Question #130: “My partner is depressed and I am drowning.”

Dear Captain,

I have been in a loving relationship for almost a year.  My partner is really really ridiculously awesome.

Zie is also very depressed, and occasionally suicidal. Zie has had a very rough life, with a lot of trauma and abuse, so that’s not surprising.  Zie does not want outside help of any kind, and gets angry if I or anyone suggests it.  

I want to be a loving, supportive partner, but I’m not always good about it. We fight.  Sometimes I feel angry, trapped, and resentful.  Occasionally zie lashes out at me for no obvious reason, because that’s the only way zie can express the hurt inside.

Sometimes seeing my partner in so much pain feels like more than I can deal with.  I hate knowing that zie will probably never get better, and there’s nothing I can do to help.

I love my partner, and I want us to stay together.

But I feel like I’m in over my depth, and I don’t know what to do.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Many thanks,

Drowning

Dear Drowning:

Your letter affected me very deeply, and I am glad you wrote to me, though what I have to offer comes in the form of an open-book essay exam to which there are no right or easy answers.

1. Your partner didn’t choose to be depressed, but by refusing to even consider seeking help, could we make an argument that they are choosing to stay depressed?

2. What goals and dreams do you have for yourself that you are ignoring or putting off “until someday, when partner gets better”?  Is there any way you can get started on them now?

3. In your opinion, what level of shitty upbringing, past trauma, or depressive episode makes it acceptable for someone to “lash out at you for no obvious reason“?

4. What do you mean by “lashing out“?  Yelling? Sulking? Mean criticism? Silent treatment? Throwing/breaking things? Slamming doors?  Hitting?

5. If your child or your closest friend was experiencing these kinds of “lashing out” behaviors from a partner, what advice would you give them?

6. Do you find yourself making excuses about your partner and/or downplaying the seriousness of what’s going on to your family & friends?

7. Does your partner ever use their miserable past to justify their behavior toward you?  Have you ever started out hearing an apology for something bad they did or said to you that ended with you comforting them? “Sorry I cheated on you, but you know I grew up without a lot of positive male attention and I have a lot of issues around sex” or “I’m sorry I failed to show up at that event you were counting on me to come to. You know how I get when I’m this depressed”?

8. Have you ever said to your partner “That’s not okay, I don’t care how sad you are or what you’ve been through, you can’t talk to me like that?”  How did they react?

9. Have you ever told your partner “Your unwillingness to treat your depression and the way you lash out at me for no reason makes me feel angry, trapped, and resentful?”  If so, how did they respond?

10. Do you spend a lot of your relationship apologizing to one another?

11. Have you ever though the words “I could leave, but then partner might commit suicide, and it would be my fault?” to yourself?

12. Do you have a plan in mind for what to do if your partner attempts or commits suicide?

13. Do you think you can change people if you just love them enough?

14. Do you think that if you could just learn to be a better partner, you would fight less?

15.  Do you think things will be better a month from now? A year from now? If you knew that in five years things would be exactly like they are now, would you stay?

16. If you were watching a movie about your relationship, where you could see a character go through everything you go through with your partner, how do you think the movie ends?

17. Do you know the story of Orpheus and Eurydice?  What do you think is the lesson or theme of that myth? Do you think another ending was possible?

18. Have you thought about seeking therapy for yourself?  Not to “fix” your partner, but to nurture yourself in handling all of this?

19. Did you write to me because you hoped I’d have some strategies for persuading your partner to seek help, because you just had to finally tell someone how bad it really was, or because you were looking for permission to leave?

As you complete this exam, use all available resources and take all the time you need.

53 comments
  1. monica said:

    As a person who has experienced depression and probably will again: well done, Captain.

    I would add, as an addendum to #1: do you know why your partner is so resistant to seeking help? have you asked? prior negative experiences with therapy and/or medications vs. so depressed zie doesn’t believe things will ever get better so there’s no point in trying vs. money issues vs. internalized stigma… they’re all different, and different things will help.

    • JenniferP said:

      Thanks for this comment – so true.

      In the questions I’m trying to tease out “depression” vs. “dysfunction,” so thanks for getting it.

      • Jake said:

        I think these questions really get at what matters here. Excellent response. I also think that when depression is bad enough, or when it manifests in certain ways, it’s indistinguishable from dysfunction, and that it’s okay, as the partner of a depressed person, to take care of yourself. I say this as someone who has dealt with depression and who has been very hard to be friends with/in a relationship with as a result.

        I also want to pass on something my mom armed me with when I was about 19: It’s never healthy to care more about someone else’s happiness than they do.

        I’m not saying that this for sure applies in your situation, but it’s always worth keeping in mind.

        • Christen said:

          “It’s never healthy to care more about someone else’s happiness than they do.”

          Whoa. I almost want to tattoo this on my forearm. Thank you.

      • Atalanta said:

        Seconding it being really important to know *why* the LW’s SO is unwilling to seek help. In addition to the possible reasons Monica mentioned, zie might not want a paper trail documenting mental illness; I was turned down for the life insurance offered by a former employer because of my diagnosis. Fear of being discriminated against could be a factor.

