I'm thinking of breaking up with you because you're depressed. Yes, I am just that awful.
September 24, 2012 2:32 PM   Subscribe

Oh, MeFites, I could use your insight. I'm probably going to have to call things off with my girlfriend - and it's mostly because she's depressed and out of resources to deal with things, so small things are becoming huge stressors on a near-daily basis. I feel like this makes me a horrible person, but things are so fraught, I don't know what else to do. Help? [Long, full of snowflakes and sadness]

I've been seeing Mia since January, though we’ve been friends for at least 18 months. We're both poly, and both live with other partners.

Mia has been at least somewhat depressed since I first met her, but things have been getting worse in recent months. She has said more than once that she doesn’t know if she’s capable of being happy. She says she doesn’t have the skills needed to experience joy on more than a fleeting basis, that when she tries to hold on to positive feeling it slips right through her fingers. Anything less than total enthusiasm for an idea she shares deflates it completely for her, and even if she follows through she feels like the pleasure is gone. She took a holiday recently - and the prospect filled her with dread rather than excitement. Then while she was there, a bad final night managed to spoil the whole trip for her.

She has reasons to be depressed, in fairness. She got her Masters a few years ago but hasn’t been able to find work in her field (which she sees as a failing on her part), so she works in a soul-sucking pit of despair call-center. She was “promoted” to HR a few months back, so she’s been the one processing around fifty layoffs - no say in them, just getting to convey the bad news. Oh, and do things like lay someone off, then be forced to train under their resentful spouse the following week. Her workplace are making noises about how they don’t need so many Operations staff, so she’s constantly reminded that she’s still in the firing line.

Her other relationships are not currently making her happy; her other partners are great people, but not always able to give her the support she needs. Though in fairness, nor am I. There are money woes, major house projects, family issues, health concerns, all sorts of things.

And to top it off she just had one of her dreams die: she’s been talking since I met her about how one day, when she could afford it, she would move her horse up to our city and be able to ride again - a rare source of true pleasure for her. Tragically, her horse had to be put down this week after a horrific accident. She is devastated. She has withdrawn from the social circle for the last few days because she doesn’t feel like she can trust them to react appropriately to this, and not tell her “get over it, it was just a horse.” I saw people at an event I organised the night after, and they were all sympathetic and worried about her. (To me, this says I may not be the only one to whom she’s responding with unexpected distress and pessimism?)

Ours is a fairly low-key relationship; I’m partially housebound due to illness, she has a full and exhausting life. Most of our communication is via text-message or IM - affectionate notes while she's at work, bits of news, a quick chat before we sleep. We do group social things once or thrice a week, and used to have one-on-one time once a week, but that changed when the promotion pulled her off night shift and onto 9-5 hours; my life got busy around the same time (rehearsing/performing 6 days a week, then minor surgery, then travel), so we haven’t had the chance to settle into a new routine. She frets about the schedule issues and tells me she misses me a lot, but I feel like I’m the one who turns that into ideas and invitations.

I love her, and have been doing my best to support her as a friend and then a partner. But lately I’ve come to feel that I can’t provide nearly enough support for her - there are only so many ways I could say “I’m sorry, that sounds really hard, I wish I could do something to make things easier on you.” I started gently suggesting therapy to her a couple of months ago, and to her credit she did ask me for the details of someone I found in her area when I was looking for my own therapist. I know these things take time to organise, but I’ve asked a couple of times since if there’s any news on that front, and she has just changed the subject. So I don't know what's happening there.

But by this stage, she seems to be so low on resources that things are hitting her much harder than I'd expect, and things that seem simple enough to me are becoming Big Things To Angst Over. I am extremely concerned for her.

And this is hurting me, and our relationship. We had multiple conversations last week that turned into distress and angst for reasons that baffle me. She seems to be perceiving anything other than total agreement and affirmation as attack, or cause for great distress. Every conversation has included some variation on “you seem to be upset with me” or “I must have offended you” from her, usually when what I’ve been thinking is “I don’t know how to deal with this, and I’m seriously worried about you.”

