Question #179: “I’m in love with someone who hates himself.”

Buffy and Angel
Why are the doomed relationships always so sexy?

Hi Captain Awkward! 

So I’ve been a reader since the blog started, and now it is my turn to seek your advice. 

Background: I have an awesome partner, and we have been together for seven months. We are both 20-year-old college students. He is kind to me, and we are best friends as well as partners. I am struggling with our relationship right now because my partner has some serious mental/emotional health issues. He is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and is still feeling the ripple effects of not ever fully dealing with that. He internalizes everything, by which I mean he takes everything personally and always feels like everyone in his life is pressuring him/watching him/waiting for him to fail (me, his family, his residents [we’re both RAs], his bosses, everybody). 

When he goes into a ‘funk’ as I call it (about every two weeks), he gets very silent and very moody, and basically becomes emotionally unavailable. He occasionally smokes to calm his nerves (which he never used to do, and it both worries me and grosses me out). Then it becomes my job to comfort him. I get very frustrated during these periods, because my first instinct is to take him by the shoulders and shake him while yelling “THERAPY. THERAPY. GO TO THERAPY. THERAPY IS GREAT. GO THERE.” Somehow, this strikes me as unhelpful, so I don’t do it. Instead, I have tried a gentler approach. “Hey, have you thought about maybe dropping in at [our university’s counseling service]?” He has gone before, and is receptive to the idea when I bring it up, but the consistency isn’t there. I strongly feel that ongoing counseling would help connect all his emotional issues together and get him on a path of healing. 

I absolutely do not want to break up. I love him dearly, and want to see him through this rough patch. I often find myself going “Our relationship would be so perfect IF he had his issues under control” by which I mean our goals are similar, our views on life are similar, we get along great, we have great communication, we want to be together long-term, and the only tiny little (read: giant, problematic) detail is that he is emotionally unstable. When he goes into his ‘funks’ I feel constant anxiety, nervousness, and dread. I am seeking help from our university’s counseling service to help me deal with this (getting support for the supporter, I guess). 

So, I guess my questions for you can be summarized thusly:

1. What do you do when your relationship is emotionally unbalanced? I often feel like I pour all this worry and concern and support (oh my gosh, all the support) into him and get very little back. Part of this is because I am a relatively emotionally healthy, competent adult and I simply do not need as much support (I realize that statement is full of the privilege of having a happy childhood/teenhood). I think another part is that he is unable to give me the support I need (when I need it) because of his own issues.

2. Is it possible to have a healthy relationship when one partner is screwed up? I have often heard “You can’t be whole together until you’re whole individually!” or whatever, but I want to know if I can make this work when the person I want to be with is just not always healthy. 

Help me, Captain! Any advice you can give me would be helpful. 

My Partner is a Black Hole of Emotional Energy 

Dear Person Who Loves A Black Hole:

I love you for being a relatively emotionally healthy, competent adult and for having the instincts to tell your partner to GO TO THERAPY NOW. They will serve you well.

I have a suggestion for what to do when your partner gets into one of his black, paranoid moods where you “pour all this worry and concern and support (oh gosh, all the support) into him and get very little back.”

Step 1:  “Partner, I am so sorry you are feeling like this. You should call the counseling office and make an appointment. I think regular therapy would help you a lot. Is there anything specific I can do right now?”

Step 2:Partner, I love you so much, but it’s hard for me to be around you when you’re feeling like this. I’m going to go do (other stuff) for a while, I’ll check back on you tomorrow/in a few days.

Step 3: Go be a 20 year old college student who is in college for you, not to take care of someone else. See your friends. Get love and support from them, and give it in return. Hit your books with everything you’ve got. Make art. Protest stuff. If your school has a fancy gym, go to it and swim in their fancy pool. Take up an activity that has nothing to do with him. Keep going to therapy yourself. Give yourself permission to not worry about this dude.You say that when he gets like this “Then it becomes my job to comfort him.” As the emotionally healthy, ground person who knows how to set boundaries, you can make a conscious decision that it is not your job.

I know it’s a lot easier said than done. It is hard to walk away from someone you love who is in pain when they seem to need you the most. But this is me speaking to you as a) a college teacher, who wants you to get the absolute most out of this expensive and rare and lovely experience b) someone who has poured all of her love into a dark star or two, hoping love would work on humans the way sun and water and Miracle Gro work on plants. I turn 38 this weekend. To date, I have been successful in loving people out of their childhood traumas, addictions, and mood disorders exactly zero times, and the “Things would be perfect if only you would just….” relationship is a particular heartbreaker.

Here’s the thing. Your love helps him and is good for him, I’m sure of it. And I hope that his love is good for you. And I definitely don’t want to tell you that trauma survivors are undateable – “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are stronger at the broken places.”

But your partner needs to figure out how to comfort himself and manage his moods so that they don’t spread and get their hooks into you. He needs to figure out what triggers these funks and see if he can avoid or work around the triggers. You say he is kind, but it is not kindness to shut down emotionally and force you into the position of figuring out what he needs from you. There is no amount of sad or ill that excuses routinely treating someone badly when you can possibly prevent it. He needs to go to therapy and treat this stuff, even if he has been through hell and back, even if he has a legit mental illness that makes it really, really hard. He needs to do it whether you break up with him or whether the two of you are together forever. College is exactly the right time to do this, when the resources are in place and easy to access. You cannot heal him by loving him enough or by finding the right script.

