How do I break up with someone who is depressed
September 11, 2010 8:00 PM   Subscribe

How do I break up with someone who is depressed?

My partner and I have been dating for a little less than a year, and it's reached a point where I'm not sure that I can go on in this any further. I care about them quite a lot, and don't want to hurt them, but I just don't think that I can do this any more.

To complicate matters, they have just made a major life change and I worry that in breaking up with them, that I will be taking away a major source of their support to get through this change.

In short, I don't believe that either of us are happy in this relationship, but I'm worried (from ample evidence) that if I do break up with them, that they will hurt themself, or do something rash.

So what do I do? How do I do this while hurting them the least? How can I do this and ensure that they have the support that they need to get through this? I realize that I am not responsible for their happiness, but I do care for them, and I am worried that they will hurt themself.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I had a lover once who explicitly held her mental health over me as a way to manipulate me into sticking with her in a situation that had me very horribly caught in an additional emotional blackmail situation. It was terribly complicated. It ended in me, from afar, calling the police on her as she threatened suicide. Oh, so messy.

Years later after working on some of the emotional mess it left me with on my own and then working with cognitive therapists to work on it some more, one therapist whom I particularly admired gave me a gift, a many-times copied print of a parable by Edwin Friedman (Rabbi, family therapist) called The Bridge (PDF). (can't believe I finally found it.)

This parable did a great deal for my conceit of the ethics of keeping emotional and mental health boundaries between me and my love, and what was and was not my responsibility.

I wonder if the parable would do anything for you.
posted by kalessin at 8:11 PM on September 11, 2010 [64 favorites]

You say: "This isn't working out. We should see other people."

You aren't responsible for other people's crazy. If you seriously think they might hurt themselves, you could inform a trusted mutual friend prior to breaking up, so that they can keep an eye on your former partner.
posted by wierdo at 8:19 PM on September 11, 2010 [5 favorites]

I think breaking up with someone who is and is not depressed is a false dichotomy. In other words, break up with this person the way you'd break up with someone whom you don't see as depressed.

So, break up in a kindly, timely way. It sounds like you have made the decision internally, and now it's about figuring out how to share it with your current partner. I don't think you, or any other person, can ensure that another person has a social support network in place. One person cannot provide that for another person, in its entirety.

I'm worried (from ample evidence) that if I do break up with them, that they will hurt themself, or do something rash.

Perhaps I read it here, or somewhere else, but a person who's experiencing depression hasn't stopped "being" him/herself. I mean this in the sense that even when feeling depressed and even dealing with clinical depression, things like pity, insincerity and other sorts of what I consider patronizing feelings and responses are obvious to the person experiencing depression. Even if someone is really depressed, it's my experience that people still have a basic sense of integrity. Who knows? Maybe part of what this person is experiencing results from deeply knowing that they're also not happy in the relationship as it now stands. What I'm saying is that I think the person with whom you want to break up won't break as a result of your ending the relationship. What's honest is that you know how you feel. You may not always know what the other person feels, but you get a sense from being in relationship with them. So focus on how best to express this, and try to assume very little about the other person's feelings or even their depression.

The main things to consider are honesty, a good sense of your own boundaries, and just knowing that break ups aren't easy, and to get support for yourself, too. Don't make what you see as the depression experienced by the other person become the foil for the real issue: you are not happy in the relationship, you desire change, and you want to break up.

Focus on that. So, nicely, timely, honest, clear. After a break-up for me, I realized that when I honor myself, I honor the other person. Even if we're no longer in a relationship, even if that means we're no longer in each other's lives.

Nicely, timely, honest, clear.
posted by simulacra at 8:20 PM on September 11, 2010 [6 favorites]

If you care about this person, perhaps you can offer to still be friends and agree to do specific, practical things to help him or her.
posted by orange swan at 8:23 PM on September 11, 2010

Not long ago I was in a similar situation, just from the other end. My girlfriend of six years was about done with the relationship. I have long suffered from depression and had recently been diagnosed with cancer. She was essentially afraid to end it at this point. The next couple of months she stuck around, trying to do me a favor and not hurt me during an already extremely difficult time. The result really was just a lot more heartache than was necessary.

Looking back on it now, what I really wish she had done was just speak openly with me about how she felt, and end it. There is never going to be a good time to break up. Sticking around in a relationship you aren't happy in isn't going to do either of you any favors. There really is no reason to delay.

Also in response to orange swan's comment. If you wish to remain friends you need to make it very clear that there is absolutely no possibility of getting back together. Ever. Then you need to let your ex-partner make the decision about a friendship. Sticking around has the possibility to disrupt their ability to get over the breakup in a timely and healthy manner. In my case, my ex was insistent and being friends, but in the end the healthiest option for me was to ask her not to contact me anymore, and move on.
posted by NeonBlueDecember at 8:38 PM on September 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

How can I do this and ensure that they have the support that they need to get through this?

How can you ensure that _____ has the support __ needs? You can't. That's what breaking up is: you're no longer going to be there supporting ____. You already have many acquaintances who might have hard lives, and you don't know if they're getting all the support they need. _____ will be one more of those people.

It's ____'s responsibility not to hurt __self. Worrying about this is like worrying that _____ is going to randomly get into a bar fight. Possible? I suppose. But do you need to spend even a single extra minute of life taking measures to prevent it from happening? Nope. I understand the temptation, since this would allow you to play a caring, parental role. But the best you can do is trust _____ not to use self-violence. You said __ isn't happy in the relationship either; presumably __ will be able to move on reasonably quickly. Just because __'s depressed doesn't mean __ life would fall apart without you.
posted by John Cohen at 8:39 PM on September 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think you're really asking "How can I break up with a depressed person without feeling guilty?" And the answer is that you probably can't. Especially if the person goes on and harms himself.

