How Can I Help My Long Distance Boyfriend?

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Reader’s Question

I am very worried about my boyfriend. We’re in a long distance relationship so we always keep in touch via Skype or email. My boyfriend is an anti-social person. He has been all by himself throughout his adult life, and this has probably caused his anxiety problems, for which he goes to psychiatrist. He is a very lovely person. He can be very happy one day and very depressed the next day. It’s very hard for me to handle this kind of situation, plus he has cancer, so that adds to his problems. What should I do?

Psychologist’s Reply

Long distance relationships are so difficult for so many reasons. You are worrying about your boyfriend, and the fact that you are apart probably increases the worry. You said that your boyfriend has always had difficulty with social interactions and has anxiety, that he is up and down with his mood, and has cancer. Wow, he is dealing with a lot. I am glad he is working with a professional as he copes with all that.

You asked, “what can I do?” My question back to you is, what can you do? Long distance relationships are a great opportunity to review what is within your control and what is not. We often feel as if we can ‘fix’ someone else or take responsibility for someone else’s problems, moods, or choices. In this case, the geographical distance between you is a reminder of something that is true for all relationships, which is that we can only control ourselves. You did not mention whether your boyfriend is upset that he does not have friends, or whether it bothers you more than him. Even if he is distressed about it, it would seem that this is an impossible problem for you to ‘fix.’

So if you cannot take control and fix the problems your boyfriend has, how can you support your boyfriend as he is struggling? You are probably already doing a great job of expressing that you care about him. Another thing that can be useful is to simply listen empathically and deeply, which can help others feel heard and understood. It is difficult, often, to hear someone we care about share his or her pain (e.g. “chemotherapy is so awful”). The temptation can be to tell the other person how to handle the problem or feel better (e.g. “you should really try relaxation techniques to feel better!”). Although it is fine to give advice when someone asks for it, deeply listening to someone without offering advice can be just as helpful. For example, instead of offering solutions to problems, you would just reflect what is said and felt, as if you are a mirror. Another way to demonstrate empathy is to share your reaction and let someone know that you hear that things are hard. So suppose your boyfriend were to say, “I am upset today. I don’t have any friends.” An empathic response would be something along the lines of, “You sound lonely. I know it’s hard right now.” By mirroring back what your boyfriend is expressing to you, he will likely feel heard and understood, which is a great feeling.

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When you asked how you can handle this, the first thing that came to mind is self-care. When someone you love is physically or mentally ill, it can take an emotional toll on you. As you care for others, it becomes even more important to take care of yourself. As you continue in this relationship, it may be helpful to find someone to talk to about your worries, or ways to distract yourself, or ideas to cheer yourself up when you are feeling stressed about your boyfriend’s problems.

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