The emotionally healthy side of you wrote to me because it knows that this dynamic is fucked up and you don’t want to spend all your time comforting this guy, even if you love him. So. Enjoy what there is to be enjoyed. Ask him directly to take care of himself. And when he can’t give you what you need, go and get what you need for yourself. Maybe you’ll find an equilibrium that works. Maybe he will get the help he needs, which is great as long as you remember: You getting your needs met  is the only chance this has of working long-term.

Let’s go out with a little music and some Marilyn Hacker.

She Bitches About Boys (Marilyn Hacker)

To live on charm, one must be courteous.

To live on others’ love, one must be loveable.

Some get away with murder being beautiful.

Girls love a sick child or a healthy animal.

A man who’s both itches them like an incubus.

But I, for one, have had a bellyful

of giving reassurances and obvious

advice with scrambled eggs and cereal;

then bad debts, broken dates, and lecherous

onanastic dreams of estival

nights when some high-strung, well-hung, penurious

boy, not knowing what he’d get, could be more generous.

51 thoughts on “Question #179: “I’m in love with someone who hates himself.”

  1. “I turn 38 this weekend. To date, I have been successful in loving people out of their childhood traumas, addictions, and mood disorders exactly zero times,…”

    Word up! I too will turn 38 this year, and I wish I had learned this many years earlier than I did.

    Also, happy birthday!

  2. This is such awesome advice! And I would go even farther and suggest that sometimes the only thing that pushes a person who needs THERAPY hard enough to actually engage it is someone they love telling them, “I care for you deeply, but I can’t be with you as you are.”

  3. I think it’s great that you are seeking counseling yourself, to figure out a healthy way to move forward in this relationship. The Captain gave great advice regarding one script that you can change, namely “then it becomes my job to comfort him.” Another red flag that I saw in your letter was when you said: “When he goes into his ‘funks’ I feel constant anxiety, nervousness, and dread.” This does not sound healthy.

    It would make sense that you would feel worry, concern, compassion, and sadness over what this person you love is going through. But anxiety and dread sound like a potential unhealthy dynamic of internalizing your boyfriend’s “funk” and taking it on as your own. As the Captain says, the only way things will work out (stay healthy) is if you have clear boundaries over what is your problem (and what is his), what support you are willing to give, and what you need to do to make sure your own emotional needs are met.

  4. One of my favorite cover songs is Alanis Morisette’s version of King of Pain. But then, I love covers.

    Having people suggest therapy over and over definitely helps as far as planting the idea, and you deserve major kudos for being supportive and stressing that idea, LW. But there needs to be that internal decision to make that change, and unless you figure out how to implant a hypnotic suggestion or something your partner is going to have to make that decision himself.

  5. The Captain gives great advice, as always.

    I’m a crazy who is still in the process of realising her past was ugly and fucked up. I’m still in the process of learning that what seems normal to me is nightmare fuel for most healthy people, so need to have a really strong filter for “hilarious and/or touching family stories.”

    I love boundaries. Oh my god, they are the best things ever. I grew up being taught I wasn’t allowed to have them: no bedroom door, getting beaten if my diary wasn’t positive, getting yelled at or beaten if for “abandoning the family” if I tried to set ANY boundaries, stuff like that. So, I had a lot of trouble growing up and learning that I was, in fact, allowed to set boundaries, and I got in a lot of trouble while I was still figuring it out. This is me speaking from age and experience.

    By setting boundaries around your boyfriend, you are teaching him that people are allowed to set and have boundaries. Not only are you getting time apart to take care of yourself, you are demonstrating to him that this is how healthy people function, and providing a working model for him to emulate. It was only by sitting down and doing this with my SOs that I was able to have healthy relationships and something resembling a healthy mental state.

    Don’t pour your time and energy into a black hole. Some people are fine or better off without therapy. Some people desperately need it. What you should be looking for is a serious commitment to gaining emotional literacy and working on his issues. If he goes to therapy but doesn’t use it, or refuses to engage openly with you, walk away. Some people won’t learn until after they drive partners away, and others won’t learn at all because they like the attention being “broken” nets them. If he’s not committed to being as healthy as possible RUN AWAY.

    Figure out what level of emotional investment you can handle. My friends and partners will tell me when I’m being ridiculous or needy, and having external feedback helps me recognise that behaviour before I do it. This has led to some conversations like:

    Me: Well, I think if you would just…
    Them: You’re trying to pick a fight.
    Me: Oh, sorry. (Blah blah blah) but you see, if you could just…
    Them: You’re doing it again.
    Me: Okay. I’m going to go sit in the other room until I calm down. Could you make me tea?
    Them: Sure!
    Us: (Healthy discussion)

    Sometimes that works for people. Sometimes it’s too much work. Both are okay! If you try this and it’s still too much work for you, it is absolutely okay to leave the relationship. You don’t need (or deserve) to sit around being someone’s Feelings Mommy because they Have a Sad Past.

    So, teal deer, here is a crazy person telling you to set your boundaries, figure out what you’re willing to invest, and continue or end the relationship from there. Either you end up in a relationship where you both respect eachother’s needs and are very happy, or you dump an emotionally draining black hole. No sad endings here.

    1. Yes, this is awesome. I had relationship with dude who got reassurance and lurve poured into him, and made very little effort to work on himself. I am not still with him.

      I had relationship with dude who also has issues, but who chooses to work at it, because he both loves me and recognizes that he needs to work on issues (as do I). I am still with him.

      Yeah…I wouldn’t do the first again. One-sided doesn’t work well in any relationships.