        • JenniferP said:

          The LW’s partner may in fact have good reasons for not seeking care, and it is important to ask. I’m really sorry that happened to you and it is Not Okay.

          But what if the partner has really good, ironclad reasons for not seeking care, and the day-to-day is still shitty and the LW still feels like she is drowning?

          The depression (or, insert any illness here) really doesn’t matter. What matters is a) how the partner treats the LW and b) how the LW feels about the relationship and whether it seems worthwhile to stick around because the good stuff outweighs the bad stuff. Most of the questions are designed to tease out stuff would be dysfunctional in any relationship. The depression is a red herring.

          “I have an (illness), I don’t seek care because of (good reason). JOIN ME IN MISERY” is still miserable. Even if it’s no one’s fault. Even if there are good reasons.

          “Is it okay for me to leave my partner because they have a mental illness and I can’t really handle the day-to-day?” Yes. “Even though I feel very bad for them and it’s not their fault?” Yes. “Even though people discriminate against people with mental illnesses, and I want to make up for that somehow by sticking around and not be part of the problem and I know it’s totally not their fault?” Yup.

          “Is it okay for me to leave my partner because they got a job across the country and I don’t want to move there?” Yes.

          “Is it okay for me to leave my partner because I’m just not feeling it anymore?” Yes.

          “Is it okay for me to leave my partner?” Yes.

          • Lesley said:

            THIS.

            Too many people stay with partners beyond the expiration date because it’s what we’re “supposed” to do. People ought to give themselves permission to leave if that’s what is best for them. You do not need an ironclad argument. Just the desire for something else is enough.

            Do not feel bad.

    • Drowning said:

      I think zie has had some pretty awful experiences with therapy and especially medications in the past; and I don’t think zie believes it’s possible for zie to recover. The trauma I was referring to started when zie was a little child, so I don’t think zie has a baseline of what it means to live without constant emotional pain.

      • JenniferP said:

        Thanks for letting us know what’s up with your partner.

        Now let’s put the focus back on you. What can YOU do for YOURSELF…RIGHT NOW. One tiny step for yourself to stop the drowning.

        • Drowning said:

          Is this a bonus question? Can I get extra credit??😄

          Here is my short list of things I am considering doing for myself.

          (1) Therapy!! I am a grad student, which means I have access to free short-term counseling. I should be able to get an appointment within the next few weeks.

          (2) Talk to a few people in “real ife” about what is going on. All this talking on-line has made me realize that I really really really need to vent and be hugged right now!

          (3) Try to schedule some fun, relaxed social time with friends (and without my partner) on a regular basis.

          (4) Do not engage hir “You don’t really love me!” guilt trips. I’m not sure what the best, most compassionate way to do this would be, but I really need a way to shut down those conversations. They just turn into a huge, bottomless vortex of angst that makes us both miserable.

          I don’t expect any of these things to be a magic bullet, but hopefully they will be enough to start moving this relationship from soul-crushing to merely challenging?

          I do love my partner; zie’s definitely not abusive or anything like that; and I really want to try and work things out.

          Thanks again, Captain, for all of your advice.

          • JenniferP said:

            That all sounds really, really good.

            Run this by your therapist, because I am not a therapist!

            For shutting down the “You’ll probably just leave me” one thing you might be able to say is “That is your depression talking to me, and I don’t want to have a conversation with it. I love you, let’s talk again when you’re feeling better and YOU are talking to me.”

            Then find a way to leave the conversation for a while.

          • Drowning said:

            I scheduled my first therapy appointment! I am proud of myself.

  2. Random Internet Denzien said:

    I’m really sorry to hear about your difficult situation LW, and I’m equally sorry to have to advise you thus:

    You are ultimately going to have to extricate yourself from this relationship.

    I know you love your partner, but if your partner is not willing to even consider outside help then this becomes a question of whether you’re going to martyr yourself for this relationship, and that’s pretty much never a good idea IMHO.

    • Atalanta said:

      Would you say the same thing to the partner of someone with a debilitating and life-threatening physical illness?

      • JenniferP said:

        If the person was “lashing out at me for no good reason” and I was feeling increasingly trapped and resentful, and the person got angry at me if I even suggested remedies, then yes.

        • Random Internet Denzien said:

          Exactly.

          I spent close to 5 years in a relationship with someone who suffered from bi-polar disorder and it was never really a problem. But that is because they recognized the need to actively manage their condition (without medication I might add as lithium is a bit scary) and generally took care to not lash out at me as a result of it.

          The issue is not that their partner is suffering from severe depression per se but rather that they are hostile to doing anything about it and lashing out at the LW as a result of it.

          I’m just cutting to the chase here, unfortunately. If the LW stays she’s just going to get emotionally drained, hurt and resentful as she continues to martyr hirself in this relationship and eventually arrive at the same conclusion anyway. I’ve seen this dance play out a few times and I’m just trying to spare the LW the intervening pain based on what I’ve seen. YMMV.

          • Hanna said:

            My partner “accepting responsibility for actively managing the condition” is *exactly* how I would describe what made the difference in our relationship.

