Why You Must Stop Pathologising Your Partner!

These days we're all armchair psychologists, but could you be creating bigger problems in your relationship?The Sugar Doctor and Kia Handley talk about why you must stop pathologising your partner.

[Full Transcript Below]


You can listen to the show live on Monday mornings from 9:30 am on ABC Newcastle at 1233AM or stream live here.

[Original recording on ABC website here]

Kia Handley is: Not a car! Presenter ABC Newcastle. Loves vintage, Eurovision & great stories.

You can also find the incredibly talented Kia Handley on ABC  Newcastle Mornings here, Twitter @kiahandley  Facebook kiahandleyjourno and on her podcasts: This Retro Life & Let's Talk-  Rural Mental Health, PLUS even more amazing gems here.

Episode Transcript:

Kia Handley:

So you think you're an amateur psychologist?

More than ever before we talk openly about mental health, about anxiety, depression, bipolar feelings of flying high and being pretty low, you might be more open talking about triggers and traumas and everything in between.

So does that mean you can take what you've learned in life, what you feel and understand about yourself and feelings and turn that to trying to help others? Someone with thoughts on this is your regular relationship coach Tara Whitewood.

What Does 'Pathologising Your Partner' Mean?

Kia Handley:

So we're talking about pathologising people in our lives. What does that even mean?

Tara Whitewood:

When you're looking at someone in your life and identifying what you think are, behavioural patterns in them, and then making that mean that they... That they have a diagnosis that they're unaware of.

So making it mean that they have a health issue, like, you know, some of the ones that I hear quite often are that someone has sexual health issues or they've got issues with hormones or libido, or people will say "my partner is going through menopause and that's why she's doing this." or it could be mental health issues or a personality disorder.

So pathologising is looking at the people in your life and positioning yourself as the expert on their issues.

Why Do We Pathologise People?

Kia Handley:

Why do we do this? [both laugh] Million dollar question...!

Tara Whitewood:

Well, I mean, you know, living in an age of information, it's much easier for us now to do a search engine search and find the results that, that match the symptoms.

But as I always say; garbage in garbage out, so you'll find what you're looking for, um, whether or not it's correct or not.

But I think the underlying reason, Kia, is that we're all sort of asking ourselves a couple of questions all of the time. And they're based on fears that we have around how we are in the world. So we're all always asking ourselves, am I enough? Am I loved? And do I belong?

And when you have a feeling in your relationship, like those things are maybe not true... then this approach of pathologising your partner gives you a really nice answer. A, really nice packaged answer. That means that there's nothing wrong with you and your partner is the problem.

Kia Handley:

By the way, the answer is yes, to all those questions. If anyone is having those moments today, the answer is yes to all the single one of them always every day, every day, no matter what's going on, why does this become a problem?

Image of a phrenology head bust with a blue filter.

Whose Issue is this? Is it Relational? Or Pathology?

Tara Whitewood:

I think the problem, particularly in an intimate relationship, because I mean... Let's say even if your diagnosis is true, it's never helpful to approach a relational issue between you, by pathologising your partner and treating it as a problem that belongs to them.


So what you're doing is you're taking the diagnosis that you've come up with and centering that as the reason that there are problems in your relationship. So the biggest problem with that is you're avoiding engaging in any criticism or taking any responsibility for your part in the issues.

And you're completely allocating that to the other person, and you're not their therapist, you know, you, you might be wrong and it's, it's not your role to now step into that role of expert or almost sometimes even parent.

It completely skews the dynamics of your relationship. So you're positioning yourself, I think a lot of the times as well as a rescuer... And, and that's never helpful for someone.

What Happens When We Pathologise Our Partner?

Kia Handley:

Yeah. So the flow on from that can be what?

Tara Whitewood:

So the flow on from that will be that you're pushing your partner away, that they're not, you know... that they're put in a position where they're defensive. Like, no, that's not, what's wrong with me. You know, no, that's not what's going on.

So it becomes a really adversarial position that you're both in instead of a more supportive position, which might look like coming to your partner and saying, "Hey, you know, I've noticed that there's a couple of things going on and, and it seems a bit unusual. Is there something that, you know, that I can support you in? Is there something that's happening? And can we maybe go and look for some help together to address those things?" Instead of pathologising them as, you know, you have this and we need to fix you.

Closeup of a dictionary definition of the word 'blame'.

How Do I Know if I Am Pathologising My Partner?

