The Road to Reconciliation: Feed the Person, Starve the Problem

I never could keep my Grandmother’s advice straight. It is starve a cold and feed a fever, or feed a cold and starve a fever?

It’s just as well that I can’t remember it; modern medicine discredits the practice of withholding nourishment from any sick person, regardless of whether they have a cold or a fever. Therefore, I propose that we modify the old saying to something that actually makes sense.

Feed the person and starve the problem.

A quick review. We’ve been talking about the road the victim travels on the way to reconciliation. Even if he doesn’t make it all the way, he can find acceptance and peace with what happened. So far, you have honored your feelings, committed to your values, protected yourself, renounced revenge, stopped picking that scab, looked at the context, avoided playing the victim, kept it moving, and got out of the middle of the picture. You’ve done a lot, but it should be getting easier for you.

In the past few posts we’ve dealt with the impulse you might have of ditching the person who hurt you. I suggested that first, lighten your load by identifying the problem and separating yourself from it. You’ve learned to distinguish between the problem and the person who brought it to you. You’ve created Problem-Free Zones, so you don’t have to sit in the problem all the time. Now you’re ready to take action against the problem, to defeat it before it does you in.

Remember, your loved one did not hurt you directly, the problem hurt you through her. Her problem took her over. This doesn’t leave her off the hook. She is still responsible for dealing with the problem. Distinguishing the person from the problem helps you know who the enemy is. The person is not the problem; the problem is the problem.

Problems, such as mental illness, personality disorders, and addiction in its myriad forms, can take over a person so that there is little of him left that is unaffected. When the problem is done with the person, when he is mostly overcome, then the problem takes over whatever relationships he is in. Even the partner who is not mentally ill, personality disordered, or addicted can begin to act in ways against her own self interest. She will nourish the problem and starve the people in it.

For instance, you know what he’s like when he drinks too much, so why do you buy beer for him? She gets paranoid when you keep secrets from her and starts to imagine all kinds of wild things, so why do you withhold information? His doctor has told him that, at this point, it’s detrimental to his recovery from back surgery for him to lay in bed all day, so why do you bring him things so he doesn’t have to get up? She’s been feeling sorry for herself ever since she lost her legs in that accident. She doesn’t believe she can do anything; so why do you push her wheelchair?

You do it because the problem talked you into it, even though it’s counter to the best interests of both you and your partner.

This doesn’t mean that you stop doing all nice things for your partner. Feed the person. Identify those actions that make her stronger, that promote your bond. Continue to do those, or resume them if you have stopped.

Let there be no question about it, starving the problem is a brave thing to do. It won’t seem like you get any credit for doing it from your partner. He, after all, has already been overcome by the problem. When he is suicidal, he’s going to say he feels betrayed because you called 911. No problem likes it when the guys in the white coats come, but, when he’s in his right, true mind, he’s going to be glad that you made that call.

The fact that you have to take action against the problem is what makes the next step necessary. Get help. At times like these, you’re going to need support to do the right thing.