      • Beauzeaux said:

        Yes, if the person was refusing to see a doctor. Was self-medicating or not medicating at all. Was miserable and spreading the misery around without any attempt to help themselves.

        I have suffered from depression. I tried to ride it out but ultimately went to the doctor and now I take an ant-depressant and feel much better. My partner did not deserve to live with someone as sad/angry as I was becoming though I went for treatment for myself.

      • piny said:

        The letter writer is clearly feeling a great deal of shame about this already.

        I don’t think this is like other life-threatening illnesses, in that most life-threatening illnesses do not make sufferers resistant to treatment.

        But also…the partner can reach out to other people. The partner isn’t isolated by circumstance. They won’t be left without any other options if the letter writer decides to leave. If the letter writer stays, the partner will still have final say in how to deal (or not deal) with their depression. And so I think it’s unfair to make the letter writer feel responsible for their partner’s well-being on this level: the partner is in control, and the letter writer isn’t.

      • maggie said:

        Yes. Even when life is super, super shitty your relationships can’t be all one way. I’m newly diagnosed as pretty severely depressed (although not so much with the suicidal tendencies; it actually mostly manifested as a debilitating physical illness). And yeah, it’s been fairly sucky, but my husband was still getting something out of our relationship despite the difficulties. I still tried to do what I could to help him out and show him that I appreciate him and care.

        Now, if I’d been debilitated and wouldn’t contribute anything I could manage, and instead just psychically vampired my sweetie, then he’d be well within his rights to pack up and leave. My hurt doesn’t give me the right to entirely trample him and crush him into a blob of unhappiness. Because I love him! I don’t *want* him to be a blob of unhappiness!

        (Unrelatedly: Captain, I’m sorry for the weird email I sent you when I panicked about What Do I Do As A Depressive.)

      • I think you’re misinterpreting RID’s answer.

        RID isn’t saying “LW, your partner has a mental illness, leave zir,” much less what I think you’re seeing, which is “your partner has a ‘mental illness,’ DTMFA.”* RID’s point seems to me more like “your partner is engaging in behaviors that make you miserable; if zie won’t take steps to stop those behaviors — whatever is causing them, whatever zir reasons for not doing anything/enough about it — leave zir.”

        If you live with someone who’s constantly shitting on the floor, you want the shitting on the floor to stop. It doesn’t matter if it’s ignorance, hostility or disease that’s causing it; you have a right to say “one way or another, I’m not going to continue living with someone who shits on the floor.” Same sort of thing.

        RID is addressing LW’s problem, not LW’s partner’s problem.

        *That is something people say, unfortunately, but I don’t get the sense that’s what RID is saying

  3. Citrine said:

    I had a partner like that. I thought if I loved him enough, if I was supportive enough, if I was just enough, he would get better. He didn’t; he just found more ways to make everything my fault. Eventually I left and I was much happier living in a world where I didn’t feel like I was rolling a stone up the hill every morning to only have it roll back down on me again.

    You can’t cure a broken leg with only love. You can’t treat diabetes with only love. You can’t treat cancer with only love. Depression is also an illness, and just like any other illness, it does not necessarily respond to love. (This is not to say that support and caring don’t help when one is acutely or chronically ill, just that those things by themselves are not going to fix the problem.)

    And, as a person with depression, I will say this: depression is not an excuse for shitty behavior.
    It might be an explanation — and a very legitimate explanation at that — but it’s not an excuse; if anything, it should be an indicator that “wow, I have a problem that I need to work on if I don’t want to keep hurting myself or hurting others.” If I hurt someone because I miss something important or I can’t be as good of a friend or a partner because my depression has flared up, then I owe that person an explanation, an apology, and a willingness to try to make things right if possible. I don’t want to use my depression as a “get out of responsibility free” card.

    Your partner is responsible for zir actions and zir choices right now, and I think that zie needs to make better choices. If zie can’t, that is not your fault, your problem, or your responsibility.

    Please take care of yourself. Don’t waste as many years as I did.

  4. Hanna said:

    LW, my partner of 7 years is a chronic sufferer of clinical depression, exacerbated by some traumatic life experiences. 6 months into our relationship things were a lot like what you describe. We were in our early twenties and we loved each other so much but his depression (undiagnosed at that point) made everything so hard and confusing. I couldn’t understand why he would do things like suddenly become withdrawn and apparently cold when everything had seemed great. I couldn’t understand how we could be experiencing the most amazing, joyful time in our lives falling in love, but he could still be intermittently dealing with suicidal ideation and obsessive thoughts of worthlessness. I thought I could make him realise he was wonderful and not worthless by having these epic conversations where I reassured him he was great and how I loved him and would never leave him. Once he sent me a depressive email that I thought looked a bit like a suicide note and then disappeared for 12 hours, during which time I tried frantically to call him hundreds of times and got so stressed I couldn’t stop vomiting. I just want you to know that I understand that being in love with someone who is depressed can be really hard and lonely and scary, and I truly feel for you.