In one case, I questioned something she said about disability politics, and shortly afterwards left a smiley off a joke I made (I had a migraine), and suddenly she was telling me “what I hear from you is that I am not allowed to have an opinion or try to support others in attempt at community building.” And that she was “now distraught AND an hour late for bed” because she’d spent the last half-hour talking to me as I desperately tried to work out where she was hearing things I wasn’t saying.

In another, I had to set a boundary with her recently; she was hammering my phone with 5-7 text messages in the space of two minutes, venting about things. I was resting this particular day, but I sleep very lightly and even with the phone on vibrate out on my soft couch, I hear it; when it goes off that many times, I assume it’s an emergency.
(My phone stays on because I have friends & family around the world, and want to be reached in an emergency. My little sister attempted suicide in another time-zone last year, and people couldn’t get through to tell me she’d been found & hospitalised - that made the whole thing worse for me. So yeah - my phone stays on.)

I explained that, and asked her to please try contacting me once by text/IM/whatever, but wait for me to respond before continuing to send message after message - the same thing I’ve asked of everyone who texts/IMs me regularly. She agreed, but says she now doesn’t feel “safe” initiating contact at any time, and that “I understand the reasons for your boundaries and can respect them. It just stifles me from feeling like I can "share" or from contacting you first.”

I went to visit my old city recently (I sent messages almost every day on the trip, whenever I was able to), and on my return, it took several weeks before she “believed” that I was back. During those weeks, I texted/IMed with her almost daily, saw her, hugged her, kissed her, but on some level she still “missed me in the pessimistic way” that meant “she didn’t believe she would ever see me again.” She says that wasn’t an issue, it’s just how she is and it’s over now... but it was an issue for me, being told she felt I was never coming back to her even after I had done so and was right there next to her.

I’m starting to feel like I have to walk on eggshells, because she’s just so very fragile. I want to pull back from IM and text-message conversations because they’re so often leading to misinterpretation, but she will be hurt by that, and that will cut our communication dramatically. I’m losing sleep over this, and that’s sapping my already limited energy.

And worse, I’m starting to get triggered by the similarities between this and how I was treated by my emotionally-abusive ex-girlfriend - the problems with her started to really show when she was severely depressed, and led to my feeling I had to second-guess everything I said in the same way...

I firmly believe Mia doesn’t intend to be passive-aggressive, but many of the things she’s saying could be taken that way: the schedule conflict is “just another reason to hate [her] job,” the request to not send torrents of texts is “stifling” her, and she says things like “I should refrain from just sending messages that are the things that are going on with me, or are information I want to share with you or someone safe, because they are seen as attempts to get your attention...” After I shut down my computer for the night last time we chatted, my phone got seven messages from her, ending with “sigh. and now I may be violating the communication rule, because you don't appear to be there. and I have sent too many messages. My apologies. there is no emergency.” After I suggested a few days’ break (and stopping electronic communication for a while because it’s just so fraught), she’s saying that that’s not how she works, but what she wants is “irrelevant.”

It saddens me that she genuinely might believe these things, but my repeated reassurance hasn’t changed that, so I don’t know what else I can do.

I feel like at the moment, our relationship is doing more harm than good - we’re both getting hurt when conversations go so badly awry. I’m losing sleep, having tension headaches for the first time in years, off my food, and having trouble making decisions because my mind is full of this. (I spent my last therapy session talking about this, but didn’t find clarity or a resolution.)

My feeling is that we should call the relationship side of things off at least for a few months, so that we stop adding to each other's stresses, and hopefully she can get the help that she needs. I have already stopped the text/IM conversation for a few days, to hopefully give myself/us a chance to calm down and get our thoughts in order. Historically, I've held on too long; now I'm afraid that I'm jumping too soon...

I think individual counseling is the priority for her - if she can’t find time/money/energy for that, I’m unlikely to get her into couple’s counselling. And every time I’ve done couple’s therapy with a depressed partner, it’s only lasted a couple of sessions before individual therapy was recommended for the depressed one.