  6. “To date, I have been successful in loving people out of their childhood traumas, addictions, and mood disorders exactly zero times,”

    This. If only I caught on to this WAY earlier. It seems it is such a familiar regret for too many women.

    Where in hell did this myth originate anyhow? The old the love of a good woman will cure him!! Did it just start with pearl clutching Hollywood dramas or is there an earlier incarnation?

    1. “Where in hell did this myth originate anyhow? The old the love of a good woman will cure him!! Did it just start with pearl clutching Hollywood dramas or is there an earlier incarnation?”

      It’s a myth that’s as old as the Epic of Gilgamesh where the wild man Enkidu is tamed and brought into civilization after seven nights of sexytimes with a woman.

      1. “It’s a myth that’s as old as the Epic of Gilgamesh”


        I thought I was being all Dramatic when I said to my ex, “I have to save one of us, and you won’t let me save you.” Instead, I was finally, finally being realistic. And after some good therapy, I realized that it wasn’t a matter of his “not letting” – one really does have to “save” oneself.

  7. Having “the privilege of a happy childhood” does not obligate you to put your needs last or put up with someone’s crap.

    I had friends in college who came from terrible, dysfunctional homes, and for years they pushed boundaries and got an awful lot of leverage out of the notion that I was not “broken.” College is often when people first realize how messed up they are, but it can still take them a few years to figure out how to relate to others responsibly.

    As for me, it took me a long time to figure out that life is not like a smallpox epidemic where the vaccinated folks are required to treat the sick ones.

  8. I really feel for the LW. I have been there, and it’s hard when one partner becomes the therapist. It’s just too unbalanced. The guy I knew had not dealt with childhood issues, hated his job, and was managing things too often with alcohol. But he was an awesome, awesome guy. Sweet, smart, amazing.

    What I did: I told the guy to go to therapy and helped him arrange it. I cut off the relationship and realized that I could only date the Potential Version who he could maybe become, one day. I have not seen him since, but through friends I learned he made some major life changes and decided to quit his job and pursue some life dreams. He seems better off than he was.

    And a few months later I started to date an emotionally together guy with whom I have an equal partnership.

    Good luck LW, and do give us a follow-up if you have one.

  9. LW, I relate so, so, so much to your story. I was just barely older than you are now when I got into a relationship with someone very dear to me who had an emotionally manipulative/abusive family, history of childhood physical and sexual abuse, and a host of other emotional problems. The Captain gives excellent, spot on advice and I heartily, fervently second everything she said and will add just one more specific tidbit.

    Do not, I repeat DO NOT, allow yourself to become your boyfriend’s sole source of emotional and/or practical support. Love him and support him in whatever capacity is healthy for you, but the moment you find yourself feeling like he would completely cease to function or be put in some other crisis situation if you were to leave him is the moment you (if you’re anything like me, at least, and you sound to be) cut yourself off from the option of being able to end the relationship without horrible, horrible feelings of guilt and other yucky emotions, even more than would be there naturally from the end of a relationship. I’m not saying the relationship is doomed, I think if you set boundaries *now* there is every possibility you two can navigate these difficult waters together, but you cannot allow yourself to feel trapped, for that way lies madness and resentment and all other nastiness.

    Strength and Jedi-hugs to you, LW.

  10. I read somewhere (probably here), ‘don’t invest more energy into helping someone than they are willing to put into helping themselves’.

    I hope I got that right. You seem to be on the right track, trying to get them into therapy and all, and of course the Captains advice is good.

    This question hits me both ways.

    I’ve been depressed and filled with self-loathing, but have managed to get over that. Instead of hating myself, I hate the situation I’m in, I hate that I can’t find a job (career even) and lost my last job due to stupidity, and so on. I’ve managed to stop the ‘I hate myself’ thoughts, at least. “He internalizes everything, by which I mean he takes everything personally…” might be what I do sometimes.

    On the other side, I’m trying to be friends with someone who goes into a ‘funk’ fairly often. I thought I was depressed, but not this bad. Being basically helpless to do anything sucks, I think all I can do is offer to listen if they need to talk, but when they are in a funk is when they withdraw. For awhile I took this withdrawal pretty hard, I thought I had said something wrong or whatever, but I finally figured out that it’s not me, it’s them. So now I take care of myself and hope they’ll contact me when they are feeling ‘better’.

  11. I too have been on both sides of this equation, though not from anything near as awful as it sounds like your person has been through. I want to say “hell yes” to the Captain’s advice to ask directly if there is anything you can do now, and then disengage.

    It took me a long, long time to learn that just being needy and “broken” around my friends and expecting them to fix it with the POWER OF LOOOOOOVE made me feel more broken and sadder, because they couldn’t. They didn’t know what I needed, because I didn’t know what I needed – hell, I didn’t even know what was WRONG (I mean, I knew superficially, but I didn’t know in enough detail and what particular aspects of my past were problematic, and I wasn’t willing to do the work to find out, because love and friends are supposed to fix me.). BUT I was lucky enough to have a friend who would listen to my depressed ranting and say “would you like a hug? is there anything I can do right now? cup of tea and Buffy?” and while it did not fix my world, slowly it clued me in to the fact that I was going to her with NO IDEA of what I expected her to do to make it better.

    You can provide support that way, AND ask your partner to be more aware of himself and to do not only self-management of these episodes, but to give you feedback about what support from you is actually effective – giving you a solid “this really does help!” array of tools so you feel like your support has an effect (i.e. not just sucking all the energy out of you without producing an effect), and also hopefully puts him more in tune with both his expectations and need for help/support from people who are not you, and can offer different kinds of help/support.