    The thing that was hardest for me to accept is that I can’t fix my partner’s depression, and that its existence and recurrence is not a reflection of something wrong with our relationship. I really believe that my support helped him a lot in the hardest times, but things would never have really improved without professional help. It was seeing the doctor, medication and therapy that turned things around for his mental health. I don’t think he will ever be cured of depressive tendencies, but slumps are rarer and shorter now, and he’s much better at limiting their effect on our relationship.

    I’m most worried that your partner refuses external help… I really, truly understand how much you love this person and want to help them, but you can’t do it by yourself. And in the meantime your own emotional needs are probably not getting the attention they deserve, in addition to the stress from the fights, “lashing out” etc. I know that feeling of “drowning” so well…

    Please make sure you look after yourself. Although you are the “well” one (and maybe haven’t been through the same traumas), you also need a caring, supportive partner who treats you well. That might mean explaining to your partner that you really believe that you believe zie needs to seek help (which could come in many forms and doesn’t necessarily involve meds), and that you don’t think you can continue the relationship without that. Or it might mean finding the courage to leave someone you still love to protect yourself. Whether you can make it work could depend on how bad things have gotten and how stubborn is your partner’s refusal to seek help. But I’m afraid love alone won’t fix this.

    I hope things get better for you soon, LW.

    • Beauzeaux said:

      Beautiful and complete response.

  5. Jenna said:

    “Occasionally zie lashes out at me for no obvious reason, because that’s the only way zie can express the hurt inside.”

    Let me rephrase this as, “Occasionally zie lashes out at me for no obvious reason, because that’s the only way that zie knows how to express the hurt inside.”

    People can learn behaviors like communication. Sometimes they don’t because it is easier to do things the way they always have and being depressed takes energy. I have been depressed, though I can’t say that I know what zie is going through. Obviously I have never met or spoken to the person, and I am also not psychic. However, part of my own battle against depression includes learned behavior and coping mechanisms that keep me functional enough to be independent and not hurtful to those who care about me.

    I had to learn functional communication, to ask for what I needed and do so directly, instead of hinting and expecting people to just know. I had to unlearn thinking of myself as a bother and an imposition, and give myself permission to need or even just want something for myself.

    I occasionally bribe myself to get really ordinary but necessary things done, like bills. I’ll put on music and make myself tea or hot chocolate to drink while accomplishing that task. I will treat myself more gently for not doing anything beyond what I can do, and occasionally make lists of what I HAVE accomplished rather than what needs doing. Sometimes I will tart a task by telling myself that I am just organizing the parts of it to do later, just to get over the inertia of beginning.

    Before I even began working on these things, though, I went pretty far down. I was hospitalized for depression as a teen, and I regard my turning point as the place where I decided in my own head that I was worth fighting for. I was going to be stuck there until I figured out how to get out. No one was going to do it for me, but, I wanted OUT! So I figured out what I needed to do and ask for to get me there.

    You may not be able to help your partner. You can help yourself. Figure out what you need, and believe that you deserve to have it.

    • Kathleen said:

      “occasionally make lists of what I HAVE accomplished rather than what needs doing. ”

      that is such a simple, great idea, it kind of almost made me cry.

      • K said:

        I started doing this and it’s done wonders for my self-esteem in the sense that when I feel like I’ve done nothing all day, I can point to the record of it and say “See? You put PANTS on today.” (Pretty epic for me right now). I use idonethis.com. They send you an email every day saying “Hey, tell us what you’ve done!” and then you can reply straight from your email client and they keep it on a calendar for you. It’s automatically set to private so no one else can see it unless you want them to.

        • k said:

          My slow crawl out of situational depression began with exactly that kind of affirmation. It feels silly at first but it’s actually really amazing! You can do it, Uppercase K🙂

  6. I’m sorry, but this person doesn’t sound “really really ridiculously awesome.” I just hope Drowning hasn’t already moved in with them.

    When I was in an abusive relationship, the “lashing out” didn’t turn into regular verbal abuse until we’d moved in together. Six months later it was becoming physical abuse and that’s when I finally took my cats and moved out while she was at work. I had to leave a lot of possessions behind and it cost me all of my money, but it was worth it.

    Whether or not you decide to break up with them, the next time they threaten suicide, call 911 or a suicide hotline immediately.

    • Veronica said:

      I agree with this comment. The part about the suicide makes me wary. How does this tendency manifest? Are they actively attempting it, or are they threatening you with it, LW? Are they putting the onus of their actions on you? My sister’s physically and emotionally abuse ex used to sob, cry, induce vomiting, threaten suicide, etc. just to get her to do what he wanted. It was terrifying to watch, much less having to stand by and not intervene knowing that it would only be taken out on her.

      Some people don’t want to fix themselves, LW. A better question to ask yourself is whether a person who doesn’t want help deserves yours.

  7. Dorothy said:

    Captain has offered excellent questions to ask yourself, Drowning!!!