I can’t fix her, I know that.

But on the other hand, I want to support her, and have been able to give her some support until recently. What she needs now is more support, not less - and I want to remove myself from the equation? Even pulling back on the text-based communication feels like cutting her off. I know that if we do end the relationship, it’s extremely unlikely we can instantly go back to being friends; I had an ex expect that of me, and it caused more drama than the break-up did. And what sort of person am I if I decide that her issues are too much to deal with, and pull out? I know you put your own oxygen mask on first, and all, but still...

It’s worth noting that some months before we started the relationship, we had a conversation where I said I wasn’t ready to get involved with anyone else: I had to get back into therapy and work on my issues with PTSD before I would be ready. She told me I was “making that decision for other people” and “denying them the right to choose for themselves” whether they got involved with someone who had trauma to deal with. I argued quite vehemently with that, and she saw my point that that was a decision for me, but damn right I had the right to choose unilaterally not to get involved with someone. However, I’m concerned that any attempt I make to step back will bring up the same “making the decision for her” response - even if I’m doing it for my sake.

So advise me, people. Am I just a heel for wanting to step back from this? Is there another way I can still support her without walking a minefield or huge amounts of stress myself? What would you do?
posted by Someone Else's Story to Human Relations (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You're not happy. That's reason enough to walk away from any relationship.

It's understandable if you feel like an ass for doing this, but it's ok. You do need to put your needs first.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:36 PM on September 24, 2012 [10 favorites]

You are not a heel, you are looking after yourself. I was going to illustrate with a long story about how I have walked away from similar situations of emotional vampirism, but... really, it can all be boiled down to that.

I’m losing sleep, having tension headaches for the first time in years, off my food, and having trouble making decisions because my mind is full of this.

You owe it to yourself to take care of yourself.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:39 PM on September 24, 2012

You are not a heel. Some people are emotional vampires. Your friend Mia is one of them.

Yes, her life sounds rough right now, but she needs to rally and get the support she needs.

As for you making a unilateral decisions. WTF?? OF COURSE!!!! You have that right. She doesn't get a say in your mental health. Full Stop.

Here's what you say, "Mia, you know that I love and care about you, but right now I am not in a space where I can offer you the kind of support that you need. Our conversations are not sources of joy for me, but rather I feel like I'm either your sounding board or your therapist and I'm in no shape to be either. I've urged you to get help, and I'm urging you again. For right now, I need to step away as your issues are overtaking mine and affecting my health. I wish you good luck and peace, and I hope that when we are BOTH healthier, that we can resume our friendship."

That's it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:40 PM on September 24, 2012 [19 favorites]

What she needs now is more support, not less - and I want to remove myself from the equation? Even pulling back on the text-based communication feels like cutting her off.

Supporting someone doesn't mean putting up with all of their bullshit, and she's pulling some bullshit moves.
posted by liketitanic at 2:40 PM on September 24, 2012 [6 favorites]

I agree that you should just walk away but first, why the sole reliance on text/IM? If it's so easily misinterpreted, why isn't one of you picking up the phone and having an actual conversation? It seems like an obvious solution to that issue. But regardless, she's not in a good place for a relationship, or this one at least is not benefitting either of you. The kindest thing for both parties would be to end it.
posted by Jubey at 2:40 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

No matter how much someone's life sucks or how sick or generally pitiable they are, no adult is ever owed a romantic relationship, or any kind of relationship at all. Adults get to set boundaries; sometimes that includes pulling away from people. No one is "entitled" to anyone else.

