Living with depressed partners can mean living without the feelings of love that are at the heart of every relationship. What is it about depression that could turn intimate companions into cold and blaming strangers?
Readers ask about this over and over as their partners start blaming them for their own unhappiness and want out of the relationship. How could the person they most loved and trusted suddenly turn on them?
After years of affection and intimacy, how could they suddenly declare that they don’t feel love, even worse, that they have never loved their partners at all?
One answer I’ve often given in the posts at Storied Mind is about the fantasy of escape. Depressed partners may refuse to face the inner pain that’s wrecking their lives. Rather than seek treatment, they want to blame the existing relationship as the cause of their collapse. They may come to believe that they will feel better if they can leave and find happiness elsewhere.
That answer comes out of my experience and seems to match what happens in many relationships once depression comes into them – though certainly not in all cases. The specific effects of depression will differ in every relationship, but this is the problem I hear about most often and the one I lived with.
What exactly is the inner pain that can’t be faced and dealt with? Reciting the usual list of depression symptoms and the effects they can have on everyday life only gets you so far. General lists don’t capture the experience.
Talking about “inner pain” suggests despair or other unbearable hurt that demands an explanation and must be escaped as quickly as possible. Since depression is a condition that can vary from day to day, that active side of pain can be the driving motive. But there is another dimension of depression that can lead to the idea of escape as the answer.
It’s the one that causes depressed partners to say they’re no longer in love and have never loved their partners. It’s called anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure or interest in anything.
For me, it was a kind of deadness. Rather than an excess of painful emotion, it was the lack of pain, the lack of feeling, that was the undercurrent of all the surface turmoil. I felt no satisfaction in life.
I believed that the relationship was holding me back, that it had become hollow, empty of the intensity I longed for. I was sure that I could only find happiness and passion with someone else. It was the fantasy of the perfectly passionate mate that was a constant lure.
I recently re-read a chapter in Peter Kramer’s insightful book, Should You Leave?, that captured this exactly.
As one of the dwindling number of psychiatrists who still practice psychotherapy, Kramer often works with clients who are dissatisfied with their relationships. They want to know if leaving is the best thing to do.
When he encounters someone who is convinced that the marriage is dead, he says that he always suspects depression or another mood disorder.
He can sense that the person before him could well have an undiagnosed depression that has emptied him of all feeling. Anhedonia is the cause of the desire to leave to find a new, more intense life. The depressed partner’s relationship feels loveless because he can hardly feel at all.
The problem is that the unaware depressive has such a high threshold of feeling that it takes extreme arousal to evoke excitement and passion. He can erupt with anger and rage because these are more violent emotions that stir him as little else does.
Kramer says that these clients often believe that they’re perfectly capable of feeling. After all, they can go out and have fun with friends. They can feel passionate with others who likely have no constraining relationships or might be seeking the same kind of escape.
But they feel good precisely because these experiences offer exceptionally high levels of stimulation. They may also turn to addictive habits like recreational drugs, drinking, gambling or pornography for the same reason.
Fantasies of escaping into a life full of new intensity seem like the perfect answer to their inner emptiness.
No single explanation covers the diversity and unique facts of every relationship threatened by depression. This one fits much of my experience and also fits many of the stories people write about on the blog and in emails.
Does it make sense in terms of your own experience? Have you lived through such a crisis or been close to someone who has?
(This is an edited version of a Storied Mind NewsLetter.)
I’d like some insight from the folks here who are or have lived with depression – after you’ve dumped your partner is there a relief or does it make the experience even worse? Is there eventual recognition that your partner was never the problem and, in fact, was a positive in your life? I realize it won’t be the same for everyone but getting a perspective from someone who’s lived through it would be helpful.
Thought I would respond since I share your questions and confusion. Take what I say with a pinch of salt because depressed people don’t always fully understand themselves. Although I’m not the sufferer of depression, my depressed partner left 2 months ago. About 6 weeks into the break up, we talked and I managed to ask him if he blamed the relationship or me. He said that he realised it was not me or us, and that his view of me had been distorted and he realises what he thought about me was not true. Still, he hasn’t changed his mind about breaking up. He said he has his own issues that spilled into the relationship and made our communication problems worse. To work on us, he would have to work on himself first. He doesn’t have the capacity to show up in the relationship and doesn’t want to hurt me, thus no change in his decision. I don’t believe he is better yet because he told me he is only coping and trying to get through day by day. He continues to refuse seeking help because he said he doesn’t have the energy to go through the process of therapy.
I wish I had a happy answer but this is what he told me. He will continue on like this until he sees the need for change. But his answer tells me that it’s them that needs to take steps, not us. We have done all we can.