    You say that Zie is “really really ridiculously awesome,” but that Zie is “also very depressed, and occasionally suicidal.” I’m picturing a scale in my mind, and on one side of it is the happy Zie, and on the opposite side is the depressed and suicidal Zie, and it seems to me that your main role in your relationship with her/him is to keep the scale in balance at all times and to make certain that the depressed and suicidal Zie doesn’t outweigh the really ridiculously awesome Zie. So I’m picturing you in the middle of this scale, walking on eggshells a lot of the time, constantly on edge while watching the scale; i.e., Zie’s moods, and making sure that you comfort her/him enough in bad times so that the scale doesn’t tip in the other direction. And you’re doing so much work, trying to keep the scale balanced, that you may be losing sight of who YOU are and what you represent in this relationship.

    Your life, it seems, has been somewhat hijacked by your seemingly more important partner in your relationship. Zie pummels you with words and actions and threatens suicide on occasion, and your reaction is to bolster Zie up as much as you can so that there will be a changed and happier Zie. But the more you try, the more you might become a scapegoat, as the stand-in person who gave her/him hell in the past, and you become somewhat of a whippin’ boy. It sounds as if the situation will continue unless you both enter counseling or you leave the relationship.

    My question is, where are YOU, Drowning, in all of this? You have spent so much time and energy on Zie that it sounds as if your life doesn’t count nearly as much as Zie’s does. That has created a lopsided relationship, and there is not enough give-and-take of love and honor and respect. You run to Zie’s rescue, and it sounds as if Zie feels free to lash out at you, then feels remorseful until the next crisis.

    I have a sister who used to call, when drunk, and ramble on and on about her problems, why nothing ever turned out for her, she had a rough background filled with abuse, etc., which I can verify because we all suffered in the family, though she suffered the most. She was close to dying, most likely, and would often end up with cuts and gashes and in strange localities that she, in a lucid state, could not remember anything about. I was so upset that one day I told her I could not talk to her unless she was sober. She did eventually become a recovering alcoholic, and I realize I took a huge chance and didn’t know what the outcome would be. But I couldn’t take it anymore. I was very sad to not be in touch with her, but I was at the end of my rope and couldn’t hold on any longer. I constantly worried about her during the time we were separated.

    It’s very difficult to leave, it’s taking a gamble, and it’s very scary, and counseling would be a gift you can give yourself if Zie keeps refusing to go. Zie may not be willing to delve into her/his past to get better. Maybe it would be too frightening, but remaining in a status quo position is pushing people away. In the meantime, it might be a good idea to delve into your own background, with counseling, to understand why it is that you are so drawn to this person who needs rescuing and who has difficulty being self-reliant and strong.

    An abundance of TLC for you is in order, and you are not receiving enough of that from your partner because things are always focused on her/him. You count just as much as Zie does. How much more can you take? Zie didn’t get enough love, attention, and nurturing in the past and was traumatized and abused, but do you need to pay for that as well?

    Drowning, you deserve the best life you can possibly give yourself, as a gift to your own awesomeness. Is this way of living truly going to foster a sense of happiness and peace?

    Get thee and Zie, however you can, to counseling post haste!!! And GOOD LUCK to the both of you!!!

  8. Ignotus Somnium said:

    This reminds me a lot of the discussion that came up in the earlier post about leaving an abusive family, so I’m going to steal someone’s quote from that for a moment.

    Put your oxygen mask on first.

    You have to feel secure and stable first before you can help someone with a problem as big as depression. I don’t mean you have to feel perfect all the time, but you need to get some ground under your feet so you don’t drown. Maybe when you’re on your feet you can help him a little. Maybe not. Depression isn’t something you can really “fix,” especially if the person doesn’t want to get help.

    First and foremost, make sure that you’re taking care of you.

  9. xenu01 said:

    It sounds like you could maybe use some professional help as well. Maybe that person would be the best one to tell you how to proceed in this relationship, how to help your partner, or how to extricate yourself from the relationship if things are not working out. And as a friend once said to me, “Sometimes it’s just really nice to talk to someone whose job it is to listen.”

    So yes, put on your oxygen mask first, and to me, that would involve going to see a therapist. Maybe even just once or twice. Now, I don’t know if you are rolling in cash or not, but I am in an income bracket to which middle-class is a distant, distant thing, so sliding-scale therapy was the key. Please don’t forget that mental health is good for everyone, and don’t fall into the trap of thinking that “your problems aren’t as bad, so…” or anything. Your problems are worth talking about! So go seek help for them. And you know what? It is a very different thing to say, “I have been seeing a therapist and zie is wonderful and is really helping me, do you want me to ask if there is anyone with an open slot for you?”

    Another thing you can try, by the way, is to go to an Al-anon meeting. (Record skip. Whaaaa?) No, seriously! Go to an Al-anon meeting. I think you might find it helpful to sit and listen to some other people talk about their struggles with being in a difficult situation with a partner who they love very much but who is struggling with a difficult illness at this time.

  10. xenu01 said:

    Oh, and by the way, I basically just said in long form what the Captain already said in #18. Hats off to you as always, Captain Awkward!

    • JenniferP said:

      Thank you. What matters to me is not that the partner is depressed (root causes of, treatments for), what matters to me is that the letter writer is drowning.

  11. RodeoBob said:

    I’ll add one other thing, as a depressed partner who could have treated their partner better…

    Some people need support & love, a sense that they have a partner who supports them and backs their decisions come hell or high water. (which is a pretty good description of being the partner of a depressed person: hell or high water) If you were raised with that kind of supportive environment, that’s naturally the kind of support you know how to offer.

