I know you’re having a rough time. It’s hard to watch you not feeling well and so I’m feeling kind of helpless. Can you let me know what I can do to help?” Listen to their response and try to act accordingly, even if it means biting your tongue a few times to keep from jumping in with a question or an order.
It’s hard to watch someone we love not feeling well, and it’s also hard to not feel well and have someone treat you like you need supervision. Let’s try to be more aware of each other’s needs. Along with being more patient. And let’s communicate with compassion and clarity. We’re all in this together.