Welcome to End It Now?, a narrative advice column. In each installment, Alissa Nutting and Dean Bakopoulos will address a question from a reader who is thinking about quitting something: a relationship, a job, a habit, a project. Dean and Alissa will respond with stories from their lives and the lives of others, and then deliver a verdict: Should the letter-writer end it now, or not so much, and why?
Dear Alissa and Dean,
I started dating a good friend of mine four months ago. Things started off pretty great: He’s smart and funny, always down to see weird movies with me, and is one of the first guys I’ve ever dated who actually understands what it’s like to live with (oftentimes debilitating) depression.
I love the fact that he gets it—understands the challenges of having to constantly manage mental illness, and understands that sometimes life can feel like an endless black hole. But I’m beginning to worry that instead of helping each other, we’re only feeding into each other’s states of depression—digging ourselves deeper and deeper into that black hole. He struggles with very low self-esteem, and it can be exhausting having to constantly remind him that he’s intelligent and worthy of affection when I’m trying to do that for myself as well. He also struggles with social anxiety to such an extent that I’ve begun to feel isolated from my own network of friends. I feel responsible for protecting him from loneliness instead of focusing on my own social life, art practice, and hobbies. While I’ve taken steps to try to manage my depression, such as therapy, lifestyle changes, and taking antidepressants, he doesn’t seem to be interested in making any positive changes of his own. I wonder if instead of building a healthy relationship, we’re actually just triggering each other’s anxieties, creating a feedback loop of anxiety and depression.
I know that if I were to break up with him, it would only further isolate him and contribute to his terrible self-esteem. But is it possible to love someone but be unable to be with them for mental health reasons?
Depressed in Love
Dear Depressed in Love,
DEAN: Well, if two people with depression/anxiety issues couldn’t be together as a couple, this column, HYPOTHETICALLY, might not exist.
DEAN: And so while we both believe, in our heart of hearts, that two people who struggle with depression and anxiety can be together in a wonderfully deep, healthy, and intense way, we also acknowledge that in some cases such a relationship also brings with it insurmountable challenges. I think you have to ask yourself a simple question: Overall, does the relationship bring you joy and security, or does it bring you sorrow and chaos?
ALISSA: Feeling understood is a very comforting feeling—and often a very rare one, particularly in the case of depression and anxiety. It’s clear from your letter that being understood by your partner in this way has been a wonderful new experience.
The only across-the-board rule about romantic relationships, I think, is that that both people need to feel they’re getting as much as they’re giving. While you use several sources outside of the relationship to help manage your anxiety and depression—therapy, medication, etc.—it sounds like you are the only coping mechanism he is using. If you weren’t unhappy being his only coping mechanism, you wouldn’t have written this letter. But here’s what I don’t know: How much of the responsibility to emotionally support him is coming from you? How much is him directly or indirectly asking you?
Sometimes we make assumptions about what our partner wants and needs, and then resent them for sacrifices they never asked us to make. We may have been taught that love is caretaking, or that love means always putting another’s needs before our own.
What would happen if you went out with your friends instead of staying in with your partner? Would he pout? Give you the cold shoulder? Imply he might have a crisis if you leave him alone? If you feel that his depression is controlling your behavior—or that he’s controlling your behavior and is using his depression as an unassailable excuse to do so—it needs to end right now. Let him know, as gently or forcefully as seems apt, that you are responsible for taking care of yourself, and responsible for the choices you make, as is he.
Our culture does not make this easy to remember. Two false, dangerous myths about love abound: One, if you love someone you will do anything for them. Two, it’s up to you to make your partner happy and keep your partner happy. The gutters of Twitter and Instagram are filled with viral posts that glorify unrealistic (and unhealthy) significant-other behavior. Like a video that shows a boyfriend whose girlfriend was having a bad day, until he jumped into action: He filled their bedroom with helium balloons! He put a diamond bracelet in one of them! The girlfriend captions the video with a statement like, “HE CAN ALWAYS CHEER ME UP!”
I am not trying to hate on happy couples who have endless resources of time, helium balloons, and diamond bracelets. This column is not for them.
The thing is, it’s not true that we can always cheer up our partner, and it’s not true that we should always try. Loving people does not give us the ability to take away their pain, or alter their mood, or change their behavior. We can neglect our own needs attempting to, but that doesn’t actually help the people we love, and it certainly doesn’t help us.
If you’ve been trying to manage his depression for him, stop immediately. End that now. (Of course, in the case of suicidal behavior or a mental health emergency, call 911 or a local emergency number.) This might be a huge behavioral shift and change in the dynamic of your relationship, so setting up additional systems of support for yourself to help through this transition is a great idea. See what effect this has on the relationship.
DEAN: My sense is that, at its core, a relationship that lasts in the kind of situation you describe is one in which each half of that relationship understands that, despite such challenges, life, overall, is much better together than it would be apart. Even on challenging days, days when one partner can barely get out of bed, or days when the other partner suffers an extended panic attack, both members of the couple feel stronger together than they do apart. They take turns helping each other through; the merging of their lives has complications, but each half of the couple rises to the challenge of those complications. Perfection is impossible in any couple, and any complicated person worth spending time with is going to have a particular history, a particular way of being in a world, and a particular set of challenges that come with being in the world.
We are novelists, not professional therapists, and so the advice that Alissa and I give is often rooted in personal experience, the experiences of the people we know, and the behavioral patterns we’ve observed and explored in our own fictions. Sometimes, writers working in TV are pushed to think of something in terms of a “high concept” situation. Let’s try that with your dilemma!
Imagine with us for a moment: Picture yourself meeting a magic robot, like one they have on Westworld .
ALISSA: Dean likes to pretend he watched Westworld .
DEAN: It’s about magic robot cowboys, yes? Anyway, stay with me. Imagine some sort of magic robot fairy being has waved its wand: Suddenly, you’re getting your dream dwelling, furnished with your dream furniture, in your dream location, looking out over your dream landscape. Your best and most supportive, fun friends have moved to that place too, and your dream job has just been offered to you there. You’re feeling healthy and fit and excited; you’re debt free. Now, it’s moving day, and the magic robot fairy says you have two choices: Choice A, your boyfriend can move with you. Or, Choice B, you can leave your boyfriend behind, and the magic robot fairy will wipe his memories of you away. He won’t remember you existed, and he will feel no pain at your departure. He’ll just move through his life as he was doing before, and you’ve not hurt him at all. He’s free of pain, at least in terms of you.
This is the sort of silly scenario I think about when I am drafting a screenplay, but it is also a good test of whether or not the challenges of your relationship are worthy of your relationship’s rewards.
Depends on magic robot fairy decision and/or what the relationship is like with new boundaries (if you don’t want to try new boundaries, I’d end it now).
Once you have an idea of what the relationship is like with new boundaries in place, if you choose option A because you imagine your world opens up in a wonderful and exciting way, and this is the only person you’d want by your side, then perhaps spend some time figuring out if there is some sort of professional counseling you two can attend together to keep the positive changes and healthy boundaries going. If you choose option B, and simply walk away from him, knowing he will be free of pain and you’ll be free of guilt, well, end it now, because there’s a better life out there for you, and you’re not going to find it with him.
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