Does the Partner or Depression Cause the Breakup?

burning sunset in dark clouds

I’ve often described the way depression can break up close relationships, but does the illness explain everything? How responsible are depressed partners for the human cost that others pay because of what they do when they’re ill?

One reader told me I’d confused her about this. First, I talked about depression taking over someone, as it had done to her husband. The angry stranger he became was the opposite of the man she had married. He became remote, blamed her for everything and left for a time.

Depression can do that. If it’s treated effectively and goes away, however, it might be possible for the old, familiar person to return and the couple to get close to each other again.

It seemed to her that I was putting all the blame on depression, as if the couple had been hurt by flying debris in a tornado and then could heal their wounds after the storm had passed.

Thinking about her partner’s leaving and coming back made more sense to her when explained as the impact of a destructive illness. It wasn’t really him acting in those terrible ways but an inner monster that was driving his behavior and twisting his thoughts. To some extent, that’s true, and I have often described it that way.

But I’ve also talked about the responsibility of recovering partners to acknowledge the damage they’ve caused. They were the ones who acted abusively, had affairs, left home without a word, then returned and apologized, then left again – or did other things just as destructive to their families.

When I talked about depressed partners in that way, she thought I couldn’t empathize with her returning husband. He was back, full of remorse and trying with her to restore the relationship. It sounded to her like I was blaming him, after all, rather than his depression.

I know it’s confusing, but this isn’t an either/or choice. Depression causes the changes in behavior, even personality, but depressed partners still need to own up to the damage and pain their actions have brought about. I believe that is an important part of recovery.

It’s such a complicated and sensitive thing to talk about – especially when answering a question from someone who is trying so hard right now to understand what happened.

Though I’ve written about this before, I doubt I’ve ever hit the right balance in describing the way I see it. And, of course, the way I see it only comes out of my experience and won’t necessarily match what others are going through.

Depressed partners can’t simply put the blame on their illness, assure their partners that all the hurtful behavior wasn’t aimed at them and expect that everything will get back to the way it used to be.

I know that doesn’t work because I used to think that way. After a long spell of sullen withdrawal, feeling like my wife was to blame, wanting to get away, I’d snap out of it and be responsive and loving again. I’d feel deeply remorseful but explain what had happened with words like these:

You have to understand that it wasn’t about you. It was all about depression and what was going on inside me.

That was sincere but didn’t help much. Both of us wanted to believe that I was back, and that we could pick up where we had left off. However, things weren’t really the same at all.

Before long, I’d get depressed again, then come out of it, offer the same explanation and feel the same remorse. My wife couldn’t accept that explanation after the first couple of episodes.

She’d tell me:

How can you say it wasn’t personal? You did this to me not to a shadow in your head. How am I supposed to trust you now? I never know who you’ll be from one day to the next.

Saying it was all depression wouldn’t cut it. I had to accept the reality that I had done deeply hurtful things to her. I had to own up to what I had done, get help and work with her to restore trust.

I also had to face her anger. That wasn’t easy for her to express, and it sure wasn’t easy for me to hear. With the help of a therapist, she could get it all out, and I could sit there and take it without trying to fight her off or get angry in return.

What I had done really sank in then. For the next day or two I felt a deep grief. My eyes were clouded with tears much of that time. That’s when I fully grasped the emotional impact on my wife and kids and could see in bright sunlight how much I had put at risk.

After that, I could never again rely on the idea that depression alone had done the harm. It did its work through me and my behavior. I had to learn how to live with the illness and limit the damage I might do to my family while under its influence.

Worrying about what the cause was, who or what is to blame, isn’t going to help much. What happened is done and can’t be undone. Yes, depression will change behavior in drastic ways, but treating it successfully doesn’t bring a relationship back to what it had been.

I put it this way in another post about broken relationships:

… the relationship you used to know may not return. It’s likely to be changed as a result of living with depression, especially if it recurs of if a single episode continues for several months, perhaps even years. It’s only natural to long for the return of the loving partner you used to know – your partner wants the same thing – but be prepared that it may not be so simple as that. You and your partner are more likely to face a gradual process of redefining how to live together.

It’s a great thing when a relationship can adapt to the impact of depression and survive. Many don’t, especially when the illness keeps coming back. There’s a lot anger, hurt and broken trust to deal with, and treating the illness of one person won’t do it for you.

That’s been my experience. Has it turned out differently for you?

250 Responses to “Does the Partner or Depression Cause the Breakup?”

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  1. Fred says:

    I’m posting in order to subscribe to followup comments.

    I’m 12 years into my recovery process and treatment for depression. I envy people who have loved ones willing to wait for them; I was very young (22) when I had my meltdown, and my ex-fiancée did not wait for me. I had left her for someone else in a desperate attempt to stop my pain; by the time I was clear-minded enough to realize what I had done, my ex had started seeing someone else and hated me. I’m still struggling to figure out how I let that happen.

