Hello old friend. Although we’ve never met your words and blog are like an old friend, and I need some guidance. I’m recently involved with someone who suffers from severe depression. You’ve spoken on the topic once or twice so I thought who better to ask?
He’s truly an amazing person and it makes me wonder how he could dislike anything about himself. But he’s so in and out and at this point, I just feel lost. Do I stay and neglect my own happiness or do I leave and abandon him?
Dear Down in the (you might have to) Dump(him)s,
My heart goes out to you and your hubby. Depression is a difficult disease to understand and an even more difficult one to live with. I commend you for attempting to sympathise with his situation and for supporting him – he’s fortunate to have someone like you around.
I am going to give you the permission within the confines of this response to do something you may not feel you can do in your relationship, and that is to be selfish. Let’s put you and your needs first as we think through this situation.
Depression is a silent, creeping beast – impossible to see with the naked eye but oppressively ever present for those who suffer from it. It’s important to understand that depression is a chemical imbalance within the brain, not simply a “bad mood” that persists over the course of a few days. Those suffering from depression can’t just “get over it” or “look on the bright side” and have their depression symptoms go away. Managing severe depression often requires a balance of prescribed medication, psychotherapy or psychiatry, and lifestyle changes.
This brings me to my most pressing question for you – is your boyfriend managing his depression? Is he seeing a therapist, taking the right meds, integrating healthy eating and exercise into his daily life? In short, is he doing as much work as it sounds like you are to make himself feel – if not good – better?
While partnership is about compromise and commitment, your boyfriend’s mental health isn’t your burden to bear. It sounds like you feel somewhat responsible for his well being. You feel that if you were to leave you would be “abandoning” him, as though to some degree he needs you to be happy. And relationships shouldn’t be about need, they should be about want. A relationship is a daily choice you make, not an obligation. Not a chore. Not an act of charity.
Part of you feels badly for your boyfriend, and also feels that you have the power to do something about his depression, and so you’re staying in this relationship in part out of guilt. You’re putting your own well being second and it’s making you unhappy. You should never neglect your own happiness in a relationship, depressed partner or not.
I dated someone with some serious mental health and addiction issues for the better part of six years and I won’t sugarcoat this – when you are the girlfriend of someone suffering from a mental disease you will frequently be the one to overcorrect.
What I mean is… you will be the one who compromises, who is being asked or expected to make sacrifices on behalf of the other person; you may be blamed, even, for their pain or – if you can believe it – be blamed for being the only thing that actually brings them any happiness. The concessions will come from your end with frequency. And if your partner isn’t putting in as much work it can quickly begin to feel unfair, imbalanced and, ultimately, as though you’re being mistreated.
And the thing is, your partner might not feel as though he can put in that type of work right now. He may not have it in him. He may muster it some days and not others. He might really want it to work but find it hard to be present in the moment with you. It may be difficult for him to feel, or even fake, enthusiasm for things pertaining to a relationship.
This obviously isn’t to say that people who suffer from depression can’t or shouldn’t be in relationships. But I just want you to understand that you won’t remedy someone’s depression by being in a relationship with them. And you can’t be in a relationship where your own health and happiness are being neglected. I don’t doubt that this guy is an amazing dude, and maybe after you think it over you’ll deem it a worthy effort to embark on. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t warn you that it will be an effort.
More people than we may realise suffer with mental health issues like depression, anxiety or mood disorders. The most important thing we can do – and that you can do with your boyfriend – is to talk about it and be understanding. And he has to be understanding, too, if this just isn’t a situation that will work for you.
I truly hope he finds treatment that helps him to handle the difficult day-to-day of living with depression. And I hope you are able to make a decision that you feel confident about.
Let me know what you decide and how things turn out – I’d love to hear from you again.