Create Problem-Free Zones


If you’ve been hurt and a Problem has taken over your relationship, there’s plenty that you can do, other than succumb to the Problem yourself. Just because your boyfriend wants to get stinking drunk every time he goes out, doesn’t mean you have to clean him up when he comes home. If your girlfriend picks fights with everyone, it doesn’t mean you have to make excuses for her. If your husband chooses to gamble away his paycheck, it doesn’t mean he has to spend yours, too. Get out a little, be healthy, let your partner clean up his or her own mess. Create a Problem-Free Zone.

Create a Problem-Free Zone even if your wife has a Problem through no fault of her own. Do it for the sake of your own health and so you can be more effective in helping her with it.

When Problems Take Over a Relationship

You’ve been on airplanes when they go over the safety procedures. They always say put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else. I’ve never been in a situation in which the oxygen masks are needed, but I think it’s good advice. It’s even good advice when you’re dealing with a Problem.

There are lots of ways in which a Problem takes over a relationship, but the surest way is when the caregiver forgets to take care of herself. She becomes entirely preoccupied with what the Problem needs. For good reason. Problems scream the loudest. They’re the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. Your needs can wait, you think.

No, they can’t.

I’m not talking about emergencies, of course. If a carotid artery is severed, then, yes, forget that you need to go to the bathroom. Call the ambulance and apply pressure to the wound. You can pee later. You can pee in your pants. In fact, you might be peeing in your pants anyway if someone’s carotid artery is severed in front of you. Other than carotid arteries, there may be a few other kinds of emergencies that require you to forget your needs completely; but not many. Not everything is an emergency. In fact, very few things are. I know, I used to work in an emergency department.

There are practically no true emergencies

When I worked in the emergency department, I was the guy who handled all the psychiatric emergencies. There were the suicidal people, just talked down from ledges, the homicidal people the police brought, the domestic violence people who wouldn’t settle down, the psychotic people who were trying to fly. Often the people who brought them in: the friends, the relatives, the Good Samaritans, were breathless with excitement and trepidation. People were anxious to help. I had just the thing that would make them all feel better. I had a waiting room.

We even had a name for what happened when they waited: waiting room therapy. Believe it or not, there’s a change for the better that occurs when people don’t do anything; provided they’re safe, of course. When you don’t do anything, your heart stops beating so fast, your adrenaline wears off. You have time to think, to talk, to reconsider options. When someone else doesn’t rush to solve your problems for you, you often solve them yourself. You discover your own abilities. You learn that you can bear most things; they are tolerable. You develop endurance.

It’s not like I purposely made people wait. Far from it. I was always gung-ho about seeing people in a timely fashion. Most of the time I was keen to learn about new cases and, even if I wasn’t, it was in my interest to close them. Sometimes I would see the people when my bladder was bursting, when I needed to eat, when I should have taken a break. But all the waiting couldn’t be helped. We were in an emergency department after all. It’s busy. It’s understaffed. There are a bazillion forms to fill out. That’s what people do there, wait. Just like everyone else, I was forced to learn the therapeutic properties of the waiting room.

When you rush to take care of her Problem while neglecting your own, you’re not only doing yourself a disservice, you’re also doing a disservice to her. You don’t give her a chance to solve her own Problem or, at least, to learn that it’s not as big a problem as she thought. If you make her dependent on you, she’ll resent you for it and the problem will get stronger. You’ll hold all your sacrifices against her, especially the ones she never asked you to make. Furthermore, by neglecting your own needs, you decrease your own effectiveness. How good a listener do you think I was when I took a case when I really needed to pee, to eat, or take a break?

Where you can put a Problem-Free Zone

Look for places where you can create a Problem-Free Zone, no matter what the Problem. If your wife is bedridden, the Problem-Free Zone can be the whole rest of the house. Remove all the machines, the medical supplies, the pills, all the stuff involved with the management of the problem and confine it to just the spot where it needs to be. Redecorate the Problem-Free Zone to be an area of vitality. Put pictures on the walls and things that are involved with your other interests, activities other than caring for your sick wife. More importantly, keep those other interests. Go to your yoga class, play softball with the guys, stay connected with family as you would cling to a lifeline if someone handed it to you. Even more importantly, confine the attitudes of the problem to the sick room. Close the door on the hopelessness, the irritability, the dependence to where it has to be and don’t let it invade everywhere else; but don’t close the door on the bedridden person.

If your sick, bedridden wife doesn’t want to be alone with the Problem, then you’re very lucky. That’s a sign of health on her part, an indication that her whole personality has not been taken over by the Problem. In addition to the rest of the house, create a Problem-Free Zone in her sick room by removing all the medical objects you can off to the side, so that what she mostly sees are things associated with health.

Problem-Free Zones can be created in time as well as space. Play chess with her, watch shows together, let her take care of you however she can. Restrict actions related to care to certain necessary times of the day. Ban complaints of pain, grumblings about the doctor, screams of anguish to particular times when you ask how she feels. Lock up the Problem, shove it in the basement, wrap it up in duct tape, and free the person.

If your Problem-possessed partner is not bedridden, you might have to be more inventive about establishing Problem-Free Zones. Alcoholic husbands, or angry, paranoid adult children tend to make messes and spread their problems everywhere they go. In that case, go somewhere they don’t go; somewhere they would never go. Most alcoholic husbands wouldn’t be caught dead at a tea party, so acquire a taste for having tea with your friends. Paranoia dislikes therapists, so find a therapist and create a zone in that office where you can be yourself. If your husband drinks too much whenever you go out with him, don’t go out with him. He can go himself while you go to your tea party. If your wife fights with your mother every time they get together, do something different for Thanksgiving.

People often ask me how I tolerate listening to people’s problems all day, every day. I tolerate it very well, usually, because I know my limits. I’ve learned that if I try to have more than six sessions a day, I’m not as effective as when I see fewer people. I seldom get calls from people outside sessions, I guess because people know they have my full attention during the sessions. When I do, I keep them brief. Six hours a day of problems is about all I can handle. All the rest is a Problem-Free Zone. I can do a lot in six hours. The rest of the time is for me, my friends, and family and giving me time to do other things, like reflecting on my experience and writing it down.
Creating a Problem-Free Zone is really very easy, though it might take some imagination. It’s all about knowing the difference between the Problem and health and creating a boundary between the two. It might look like a selfish thing to do, but it makes you a better caregiver and a more loving spouse. A Problem-Free Zone will ground you and nourish you so that you can better defeat the Problem and maintain your relationship with the person you love.

Keith R Wilson is a mental health counselor in private practice and the author of The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. This article is an excerpt.

This post was previously published on


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