When your boyfriend/girlfriend self-harms

Finding out the person you love hurts themselves is not easy to take, but you can help them to help themselves if you're calm, supportive and strong. The Mix looks at what steps to take when your boyfriend or girlfriend self-harms.

A young woman sits on a sofa looking serious

I think my boyfriend or girlfriend self-harms, but I’m not sure…

Trust your instinct and if something feels not quite right about your partner’s behaviour then don’t be afraid to bring it up and ask them. Gently ask them how they are feeling about life and themselves, and bring up what you’ve noticed, sensitively. Self-harm is a very private issue, so talk to them first about it before telling anyone else.

Confronting them

You may feel angry, upset and confused, but remember that your partner is in a difficult situation too. It may be the first time they’ve been asked about it so take a breath, step back emotionally, talk to them gently, and be as objective and non-judgemental as you can.

“Sometimes gentle questioning can be appropriate, but bear in mind that self-harm may be a way of managing intense pain,” says Psychiatrist Louise Theodosiou. “A partner would need to make sure that the questions were asked somewhere private and that they had time to support their partner with any answers they may provide.”

The best thing to do is to listen calmly and let them talk about it freely without interrupting. Be respectful, caring and open-minded. Remember they may feel scared to tell you because they don’t want to lose you. If you’re worried about how to confront your partner then seek advice. You can talk to your GP, a counsellor or support group for specific advice.

Are they depressed?

“Many people use self-harming as a coping mechanism, which actually serves the purpose of keeping themselves safe,” says psychiatric social worker Karen Wright.

Self-harm is more likely to be a way of managing painful feelings and is not necessarily a sign of severe depression, threat of suicide or mental illness. It can even be a way to physically release inner tension. However, sometimes it can mean more. If you’re worried your partner seems very depressed, speak to your doctor or ring a helpline for advice.

Understanding their self-harm

“It’s important to remember that people self-harm for different reasons. It could be a long-term coping strategy, or an intense reaction to distress or depression,” says Louise.

Often your partner won’t fully understand why they’re doing it themselves, so it’s best not to push them too hard. Self-harming can become habitual, even addictive. Try to find out what makes them want to hurt themselves and help them work out what they could do instead as a distraction or an alternative.

“My girlfriend knows I self-harmed, but we don’t talk about it – she has a more serious history of it than I do,” says Leanne, 19. “I don’t feel we share a romanticised bond of two tortured souls against the world. As she reminds me, I will never know where she’s coming from because I don’t have a guidebook on human emotion. I feel close to her because I love her. And that has nothing to do with the scars on her body.”

No promises

Don’t make them promise not to do it again. A guilt trip won’t help anyone. It can even make things worse, so try not to place emotional demands on them they probably won’t be able to keep. This is about them, not you and your relationship. They need to understand why they are doing it and find their own ways of replacing self-harm. Try not to focus on the self-harm but about what’s going on behind it instead. If you get them to make a promise they can’t keep it may end up causing feelings of shame and, as a result, more secrets.

Encourage them to get further help

It’s a positive step if they’ve managed to open up to you, but talking to a trained counsellor or health professional would be even better. Encourage them to seek specialist help and offer to go with them if they’re worried about doing it alone.

Don’t push or threaten your partner with ending the relationship if they say no to further help – try and go at their pace. You could offer to tell someone for them or to find out more information. The only real way to recovery is for them to recognise there are other ways to deal with how they feel inside. Don’t ignore what they’ve told you. Be there emotionally for them as much as you can, but remember you have to be there for yourself too.

Next Steps

  • If you have questions about self-harm you can use selfharmUK's Ask a question service. Or look at the questions that have already been answered.
  • RecoverYourLife.com is an online community where you can get peer support for self-harm and other mental health problems.
  • Anyone can contact the Samaritans on their 24-hour helpline to talk things through. 116 123
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Monica Perdoni

Updated on 29-Sep-2015