    It is for sure sad that he is sad, but if you are happy and not stressed from his emotional stuff, you will be a better support and a healthier person for him to be in a relationship with. You said he gets silent and moody and emotionally unavailable – let him retreat into his “mancave” (or whatever it is that men retreat into these days) – he will hopefully come out when he is ready, and if not…well, a spell that lasts longer than usual might be a therapy wake-up call?

  12. Ugh, I don’t even know what to say about this one. On the one hand, I was this age and in much this situation and am now married to that dude and happy with him. On the other hand, he never made it so all my energy was sunk into taking care of his feelings and I couldn’t do other things, he gave back, and even so, there were points where breaking up would have been the sensible option, leaving out hindsight of where we went after (which involved lots of hard work, tears, and a three month separation while we got our asses into intensive therapy but came out in a happy place full of healthy boundaries and kittens.)

    I don’t know. If you’re going to be a Giving Tree, people get shade, apples (but not so many that you can’t propagate if that’s what you want), and leaves (but not so many you can’t turn sun into food.) They don’t get branches or your goddamn trunk. If that’s what they need, they get to go to a hardware store and pay for the privilege.

    1. Brilliant Giving Tree reference.

      After all, has anyone ever really believed that the stump at the end was truly happy?

        1. Oh my god. Yes. Seems like almost everyone really believed that the stump at the end was truly happy. Actually, I think she was, because she finally got what she wanted, but who cares? Wasn’t worth it.

          I found the book incredibly depressing when I was seven. Not until my twenties did I realize that Shel never intended the ending to be happy — he intended it as a warning.

          1. I got into a fight with my sister over this book. She thought the Tree was God, and the book was about how selfless God’s love for us is.

            I thought it was about a tree. A tree that basically offered herself up to be killed by inches for a worthless boy.

            I hate that book.

  13. The thing about the ‘love of a good woman’ thing is that in a way it can help. But that’s a very specific way, and it’s certainly not taking on responsibility for the other person’s emotional state.

    My (male) partner definitely helped me with a serious depression.

    The key defining moment for me was the time I was crying in the hallway, because I couldn’t lace my shoes, and I was going to be late for a lecture. I think I was hoping he’d tie my shoes and drive me to class.

    He hugged me and told me he loved me. He pointed out I owned sandals that needed no complex manual skills, and he asked if I’d like him to bring me the phone, so I could call a taxi.

    His confidence that I was still responsible for myself, combined with his love, really helped a lot. I was feeling like someone who needed outside help, and what I got instead was a reminder that I was an adult who could look after herself. And I got sympathy and love.

    You can’t fix your loved ones’ feelings, but you can make it clear you love them anyway. Doing both at once can be invaluable.

    1. Thank you for writing this, some aspects of this discussion made me feel like I shouldn’t be in a relationship unless I’m perfectly functional and healthy.

      1. I’m sorry it’s landing that way on you. Always keep in mind that your friendly neighborhood blogger a) has depression and b) has had love!

        I’ll use depression as an example:

        The truth is, depression fucking sucks, and sometimes it fucking sucks to be around a depressed person, and it definitely fucking sucks to be around a depressed person who is not taking care of themselves and who can’t articulate what they need and to feel like they are a black hole (as the LW described) – you’re pouring love and support into them and nothing is changing, they are constantly paranoid that you’ll leave them.

        If a relationship is making you more unhappy than happy, and you don’t see the situation changing, sometimes the answer is to bail even if the unhappy-making thing isn’t the other person’s fault. That’s a harsh truth, I realize, but it’s still very much the truth. One person can’t make a relationship work. Every time I post something like this someone in the commentariat takes it as “But I am not perfect, are you saying no one should love me?” and the answer to that is always “No, but your partner can leave you at any time for any reason, as you can leave them, and things will go better if you guys figure out how to have boundaries about how the emotional issues and illness are allowed to affect the other person (as Marie outlined in her comment either upthread or downthread, I can’t tell in this comment moderation window).”

        1. It’s tough because people can only heal so much. I’m 35, and I’m not going to get that much less crazy probably no matter what I do. If it’s just about how crazy your man is, and whether he’s “getting better,” my wife should probably leave me!

          That’s why the emphasis on TRYING is so important. It’s really less about whether you’re healing your wounds or becoming a better person and more about whether you’re sharing the work of taking on more and more as your relationship becomes deeper and more complex.

          Jeff Bridges gave a great, poignant interview shortly after his longtime marriage broke up, where he talked about how in a relationship you have conflict, but if you care about the relationship you both grow a little bigger, to include that conflict. You make room for it. And then you encounter something else, and you grow a little bigger to include that too. Eventually one or both of you may run out of the energy or the desire to grow like that anymore, and the relationship ends.

          So the question is, are you and your partner sharing the burden of growing to include the conflicts and frictions you have? Or are you doing it all? If it’s the former, then you can keep going and hope for the best. If it’s the latter, your partner has quit on the relationship already. All that’s really left is the walking away.

          1. “That’s why the emphasis on TRYING is so important. It’s really less about whether you’re healing your wounds or becoming a better person and more about whether you’re sharing the work of taking on more and more as your relationship becomes deeper and more complex.”