Does that mean you're stuck in he relationship forever? I would hope not.

The real issue is, if you do the best you can to help the person, can you bear the guilt? It might be hard to besr, but its probably better than living in a relationship characterized by resentment, emotional blackmail, and a sense of having "settled."
posted by jasper411 at 8:48 PM on September 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I will be taking away a major source of their support to get through this change.

Keep being their friend. Just no more sexy time.
posted by rokusan at 8:56 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

You are not a prescription or a prosthetic limb or a course of therapy. You are a human being, and you have the ability to make your own choices about what you do with your time. If those choices include the other person, then great. If they do not, then great. But you were not assigned to this other person to improve his or her chances against depression.
posted by Etrigan at 9:31 PM on September 11, 2010 [6 favorites]

(If the gender-specific pronouns are wrong replace them with the correct ones)

As it is mentioned above that you are trying to minimize the guilt while breaking up from your depressed lover and not feel responsible if his depression goes worse after the break up. If you appear sorry/sad and caring it may even make his loss (you) appear even bigger. So be firm and to the point, give a brief explanation if you must and don't give any false support originating from guilt, do it only if it is genuine which is rare at the break up stage.
posted by neworder7 at 9:33 PM on September 11, 2010

It's tough to separate yourself from this, but it really isn't about you. I can understand the impulse to try to fix other peoples' troubles (I suffer from that, too), but it turns out you can't really do that. If you gotta go, you gotta go. Explain yourself as best you can (but expect it to not be understood or to be misunderstood), and make your move. That's what you owe to yourself.
posted by Gilbert at 10:00 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't imagine that anyone wants to be with someone who doesn't truly want to be with them. It hurts to know that someone is staying with you just because they feel sorry for you, everyone wants to be wanted!
posted by foxy at 11:56 PM on September 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

The last paragraph of neonbluedecember's response is really really really important. I believe that a clean break helps people get on with their lives as fast as possible.

Especially in this situation, where it can be tempting to hook up again/ be romantic again/ be too friendly etc etc out of guilt or in an attempt to soften the blow, Dont do it. It will only prolong the heartache and confuse the person you're trying to protect.

Believe me. I've been there. The kindest thing you can do is be clear and be firm. It's counterintuitive but it will help them in the long run.
posted by MrsHarper at 1:00 AM on September 12, 2010

I've had to do this twice.

The 1st time was with my very unstable husband. I actually went to his (fairly new) therapist and told him that I was breaking up with him, so that the therapist would be prepared to handle the heavy lifting. I have no idea if this was helpful in the long run, but it made me feel better about having to take care of myself.

The second time was with a partner that has BPD. I had already moved out and ended the sex, but that wasn't message enough to get through to them. I finally just said, "I don't see us as "a couple" anymore and dove for cover, but the shrapnel never came. They had already been fishing around for someone to take over my role, anyway!

Ultimately, they're gonna do what they're gonna do, whether you are present or not. Don't be a hostage to someone else's biochemistry.
posted by kidelo at 5:27 AM on September 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't imagine that anyone wants to be with someone who doesn't truly want to be with them. It hurts to know that someone is staying with you just because they feel sorry for you, everyone wants to be wanted!

Yes. I've used the following quote from the wonderful mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russell on a number of occasions when writing about similar issues:

"A sense of duty is useful in work but offensive in personal relations. People wish to be liked, not to be endured with patient resignation."

As part of the breakup talk, you can recommend a therapist or other appropriate support "if times get tough". Beyond that, you really should not remain involved.
posted by RRgal at 7:11 AM on September 12, 2010 [8 favorites]

I was dealing with both the death of a parent, trouble at work and undiagnosed bipolar disorder when in a fairly toxic relationship. The ex wanted to leave me, but thought if I did I might kill myself (his exact words to a mutual friend, and far far from the truth - it wasn't really about him) so let it continue, telling me that he felt as I did and coming over for my cake and sleeping in my bed whilst behaving very much as a single man when not talking to me. It wasn't the break-up that made things worse -it was discovering that the last few months were a lie. All the support and kind words I had were not given freely.

I don;t believe you are inherently selfish or manipulative - nobody is - but even a mentally ill person will not fall apart if you leave them. They may do for a little while, but finding out that things were not as they seemed is more difficult to deal with and more likely to fuck with the head of someone whose chemistry is already fucking things up.
posted by mippy at 1:45 PM on September 12, 2010

Well, as you say, you can't be responsible for them. You can try to get them help, but I'm guessing you've already done that.

I had a friend in a similar situation. She spent years trying to help the guy, relationship was really bad for her. I strongly supported her desire to break up with him, and helped her get herself out of the relationship. Months later he killed himself. Of course, the cause of suicide there is his severe depression, but that doesn't necessarily make it easier for her (or me, who was encouraging the breakup). It was still the right decision for her, and she did do an awful lot to try and help him. In the end, there is only so much you can do for another person, and they are ultimately responsible for what happens.
posted by wildcrdj at 4:17 PM on September 12, 2010

I would 100% not say it's because of their depression. While you have every valid reason not to stay (can't handle it, tired of it, it's just not a good match), a depressed person will internalize their depression even more. I would definately go with this isn't working out. When they say what do you mean/why, list everything else, but the depression. If you can remain freinds/support system do. But if it is going into this grey/weird area and it's too hard, then don't.
posted by stormpooper at 9:12 AM on September 13, 2010

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