    Fred

  2. Tal says:

    I am depressed. However I think that some of my partners behaviour has caused my depression. Then he gets to blame everything on the depression. The not depressed person may be unhappy with the depressed person and actually be manipulative to the depressed person who is vulnerable. It’s just too simple to blame one person in a relationship for all the issues.
    It is now my responsibility to deal with my depression. However I must also look at how I am being treated by my partner.
    I suppose there are issues that both partners need to look at and not blame the depressed person for sometimes getting depressed because they are not treated respectfully and lovingly by the other partner. It’s not so easy to leave a relationship with children and start over. Theoretically one person can take the blame for the unhappiness- a bit too convenient !

  3. Mira says:

    First I’d like to say its amazing how strong and powerful all these men and women are for dealing with a depressed loved ones.

    My boyfriend of only 8 months broke up with me his reasoning was because he’s depressed. I know he was a bit down a few months ago due to the loss of his job and not being done with school yet. I stayed by his side until he broke up with me. I helped pay his bills as well as helped fill out job applications for him. I tried my best to take away some of the pressures so he won’t go into such a deep depression. Within the last month he really pulled away. Went from daily texts and calls to once a week. I been respecting his space.

    He would still send loving texts. But not like before. He called me for my birthday and wished me a happy birthday and he put his friend on the phone and his friend said that my boyfriend cries because he misses me. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I even said on the phone it’s not true and my boyfriend sounded sad because I didn’t believe it.

    We are in a long distance relationship and I mentioned I would be in town close to his birthday and that’s when he snapped saying how he feels guilty not having time for me as well as having me wait for him to finish school. He asked me to wait til he get to a better place in his life where he is most comfortable. He asked for a break. I respected his wishes. 3 weeks later I came to his town for my best friends party as well as to see how he was doing. When I went to see him he was in the car with a couple of his block friends drinking and smoking since it was cold outside. When he came out of the car I could see he had a fake smile on and was really forcing it.

    We went into his car to talk and he said he felt bad he had me waiting for him as well as felt pressure that I’m waiting for him to finish school. Yet still said he will come back for me when he’s ready but if I move on it’s ok he understands. I wasn’t putting any pressure on him at all. Guess it’s the depression. He also went on saying that I deserve someone who’s willing to talk to me and have time for me since he’s busy with school.
    He got the job I applied for him. Said he’s appreciative of all I’ve done for him. But as of right now he doesn’t see a happy future for himself let alone out relationship or any other relationship for that matter. He hates everything right now. His neighborhood his life his friends. He said he’d feel bad making me wait for him and to live my life. But wants to be friends.

    I honestly don’t know if he’s just acting like he’s depressed or if he really is. He’s in his early thirtys and I’m in my mid twenties. I keep thinking something is wrong with me. I see myself as a good wife one day. And was hoping it’d be for him.

    I know it’s a lot to ask for but can someone please help me? Should I be friends with him or leave him alone? I love him with all my heart. We’ve known each other for four years went our seperate ways til 8 months ago when we got together.

    • Heidi says:

      Hi there
      I am the depressed(now ex) partner and I also felt a lot under pressure to finish school and pay my dues. The problem with depression is that you realize your behavior is hurting your partner but you just cannot seem to snap out of it (well, that is what I have experienced)
      Is he getting help yet? If not maybe suggest he does. Either way, don’t take yourself back because of what he is going through. Tell him that you want to support him but that you also need your space and time. Maybe just date or be friends, talk to him to see what situation might work for him but make sure it works for you too.
      I know this must be difficult for you, being on either side in a relationship with a depressed partner is very hard, at times frustrating and sometimes may seem hopeless….
      I am still hoping that once I am a little better my ex might consider giving me another chance but for now I am going to focus on myself and try tonheal.
      Good luck!

  4. Chet says:

    Maybe I’m wrapped up in my situation too deep. It’s only 5-6 months old. But when we met, the first 2-3 months we were together were the most amazing time. EVERYTHING fit so perfectly. But in a matter of 2 days things went from us talking about our future to her telling me, “I don’t want to be with you or anyone else right now”. Granted, she had some other, VERY stressful, things happen, but nothing between us that caused any problems.
    She told me she feels lost, numb & sad & doesn’t know how to fix it. I have tried to make sure she knows I’m here & will help in any way I can.
    I text her most mornings & just say “Good Morning”. So she knows I’m thinking about her. We text a little for a couple hours then it’s the next morning again.
    I love her more than anything in the world. And I know she loves me. So how can I just walk away from someone who is struggling with depression?

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