            THIS. I have cut off my share of relationships in my life, either via the permanent chop or the “I’ll just stop calling so frequently” lessening. Some of the people I’ve cut off are remarkably similar to the ones I’ve kept, at least as far as their less compatible qualities. For example, I have a friend I cut off for constant sexist shit he said. I also have a friend that I have not cut off who has the same degree of sexist shit — but he has stopped saying it around me because I asked him to fucking stop already. When I asked The Dude That Got Cut Off to do that, I just got a load of sexist shit back in my face. So, I jettison the dude who has opinions I don’t like AND can’t respect my needs in a friendship, and I keep the dude who has opinions I don’t like BUT listens to me and discusses with me and chooses to prioritize our friendship over his need to say sexist shit, which lets me know that I am important to him, which is what I need from the people I let into my life.

            There are very few personality flaws (or differences or attributes or problems or just “things”) that are automatic bars to my friendship by themselves; what matters the most to me is if somebody is willing to respect me enough to listen to me when I explain my needs and boundaries, and that they respect our relationship enough to let me know if they can work with those needs and boundaries.

            Of course, the first step on all this requires me to know my boundaries and USE MY WORDS to express them, which is the effort I bring to the table, and since it’s a considerable effort for me, I feel okay requiring a similar effort in return.

        2. and also I think it depends on what the partner needs/finds acceptable. For ex, some people would totally love to have “break time” in a relationship where they do there own thing, while others really want to have a life partner that is always there for/with them. there are lots of things my friends tolerate fine in their relationships that I could never put up with.

          So it’s not about never being in “a relationship” until your perfectly functional and healthy, but which relationship you are in.
          IDK, maybe I’m wrong.

          1. I think you’re totally right. It’s not a matter of finding a partner with no baggage, but one whose baggage matches yours.

    2. Wow, your partner’s response is awesome. This is definitely The Way to do it: set boundaries, offer an amount of support that’s comfortable for you, and show the person you have faith in them to look after themselves.

  14. My current boyfriend has a history of depression in his family. Maybe four times a year, he’ll sink into it, for about 3-4 weeks. He knows it’s a chemical thing, he knows he could get meds for it (he chooses not to), and he knows it’ll pass. When we started dating, he sat me down and told me about it, and told me what he is like and what he needs during those depressions

    What he is like is a mopey sad sack, what he needs is to wait it out and not have to worry that he’s dragging me down. This was something we had to work on a lot, because I’ve been in a soul-sucking abusive relationship where I had to be hyperaware of my partner’s moods and cater to him. So current boyfriend gets depressed, and my overwhelming first reaction is to smother him with anxious fearful caretaking, taking it personally if it doesn’t work.

    I have had to learn to do what is really, really difficult, and that is to walk into a room, see he is having a depression, ask him if he needs anything, and then walk out and do something else when he says “no.” Even if I think he doesn’t really “mean” his no, or I think I have the perfect idea to cheer him up. He has the right to set his own boundaries, even if I think, for whatever well-intentioned reason, that I know what he needs better.

    I’m really glad my boyfriend knows how to set boundaries around his depression, because when we met, I didn’t know how, and walking away from somebody’s emotional black hole-ing to preserve my sanity is something he taught me. The thing is, he learned this from a previous girlfriend, who did know how to set boundaries. She refused to get sucked into his depression, refused to cater to him, and would basically do exactly what the Captain said: “Hey, do you need anything? No? Okay, well, I love you but it’s kind of hard to be around you just at this moment, so I’m going to go get a coffee and read a book and come back later today. Love you, bye, I’ll bring back a scone.” My boyfriend says that while his depression raged on, he no longer got to beat himself with the “I’m bringing my girlfriend down” stick, which had been a personal favorite. He said it was so freeing to just go ahead and have his depression without the guilt and shame that he was destroying the lives of everybody around him.

    So, if it’s hard to set boundaries for yourself here, just remember that it’s not just for yourself. You’re role modelling really good behavior for your boyfriend, showing him that it’s okay and good and necessary to set boundaries, too, that his depression doesn’t have the power to reach out and sabotage the world around him, which is (in my experience) one of the thought-loops people get stuck in when depressed.

    1. Oh, BRAVO. WELL DONE, YOU. This comment gives me a very 10th/11th Doctor “I LOVE HUMANS” feeling.

  15. OK, LW, I’ve been on both sides of this one. And I’m not ashamed to say that you have every damn right to establish some boundaries. You have every right to say: “You need to get professional help and deal with this stuff. I cannot shoulder this and be your therapist.” And I’ll second what the Captain said–go out and be a 20-year-old student. You will not be a 20-year-old student again. Even in the most healthy of relationships with the most awesome and emotionally healthy people, they spend time apart. Spend time away from him and enjoy yourself. Hang with your friends, go out dancing if that’s your thing, hang out in coffee shops, do creative stuff, work out or play a sport, go to lectures and plays, drink some Rolling Rock and eat some fucking nachos.

    I know you don’t want to break up with him, so I won’t tell you to do that. I will tell you that you’ve only been together for 7 months and that you’re already sounding stressed an exhausted from all of this. If he does not take responsibility for his mental health, if he does not get therapy and work on his shit, what will a couple of years from now be like? Five? Ten?

    And just so you know, when things ended because of my then-untreated depression, it sucked but I didn’t die. I would hate to think *anyone* stayed with me out of a sense of obligation, guilt, or duty. I wanted to be a partner, not someone’s child, and I certainly do not want to be someone’s parent.