    Some people don’t need to feel supported, they need to be confronted and challenged. (in a positive way!) Being told “I support whatever you do” means implicitly that if that person chooses to do nothing, that’s an OK choice, when obviously in this case, it isn’t.

    I’ll second the advice given both by the Cap’n and the line about “you need to secure your own oxygen mask first before helping others”. Because if you didn’t know this already, living with a depressed person can lead to your own depression.

    • Jenna said:

      I agree with this, too. Get your own oxygen mask on first. You can’t help anyone if you can’t keep yourself standing.

      Also, it is true that not everyone needs the same things. Your partner may need something completely different than what you need. The problem is that zie needs to figure out what zie needs and then ask for it. This is sometimes harder than it sounds, because many of us haven’t spent a lot of time figuring out what we need or feeling like we deserve it.

  12. Awkward Niece said:

    Dear Drowning,

    You can’t love a person well. You know that, don’t you? You can’t love a person well. This is coming from someone with (mild) depression and a wonderfulawesomeamazingincredible partner.

    I want to add a couple of questions:

    20. When your partner is going through a good patch, does zie do small but beautiful things for you to apologize for the ‘lashing out’ or the fights, to show you zie cares? If yes, how do these things make you feel? (If no, how does that make you feel?)

    21. Have you ever felt depressed or sad or down on yourself during this relationship? What happened then?

  13. Directed said:

    Oh, letter writer, I just want to offer you a big hug.

    I’ve got chronic depression, and it’s really hard for me to say that I’m responsible for all the symptoms and/or keeping them from hurting others, because it’s really out of my control. I can’t control being exhausted all the time, never wanting to do anything, being sad, having mood swings without cause. Depression is a big, awful illness. BUT! It’s also really important that I do my best to minimize whatever hurt my illness can cause. If I lash out when I’m feeling particularly bad, I’ll apologize when I’m better, and I’ll try to work out how to control it. A depressed person can’t force themself to act the same as someone who isn’t depressed, but they can do something. It sounds like your partner definitely isn’t.

    There are a lot of options for treatment. Medication, therapy, group therapy, support groups, diet change, exercise, homeopathic treatments, journaling, etc. If your partner has reasons against the first three, since they’re medical, there are many other options.

  14. Rinna2412 said:

    I have chronic depression, and fortunately, I also have a wonderful partner, C.

    A big part of the reason I went in for help the first time was because of the look on C’s face when he found out that I’d been hurting myself. I couldn’t stand to be hurting him that much.

    The second time I went in for help (after a time when I had no insurance and little money), I decided to try medications. I knew that I was lashing out at C, that I was moody and hard to live with, and that was part of the reason that I went. Because he didn’t deserve to have to live with that.

    I’ll admit that I’m both resentful that I’ll probably have to take medication for the rest of my life and grateful that it helps. I take it because *I* function better, and also because I love C and it makes things better for him to not have to deal with my active depression.

    This is a long-winded way of saying that you count, too, Drowning. You do. And it’s not fair that you seem to be giving and giving and giving to your partner without receiving in return.

  15. I suffered from depression when I was younger, and it rather miraculously lifted when I finally extricated myself from the depressed partner who lashed out for no reason. Depression is a disease, and it is a contagious one. Exposing yourself to someone’s cold won’t cure them—they need antibiotics. Depression needs to be seen the same way, as painful as it is. Our lovers do not have a right to take us down with them.

  16. Drowning said:

    Hello everyone!

    Thank-you, Captain Awkward, for writing this exam. I will try to work on it as soon as possible.

    Thank-you so much for your many wise and supportive comments. I will try to respond more individually later, but I just want to clear up a few things.

    First, my partner is never ever every physically abusive. Zie does not insult me, yell at me, blame me, call me names, or put me down.

    Zie does sometimes say things that are hurtful, or become withdrawn, or suddenly start showing less affection than usual for no obvious reason.

    I think the most hurtful thing is that zie occasionally says things along the lines of “I’m worthless, therefore you couldn’t possibly love me, you just settled cause you think you can’t do better.” Or alternatively “It’s just a matter of time before you do X terrible thing to me, because I’m sure you secretly want to.”

    So yeah. Not fun at all.

    I think my partner’s reluctance to seek therapy comes from a mix of hopelessness, and bad experiences with therapy and medication in hir past. I think Zie is very afraid of being drugged or committed against hir will, which unfortunately is a real risk.

    Zie absolutely does “small, beautiful” things to express her love when zie is not feeling depressed, and sometimes even when zie is. We really do have a sweet, fun, mutually supportive relationship much of the time.

    Thank-you again. You are all awesome.

    • Allison said:

      When zie says “you just settled cause you think you can’t do better” or predicts that you will leave or commit X terrible thing, that is manipulation. It requires your reassurance (“Of course I want to be with you, of course I’m not going to hurt you, of course I’m not going to leave you”) and situates you as the Bad Partner victimizing zie. But the reality is that you’re the one being threatened.