Intellectually I understand the impact of anhedonia, the complete loss of feeling. Its still so hard, though, to imagine that someone suddenly doesn’t love you anymore and allegedly hasn’t for some time, when everything they said and did during that time said the complete opposite.
I’m going through something similar right now. It’s been 6 weeks since my boyfriend of 3 years dumped me in a text saying he was overwhelmed with everything in his life and that he feels like a failure because he’s behind where he wants to be in life and he doesn’t think he wants to marry me or have children anymore which we’ve been talking about for nearly the whole time we’ve been dating. He also said he doesn’t want to leave me but he doesn’t feel the same things he used to for me and although he cares for me deeply, he can’t be in a relationship with me. He said he feels empty no matter what he does and that he would never hurt himself but wakes up every morning wishing he hadn’t. We met in person a week after this and he told me he loved me and agreed to stay together and work on the relationship. 3 days later he dumped me again in another text. I tried reasoning with him that this is the depression taking hold which he acknowledged and said he felt like he should seek help and treatment but he hasn’t as far as I know. We went on a “break” (his idea) where he left me on read for 3 weeks before ultimately changing his relationship status without a word to me. I told him how much this hurt me and there was no excuse for how he handled it and eventually told him to let me know when he would be ready to exchange stuff, hoping that giving him the breakup will allow him to focus on himself and miss me enough to come back. He replied “okay” and has been radio silent since. That was over a week ago. I think he’s overwhelmed with his own life at the moment and probably just can’t even handle thinking about our relationship at the moment. I believe he is confused about his feelings for me which is the reason for all the back and forth from him. I told his family about the situation (he lives with his mom and step dad still) and they told me they would take care of him since he won’t let me in his life right now.
This is a complete 180 from the wonderful man I’ve been dating for 3 years. He was always so kind, compassionate, generous, and affectionate even while he started to distance himself. We hardly even argued before all this happened. I’ve been in a constant state of anxiety and depression for these last 6 weeks and it’s been hell. I can hardly function anymore and have lost a ton of weight myself now as I can hardly eat or sleep. I begin therapy this week to try to navigate my own feelings as I feel like I can’t cope with this on my own. Part of me is angry at him for hurting me this way but a much bigger part of me misses him terribly despite all the pain he is causing me and I still hope he will come out of this episode he’s in and we can work on rebuilding our relationship. I’m also battling feelings of immense guilt for not seeing the signs earlier and for just now realizing this has been going on with him since October. I also know depressive episodes often resolve on their own after 6 to 8 months and it’s been almost 8. I feel stuck and hopeless and unsure whether to let him go and try to move on or keep fighting for what we had. If anyone has experience in this area and can give some feedback about what might be happening in his head and advice for me, please give it. I’m struggling hard.
Hi AG – I’m sorry you’re going through this, just as I’m sorry I am. The truth is that these issues have nothing to do with us; they were there in our loved ones long before we met them and they will be there long after we’ve realized that we deserve better and move on. Not that we don’t love them, but we also need to love ourselves. If someone won’t get help or face their issues, there’s nothing we can do about that except insulate ourselves from future pain because the core problem will not change. We can’t love them out of their depression, even though we love them.
I am also struggling with my situation, but believe my ex when he told me that “its nothing you’ve done, its nothing you haven’t done, it’s not about you at all”. He’s right, and his track record is proof of that. I love him, but he won’t get help and I can’t continue to let this suck the life out of me because he’s too afraid to face himself. Neither can you.
This site has been very helpful in my struggle, but what I think is missing is a discussion of what is likely a deeper issue with many folks who suffer from chronic depression, and that is the issue of attachment disorders. In particular, Anxious Avoidant Attachment Disorder. It might help you to read up on this for some perspective and clarity. Check out GoodTherapy.org for articles written by Jeremy McAllister, MA, LPC; some good ones are Avoidant Attachment, Part 1: The Dependence Dilemma and Avoidant Attachment, Part 2: The Downside of Preservation. My ex is a classic Anxious Avoidant. He has been all his life, and will continue to be long after I’ve gotten over this. It breaks my heart, but they have to want to change; most are too afraid to face their issues and the cycle continues. You deserve better, we all do, even our depressed loved ones. But we have to put our energy into being ok for ourselves.
I applaud you going to therapy; its very helpful. I hope it works out, but in case you feel like its not, I’d recommend Jim Hall, MS at loveaddictionhelp.com. He specializes in this exact thing, and is outstanding at what he does.
I wish you all the best. Just know that you deserve better, you did nothing to make this happen, and that he will come to regret his inaction and his choices long after you’ve recovered. I hope he finds peace as well.