  16. Been on both sides of this one, as many of the commenters seem to be. One thing to ask yourself in this situation is if you enjoy being the emotional caretaker. In my experience some people enjoy that role, I certainly do. My place with all of my friends is to be the person they can talk to, the one who will listen. This can get difficult, and it can be trying, but it is one of the most rewarding aspects of my life. I personally would not trade that role for anything, even if it meant a little less drama in my life.

    A universal penacea doesnt exist. Given the wording the LW used, “I feel constant anxiety, nervousness, and dread,” the Captain is spot on in the advice. This does not mean that this is the case for everyone. No one should feel obligated to be the resident psych, but if it is a role you enjoy it can be rewarding.

    1. I also really like being the resident psych. Doing that without burning yourself out requires some really constant checking-in with yourself, which means you have to know yourself and your emotional states really well. When somebody comes to me with a problem and I feel excited and immediately engaged, then I know I’m good for this. When somebody comes to me with a problem and I feel this internal sense of being crushed, and I have to dredge up any caring, like I’m pushing myself to run a final lap and it fills me with disappointment that I have to do this, then I’m not okay for psyching right now.

      I’ve had to learn how to key in to my personal cues for this, and it’s taken a lot of time and effort and mistakes to tease out the sometimes subtle differences between, say, “I want to help and I don’t know how and it makes me anxious” and “I want them to be better and they keep asking me to help but I have no help to give and my life is a despairing focus upon them all the time and it makes me anxious.”

      “I feel constant anxiety, nervousness, and dread,” sounds like a pretty good description of an interaction that is taking from you and not giving anything back — you may be good for psyching your boyfriend sometimes, but you are obviously not good for it right now.

  17. Having been in this kind of situation, with my current dude I second everything the captain said. Also a bit of my own perspective of being a crazy with a crazy.
    There came a point in our relationship where things took a VERY negative downturn and I knew that things either had to change or I would be leaving. If possible please don’t let it get to that point, it’s very hard to recover from that resentment and anger that you feel as the caretaker. Eventually, I sat down with him and was brazenly honest about how he was making me feel, no cushioning or soft words. Being open and honest and probably hurtful about it. Not intentionally, but I had to say the truth and I knew the truth would hurt him.
    Then I told him that I strongly felt he needed to go to a doctor and a therapist because his mental issues were seriously affecting our relationship to the point of destruction. I told him that if he did not seek therapy then I did not think our relationship would last because I could not handle him continuing to make me feel like that, especially if he continued to behave that way knowing what it was doing to me. It’s hard to put it like that because writing it out feels like I was being manipulative but I wanted him to know where I was at, it wasn’t a threat it was just the sad truth.
    I’m certainly not saying you should tell him the same things I told mine, but I do think you should tell him all the honest hard truth about how he is making you feel and the effect his depression is having on your relationship and then ask for steps to be taken to remedy that.

    Good Luck!

  18. Like many other commenters, I have been in your shoes, LW. I dated a lovely, lovely boy in school who spent about 75% of the time being energetic and outgoing and fun, who planned weird amazing dates and was incredibly thoughtful and supportive. But the other 25% of the time, he was depressed or angry (not at me). And during those times I expended an enormous amount of energy trying to fix him, and then trying to comfort him, and then being really upset with him.

    I was not well-equipped to deal with his moods — I got depressed along with him, or I participated in and helped escalate things when he decided to pick fights or question our relationship, or I spent a lot of time worrying about why he was like that and how I could help him fix it and what it might mean for us in the future. I spent almost three years trying to make the really good parts of being with him balance out the really bad part, but I just couldn’t. It was really, really hard to let go of a person I loved so much most of the time, but I eventually realized that loving him didn’t mean I loved our relationship.

    That doesn’t mean you need to break up with your boyfriend, and it definitely doesn’t mean that people who have depression or other mental health issues can’t be in wonderful, functional relationships. It means that *I* was not well-suited to being in a relationship with someone who suffered from (untreated) depression. You need to think about whether *you* are well-suited to that. Some people can do exactly as the Captain suggested — recognize that the depression is not about them and is not something they can help, and set clear boundaries around it. Some people, like me, think that sounds sensible in the abstract but in the moment either have trouble drawing the boundary, or are able to walk away but then spend a lot of emotional energy dwelling on the situation. I think seeing a therapist yourself was an incredibly smart move, and should help you to sort out the extent to which you’re comfortable and capable of dealing with these issues.

    That’s kind of the long-term issue though. The much more pressing question, I think, is this: Have you told your boyfriend what you told the Captain here? You said that you two have great communication, but aside from mentioning to him that he might want to see a counsellor (which definitely sounds like a good suggestion), you didn’t say anything about having sat down during a non-depressive episode and talked about how his emotional swings affect you and how the two of you might deal with that. He might not have any idea how severe his depressive episodes are (or at least how severe the external manifestations are), and it sounds like he definitely doesn’t realize how much you’re struggling to deal with them. If you want to move forward with this relationship and find strategies that will let you co-exist with his mood swings, it absolutely needs to be a collaborative process.

    It may be that during depressive episodes you’re going to need to take the lead in drawing healthy boundaries and watching out for yourself. But if you two can’t talk about the situation during the good times, and figure out what works for you both and what doesn’t — if he doesn’t show any ability to understand how his moods affect you or any willingness to work on solutions to that — then the problem is much bigger than his depression.

  19. This is about eating disorders and not depression, but I just read this today:

    And I think it offers a really good script for how to confront and discuss things your partner is doing that are scary and maybe unhealthy without judging them or pushing them. Like everybody’s saying above, this may not be for everybody, and it may not be for you — it’s okay if this doesn’t seem like a route you can go, for whatever reason (I can see situations where I could do this and situations where I absolutely could not). But I thought it was a really well-articulated strategy for separating the person from the problem, and dealing with the problem in ways you can both tolerate.