      I’ve been there. I’m sorry. I realize you’ve been put in the position of defending your relationship, but I hope that the support of online and offline communities are helping you through this.

      • k said:

        Yes, THIS.

        LW, I am so sorry that you have to listen to these types of things. You shouldn’t have to hear that from your partner. Those words are every bit as Not Okay as screaming and yelling would be.

      • CorissaM said:

        I would like to point out (as someone who was depressed, and is now well enough to analyze the things I did and felt) that I did this. And when I did it, it was done because I desperately needed assurance. I needed a twig to cling to, and I felt the only way to get an honest response was to say those things, because obviously the person would lie if I asked outright.

        I guess what I mean is that it may not be the malicious thing you are (sound like) making it out to be. It’s shitty and it’s not right for zie to do. But it may be a (shitty and unfair and damaging) cry for help, rather than an outright manipulation or vicimization.

        • JenniferP said:

          I’m blogging-while-depressed, and many of the commenters are commenting-while-depressed, so we’re not assuming that reaching out for reassurance is malicious, but it is manipulative to accuse people who love you (and who are obviously sticking around in the day-to-day) of wanting to leave you or lying about loving you. It is shitty and unfair, and it tends to be self-fulfilling, because one too many time of “You’ll probably just leave me, anyway” becomes “YOU’RE RIGHT, I WILL.”

          All humans manipulate, and manipulation isn’t necessarily malicious or not based on real needs or wants – try spending an evening with a toddler who doesn’t want to go to bed and is trying to “cute” their way into one more story. Their wants (to stay up) clashed with your needs (for them to go bed) and they are trying everything they can to get to stay up, and they are little people who can’t use their words all the way…. and the end result is that you have to stand up for your needs and let them cry it out and learn how to comfort themselves.

          I definitely don’t want to be the blogger of “You should just break up with depressed people, they are shitty and no fun!” but I am the blogger of looking honestly at how a certain behavior is affecting you (no matter what is causing it) and setting boundaries about how you deal with it.

          Plenty of people who have treated me like crap have had shitty childhoods or mental illnesses or other legit reasons that they never learned good communication skills or boundaries, and it took a lot of work on my part (and my patient, patient therapists’ part) to sort out behaviors from reasons and say “Even though you had a sad childhood and your relationship skills don’t work all the way, it’s still not okay for you to ________.” Think of how many abusive parents and partners were themselves victims of abuse?

          The LW has checked in to say that the partner is not abusive or dismissive and does work hard to make up for the days of “You probably don’t really love me.” Hopefully they can work out a system where the partner learns how to say what they really want/need instead of bathing it in toxic, passive-aggressive manipulation. Howabout instead of “You don’t REALLY love me and you’re just going to leave me?” the partner says “Would you snuggle with me for 10 minutes and tell me I’m smart and pretty?” (A standard activity in the former Awkward-Intern Paul household). One is manipulation and feels crappy. One is a genuine need expressed, and feels kind of great.

          • CorissaM said:

            I completely agree. I’m sorry if it came across as minimizing or excusing. I guess I just wanted to be clear that these things aren’t always malicious. I know I find it easier to respond appropriately to someone else’s bad behavior if I can realize that it’s probably not deliberately hurtful.

          • JenniferP said:

            I feel you and think we agree more than we don’t. I just think we (women especially) guilt ourselves into staying in relationships that are bad for us FAR too often because it’s not the other person’s “fault” and we second-guess our own needs in favor of taking care of someone else.

          • Joe said:

            “Howabout instead of “You don’t REALLY love me and you’re just going to leave me?” the partner says “Would you snuggle with me for 10 minutes and tell me I’m smart and pretty?” (A standard activity in the former Awkward-Intern Paul household). One is manipulation and feels crappy. One is a genuine need expressed, and feels kind of great.”

            Wow, really? That actually sounds sort of equally horrifying to me. But then, I’m emotionally fucked up and repressed so what do I know. I do think you gave great advice to the LW.

    • RodeoBob said:

      Zie does not insult me…
      Zie does sometimes say things that are hurtful…

      This is an example of distorted thinking. Distortions are a real risk not only for the depressed, but for those around them. To an outside observer, saying “zie says things that hurt me, but zie doesn’t insult me” makes no sense. Hurtful remarks are insults.

      [Zie does not] blame me, call me names, or put me down…
      “… you just settled cause you think you can’t do better…”
      “I’m sure you secretly want to [do X terrible thing to me]”

      Those are put-downs. There is no way to accuse some one of secretly harboring violent urges without it being an attack on their character.

      Your parner is suffering from distorted thinking. Unfortunately, it appears you are experiencing some cognative distortion as well, which puts both you and them at risk.

      I’m sure your partner has reasons for avoiding treatment, and I’m sure to them those reasons sound rational and sensible. But their perspective is distorted, and if you’ve adopted some of their distoritons, it probably sounds reasonable to you too…

      I think Zie is very afraid of being drugged or committed against hir will, which unfortunately is a real risk.