Kia Handley:

Given, we do think in that moment that we're being helpful and caring, and loving and trying to do everything right. How do we check ourselves? How do we know if we might be falling into this trap of pathologising our partner a little bit?

Tara Whitewood:

So I would say that the red flags are asking yourself a couple of questions.

  • Do I think that if my partner addressed their problem, that it would fix our relationship?
  • Do I believe that my partner's problem is the source of our conflict?
  • And, you know, do I think that our relationship is great except for this one issue that belongs to my partner, it's not mine?
  • So, you know, do you think that it's your role to make your partner better or to help them fulfill their potential?

You know, a lot of people that I see particularly, have what my teacher Michaela Boehm calls a 'project partner'. So, you know, you fall in love with the potential of that person and then think, Oh, you know, they're, they're amazing if only I could tweak these one or two things and you go about fixing that person, you know, you're in love with their potential, not how they actually are.


So taking a step back and really seeing them for who they are and what they can offer you outside of what you think they should be.

Because a project partner relationship is never fulfilling for either of you. One partner never feels like they're enough, and the other always takes that sort of high road that superiority pass, which is just patently, not true.

Is it Hard to Acknowledge We're Pathologising Someone?

Kia Handley:

Can that be hard for us to acknowledge that in ourselves that we might be pathologising our partner?

Tara Whitewood:

Oh my gosh, super hard. I'll put my hand up as someone who does it as well. You know...

Kia Handley:

Well, I imagine that's hard for you because of the job you do as well! [both laugh] like there is this weird blurring of the lines for you.

Tara Whitewood:

Yeah. And I mean, you know, frankly it took me quite some years to, to realize that it was a real relational barrier and that, um, it was never helpful…that people are responsible for their own lives. And if they would choose to look for change in their life, then they're very welcome to, and if they choose to remain in their life, how they are, then that's also a completely valid option.

And, and then you get to choose, you know, how do I want to engage with that person in a relationship?

But the, the other truth that I'd like to share my deepest, darkest secrets is I've been wrong many times as well Kia!

Kia Handley:

I don't believe it...

Tara Whitewood:

I know once or twice, you know, there's times where I pathologies: Oh, that person's blah-blah-blah and then some years later look back and think…"Oh! That was me!" You know, or " that was us! That was the relationship dynamic between us."

So yeah, I just don't, I don't see it as ever really being helpful is the key.

The other thing is Dr. Alexandra Solomon, who I, who I love says that behind every criticism is an unmet need. So I think sometimes approaching the dynamic and, and identifying not what is 'wrong', but what is it that I'm missing? You know, what, what is, what's my inner yearning? What's the desire that, that I'm asking to be met,  but doing it, doing it in a quite aggressive manner.

What Can I Do Instead?

Kia Handley:

So let's look at what we can do instead of pathologising our partner. How can we actually approach this if we are, you know, if we do have some concerns and we're worried about our partner, because it does come from love and worry and concern and wanting everyone to be happy and healthy, always.


So what is a better way to approach this?

Tara Whitewood:

Yeah. So a better way would be to approach it as a reflection to your partner.

If your partner is usually collaborative and your relationship is mostly good, you know, if, if that's the case, then you can come to your partner and say, "Hey, look, I've noticed that you seem a little bit self focused, or you seem a bit distant, or you seem like you're having a lot of mood swings, and I'm worried about you. And I love you. And I wonder if there's something going on that we can address?"

So framing it as what, identify what your experience is and identifying the unmet need for you, and then offering, , a collaborative approach to solving the problem.

But also, I want to say if your relationship is not usually collaborative and your partner is not usually engaging with you, and it's been a pattern the whole time you've been together, then perhaps what you've identified is that you're not in a good relationship.

You're not in a healthy relationship, and it's not about trying to solve that problem that that person has so that you can have a good relationship. It's about identifying, do you know what I've been romanticizing this? And the actuality of my relationship is not healthy. So I'm going to need to address it.

Kia Handley:

Tara always great to get a bit of an insight into your mind and into our own relationships each and every week as well, Tara Whitewood there, your regular guest and a relationship coach with The Sugar Doctor.


For full transparency you should know: This transcript has been lightly edited for flow, and to optimise the SEO on my website. That means that I have substituted some words or phrases so that the article is more likely to appear in a google search. In this article "pathologise" has been optimised. I only do that in a context where the meaning will remain the same, for example instead of "..that we might be doing this?" I have said "...that we might be pathologising our partner?".

This is a decision which I've made because SEO is one of the key factors in determining whether people do, or do not, read my blogs & articles, visit my website, and work with me.