  20. this may be a nitpicky and/or somewhat obvious point to make, but there’s an underlying assumption in our letter-writer’s way of saying things. and that is that support/attention/etc. in a relationship are doled out based on need. he needs it more than she does, so she gives more than he does. of course there are lots of times when we do something for someone we love because they need it, and that’s perfectly appropriate. but on a macro scale, on the scale of the primary dynamics of a relationship, there should never be someone whose role is to be inherently needier.

    1. I like this point a lot, which gets at why I think the answer is to ask “Anything you need?” and if the answer is “No” or “I don’t know” to say “Ok, cool, see you later” and let the partner handle his own stuff and not automatically jump in to try to “fix” him.

  21. I’ll chime in and agree with the commenters who have said the letter-writer should sit down & have a talk with him while he’s not depressed. If you try to discuss these issues while he’s in one of these funks, he’s going to interpret everything through his lens of funk (everyone’s mad at me, I’m a failure who can’t make you happy, etc.). & he will likely be too depressed/discouraged to take any action anyway.

    I’d suggest sitting down with him down while things are going well and you’re both feeling happy, telling him the negative effect that these episodes are having on you, & letting him know that in the future you’re going to do something different when they occur — most likely disengage, go do stuff on your own, & limit yourself to “helping” in small, concrete ways, like making a cup of tea or w/e. Let him know the status quo isn’t working for you, this is a big deal, and you need him to commit to a positive course of action that will help him control his moods.

    There is definitely a way to bring up the therapy issue “gently” (as you’ve been doing), yet also with enough emotional gravitas that he’ll see the need to take it seriously.

  22. The commentary on this situation interests me particularly because it so closely mimics thinking in a parenting class I’m taking right now. The woman who teaches the class argues that parents in our (American, mostly middle-class) have gotten into a habit of shepherding their young children, doing everything for them, prompting and reminding them, and that as a result the children fail to develop self-confidence and self-supporting habits because someone is always “saving” them. Not helicopter parenting in its more extreme manifestation but just the sort of thing where you’re packing lunches for your six-year-old because you don’t think the six-year-old is capable of doing it himself.

    Depression is not the same in that sometimes a depressed person truly cannot step up or help him/herself, whereas a child wants to when given the opportunity; but the incidents of and the principles behind MS’s story are almost entirely similar to the stories and philosophy we’ve been working with–that stepping back while displaying the belief that a person can and will succeed in taking care of him- or herself can be incredibly helpful, while caretaking too heavily can reinforce a feeling of “I can’t cope with my life, I’m not equipped to do so”. I do believe it’s a home truth that we can harm by trying to help and that Captain Awkward is incredibly right to focus on boundaries with such emphasis–that sometimes it is truly more helpful to draw the line between My Responsibility/Life vs. Yours. It’s kind of the whole “teach a man to fish” metaphor. Maybe a depressed person can’t help himself but he can make the choice to get help. “Help” that comes solely from the outside, though, without any inner motivation, is just catching the guy his fish. I think, anyway.

    LW, I also agree with Sheelzebub, in that you are very young to focus so much on responsibility for someone else. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be responsible in your 20s or that you shouldn’t care for other or that you should spend your whole time partying like all the stereotypes, but as someone who was also responsible back then… believe me, you’ve got a lot of time left in which you will have no shortage of all that stuff. This is a great time to be free and to enjoy your relative lack of commitment. IMO, this is a wonderful and irreproducible time to explore and enjoy what you want and love, arts and hobbies and learning and people and whatever else you can, as much as you are able.

    Best wishes to you in whatever your future holds.

    1. YES THIS. I had parents who did a lot for me until I went to college, and I STILL feel incompetent 98% of the time – until circumstances force me to do things alone and I learn I can do them – and that there is no “Doin’ It Rite” Task Force coming to scold me for doin’ it rong!!1!

      Sometimes a person of any age needs a helpful nudge (as in MS’s example), but learning to do it on your own is so empowering!

  23. I had trouble implementing the “talk about it when he’s not in the mood” until we went as far as to share our electronic calendars, and to book an appointment to talk about it, three days hence. The act of booking the “in three days” appointment is enough to convince me to stop trying, and it gives me a script I can follow for withdrawing from the situation (otherwise, the harder he withdraws, the more I cling).

  24. I will add that from a purely behavioralist perspective, when you blanket him with attention when he goes into a funk, you are encouraging the funks. He’s being psychologically rewarded. One of the first things they teach you in cognitive behavioral therapy is not to reward yourself for going into dark moods. Dark moods are time to start reminding yourself of how good you have it; a painful process, but better than giving yourself cookies for being blue, which just encourages more blueness.