      I’m afraid of amputation of my toes, which is a real risk if I develop type II diabetes and don’t monitor my weight and sugar intake. Now, which is the rational approach, and which is a distortion?
      a.) I will cut back on sweets, start to exercise, and meet with a doctor as soon as possible to discuss how I can avoid diabetes, or manage it if it’s too late for avoidance.
      b.) I will not go to the doctor, because he’ll only give me bad news and make me do things I don’t want to do. As long as my toenail doesn’t fall off and I don’t fall in a coma, I’m OK for now. Maybe later, when things are better, I’ll take care of it. If things get worse, then maybe I’ll see a doctor, but I already know it will go badly if I do.

      Your partner is not able to accurately perceive reality; zie views a supportive, loving partner as deceptive and harboring hate and violence. They are avoiding any treatment, even moderate options, out of a fear of the most extreme possible outcomes. Think about people that refuse to wear seat belts because they’re afraid of being trapped in a burning/sinking car. Yes, those are real risks, but they’re improbable risks compared to the much more likely risks of head and chest trauma from an accident.

      Right now, right now, you need to take care of yourself, first and foremost. If you want to help your partner, you need to be able to call them out on their distorted thinking, and to do that, you have to recognize and distinguish reality from distortion. To do that, you need to get some distance and support of your own. Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others!

      • RodeoBob is saying it way better than I did. The insults and put-downs have already begun. Per CorissaM this is probably not consciously malicious behavior, but the effects are the same as those of deliberate verbal abuse. Drowning’s partner? Not awesome.

      • dustyrose said:

        I agree about the put-downs, but the diabetes analogy doesn’t ring true for me. There isn’t much stigma against diabetes (unless you happen to be fat, of course), whereas there’s a long history of stigma against the mentally ill, which has often caused horrifying abuses.

        Someone close to me was once drugged against her will, which made her much sicker than she originally was. Luckily, she’s fine now (this happened a long time ago). But I believe that Drowning’s partner’s fears may very well be realistic, even though much of her thinking is distorted.

        Of course, this doesn’t mean that Drowning should put up with being treated poorly by hir partner. But I think it’s important to keep in mind.

  17. Jay K. said:

    Maintaining a relationship with someone who is seriously depressed is hard. Really hard. Even the most healthy, loving relationship with someone who works very hard not to let their depression hurt their partner or their relationship is still really, really hard.

    It’s not as sharply divided as between A. a horrible, unhealthy relationship that you definitely need to get out of because it’s destroying your fragile spirit, or B. a perfectly relationship with this one hard thing, and all you need to do to make everything okay is be stronger and more stoic and take on more of the work and…

    Even if the relationship is not A., that doesn’t mean that what you, the ‘healthy one,’ are experiencing isn’t important, or that you don’t need things to change. It is and you do. There are things you can do – take care of yourself, talk to friends and family, see a therapist, take some burden off yourself by outsourcing some life chores if you can afford it, etc.

    But there are probably also things you need to ask your partner to do for you. Maybe small, specific things things like “I need you to try and show me you care about me, even when you’re depressed. If you could touch my hand or tell me you love me, that would help me,” or “I’d like to have a regular night out when I don’t need to worry about you. Could you plan to hang out with a supportive friend then?” Or maybe be bigger and broader things like “It’s your decision how handle your depression, but I need you to understand that the way you’re handling it now is affecting our relationship, and I’d like you to consider some options (such as ones other commentators have suggested, or I’d also add books about anger & depression – books are pretty non-threatening) to help you deal with your feelings in a way that’s easier on our relationship.

    Asking things will be hard – a depressed person is likely to hear “I need this” as “You’re a horrible partner, why can’t you give me this?” or “I’m going to leave you,” so it will take courage, tactful wording, and probably some pretty painful and defensive discussions. But for your relationship to survive, not only do you need to be supportive and understanding and able to accept some of your partner’s depression-imposed limitations (not abusive or soul-crushing ones!), but your partner needs to be aware of how zir depression affects you and willing to make genuine efforts to help you in that. Sometimes, what they can give you is very small, and if you want to continue in a relationship with a depressed person, sometimes you have to accept that. But those small things – and their willingness to try to give them to you – can make all the difference to what kind of relationship you have.

    Something you might find helpful to think about is “things I can take IF…” (if there’s a good reason, if it’s a temporary situation, if there are other factors that balance that specific thing out) versus “things I can’t take. Period.” For example, maybe you can take a friend who’s completely scatterbrained and always late for things IF it’s because she’s just had a new baby and is overwhelmed, and IF she’s apologetic. But you can’t take a friend who is an hour late every time you meet, when they haven’t stood you up altogether; who never apologizes for being late; and who gets annoyed at you for being annoyed at them for being late.

    Some things you can’t take are major and true for everyone (you can’t take belittling, you can’t take physical abuse…), while others are things that are specific to you (maybe you really can’t take the fact that your partner’s zir sex drive is low due to depression and ze doesn’t want to have much sex, while someone else might be able to take very minimal sex IF ze is willing to cuddle a lot and IF the two of you can splurge on a really fancysex toy for solo use). If you have a better idea of what you absolutely need, and what accomodations you need to make the rest of it work for you, you’ll be in a better place to get your needs met.

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