  25. I’ve been lurking on this blog for a while and after reading this I Had to respond. I recently went through a pretty traumatic emotional black hole experience. I set boundaries that were pushed at then ignored. I let it happen because my friend was in pain and I didn’t feel good about saying no to a person I cared about who was having an emotional breakdown. That was a mistake. No matter how much time I, my partner and a few other close friends spent listening, giving advice, being a shoulder to cry on and so on, it wasn’t enough. Our friend was stuck in a loop and could not see the damage that she was causing. She knew she needed help, but for her what that looked like was more time, energy and attention from me and my partner. For us it was clear she needed therapy. We were really close to calling 911 to force the issue on a particularly scary evening. We should have, but we didn’t. Why? We felt guilty for needing things like peace in our home and time together when our friend was in such dire straits. We felt guilty even thinking about asking someone to leave our home when if we even suggested it she would go into a self loathing spiral so bad that we feared she would harm herself. Eventually those feelings of guilt were overcome by the fact that she was not ready or willing to take steps to find a healthier way of dealing with her trauma. So in the end I had to ask for space so I could take care of myself and my then strained relationship with my partner. What resulted from that was A LOT of feelings mail where she attempted to tweak my feelings of guilt for backing away from her. I didn’t bite, I maintained the boundary and eventually I ended the friendship. It was the right choice and I’m glad I made it but those feelings of guilt are still with me.

    Objectively I know feeling guilty for taking care of yourself is not logical but it’s there all the same. That feeling of guilt is a bitch but for now I have found good use for it. Now I know the second I start to feel guilty about wanting space to take care of my needs it is now a clear red flag for me to examine what is really going on there. I ask myself the questions “Is this a mutually beneficial relationship where both people’s needs are met? Is there reciprocity?” Because when I took a step back and I really looked at my friendship with the black hole friend I realized it wasn’t. No amount of good things in a relationship is worth being someone’s emotional punching bag for life. I’d rather feel a little bit guilty today knowing that I am taking care of myself, than return to feeling lost, frustrated, sad and scared while trying to help someone out of a black hole that only they have the power to escape. Thank you so much for posting LW, Captain and Latining this was something I needed to read today. The guilt has faded just a bit more.

  26. I’ve come out through the other side of a similar situation, with what I think was the best solution for both of us.

    My ex had Issues. She’s a passionate person, which was great for good things (getting projects off the ground and finished, following crazy interests etc) but also meant that when depression or other problems came up, she was passionately crazy too.

    I’ve always been the sane, calm person. At the start of our relationship, I felt very like the LW – getting anxious when she was depressed, spending a lot of time and energy into trying to Make Things Better.

    My ex *did* recognise where her brain was messing with her, and put a lot of time and energy into working with herself. It succeeded – I am truly amazed when I look at her now and compare her behaviour to ten years ago, and she’s achieved a hell of a lot – but by the end of our six-odd year long relationship, I no longer wanted to put any of my energy into her.

    Basically, I felt tired and resentful of her moods. I would often remove myself from the situation rather than deal – even when that wasn’t warranted. She got frustrated because I would no longer rise to any barbs and give her a fight or reaction like she wanted. I’d checked out.

    In the end, I realised that she was doing so well, and becoming a great person – and if we stayed together, I wasn’t going to *like* her any more. I wanted to keep liking the person she was becoming and remaining friends was important to me. So, we broke up. (Pretty amicably by that point. I think in reality we’d been over for quite a while and it was just acknowledgment of that.)

    Now I’m happily married to a great, laid-back guy (and oh how sweet is the lack of drama!), she’s engaged to a lovely lady, and I get to be her matron of honour. Happy ending!

    Reminder that people change, and you can still be friends with someone without feeling that your time put into them is “wasted”. But, it’s really important to have your own boundaries. I, personally, wasn’t able to have a relationship with a person who wasn’t emotionally healthy, and I think in part it wasn’t her issues at fault. It was that I was *so* together I couldn’t empathise and connect with her on a really fundamental level. No fault for either of us, we were just never going to make it long-term.

  27. I was in a similar relationship at that same age. The guy was brilliant at LOTS of things–he could draw beautifully, he was a fantastic musician, he could do math that made my brain flee in terror (he was a math minor, computer science major), his poetry was achingly beautiful. And he utterly despised himself.

    It was so bad that, if I did well at ANYthing, he would literally (and I meant literally the correct way) punch himself in the head, cry, and wail about how he should have been able to do that himself. It usually WAS something he could have done himself, but my field of study was different from his, so I encountered different challenges and assignments. He would sit outside my classes waiting for me, and *learn the material*, but he would spend awful amounts of time berating himself for being “stupid”. He also would feel “inferior” because I read more books than he did. It got to the point where I would have to read books secretly if he hadn’t read them first.

    He also had a serious health condition that he did NOT manage well because he felt he wasn’t valuable enough to “deserve” that kind of attention to himself.

    I ended up having to manage that physical health condition for him–something I did not have the training or emotional strength to do–as well as managing his mental well-being the best I could, which usually consisted of trying to make myself look as unexceptional as possible.

    No one should ever have to feel as though their partner’s ENTIRE self-worth and emotional well-being is completely on their shoulders. You should never have to feel as if you’re dragging that person kicking and screaming out of their pit of depression. This is a job for mental health professionals. If I knew then what I know now, I’d have coaxed him to a professional.

    I’ll tell you now–I broke under the strain. His physical health declined severely, leading to several crises, and he also began neglecting his hygiene in addition to spiraling downward as he struggled to find a job in his field after graduation. I did the best thing for both of us: I broke up with him. It KILLED me to do that. I adored him. But I couldn’t take care of him, and he wasn’t going to learn to take care of himself as long as he depended on me to do it. I was terrified, because I knew he’d sink or swim, but we were both sinking as long as we hung on to each other.

    He dog paddled for a bit, then moved to a larger city, found work, found a good relationship, and is doing better these days (15 years later). He could be doing better, and he’s still got major issues (we are friends, and I’m friends with his wife), but he’s okay. Happy, loved, all that.

    And I got to be okay eventually too.

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