Break it off and move on. She's already shown willingness to guilt trip you, involve you in drama, and ignore any of your concerns. I'd cut off all contact, if possible. Using therapy-speak as an emotional bludgeon is something users and psychos do, not something that people who have any interest in becoming healthy do. That's not what it's for. You can't offer her "support", because she hasn't gotten to the proper first step yet.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 2:41 PM on September 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

You cannot control how another person reacts or how they view the world or how they lead their life. You only control the choices you make. If you find that being a part of this woman's life is not working for you, then you need to decide what you need and do that. Life is too short to be sucked into someone else's misery.
posted by agatha_magatha at 2:41 PM on September 24, 2012

This may sound crazy, but have you considered simply... taking a brief break? By that I don't mean a "no dating" break, I mean a "no contact" break until she has made some progress with resolving her issues.

Two out of my three most significant relationships involved people with depression, and I think things would have gone a lot better in both cases if I had had the option to check out for a month or two simply to preserve my own sanity. At the very least, it's worth a try.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 2:42 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another vote for an actual conversation. Can't you text back, "Call me when you get off work and we'll talk." Don't text with her and don't feel guilty about it. If there is a need to respond, text the "Call me when you get a chance." line. Convey that you would like to speak rather than text and maybe she will text less. When you actually talk on the phone, suggest taking a break, or break up with her entirely. You have no reason to feel guilty or bad. There is nothing wrong with breaking up with someone who drags you down or you don't particularly enjoy. You don't have children with the woman or share any property. Just do it if you don't want to be with her and don't look back.
posted by Fairchild at 2:49 PM on September 24, 2012

Tell her that you care deeply for her, and she should spend her energies into looking into therapy. So tell for that for the next month, she must not contact you at all unless it's regarding logistics of therapy or swapping therapist recommendations or something.

She's really depressed. She honestly can't have a relationship with anyone with where she's at. I've been through depression and now I'm on anti-depressants and received some counselling, and it makes a world of difference. Currently, depression is ruling her life. Tell her you want to be partners with her, and not depression. She is not her depression. She needs to deal with it first before she can be good to herself or others.
posted by Hawk V at 2:51 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

How about just acknowledging to yourself -- without judging -- that you aren't equipped to be in a relationship with someone who's struggling with depression, and say to her "I have been thinking about this a lot, and I'm just not equipped to be in a relationship with someone who's struggling with depression. This is my shortcoming, not yours, and I'm going to have to stop seeing you. I really hope you are able to find the support you need, and I'm sorry I can't be that person." That's pretty much it.
posted by davejay at 2:54 PM on September 24, 2012 [7 favorites]

Whenever I've been in a situation like this - where I know that I cannot help someone but I still am afraid I might feel like a heel if I leave them - what always tips the scales for me is the moment when I start losing sleep and worrying myself slightly sick and I have this realization: It is completely out of my hands to improve this situation in any way; the only choice I really have is whether this situation drags down one person, or it drags down two people.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 3:09 PM on September 24, 2012 [7 favorites]

You're not married to her. You didn't vow to be with her in sickness and in health. It's okay to break up with people. And especially so in your case, since it sounds like you need to be spending more time and energy looking after yourself before you can take on someone who requires so much attention.

> Am I just a heel for wanting to step back from this?

No, it might even help her. I had a boyfriend stick with me and be super supportive during one spell when I was depressed, and in retrospect it might have made things worse; he put up with a lot of crap he shouldn't have, thought he could "fix" me, and I delayed getting help partly because of that.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:12 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Jubey, it's a good question. Mostly it's because she has said she doesn't like phone calls and vastly prefers to text. My neurological illness affects my short-term memory and my ability to think on my feet, so I like being able to take a minute to think, and read back over things, before responding; it can also affect auditory processing. Plus we're squeezing in our interactions around other things - while she's at work, as I said, or as we fold laundry or the like. Add to that the fact that AT&T's reception sucks in my downtown home, but Google Voice texts/IMs still go out over wireless, and that's a lot of reasons!
(And to be honest I like having chat/SMS logs to refer back to, because I've been gaslighted too many times in the past. But that's my trauma talking - that's why I'm in therapy.)

I do see your point - I've called a halt to the text-based conversations and am angling for in-person time for just that reason, since face to face conversation gives us body language and tone of voice even if it's in real-time. But she already feels like my asking for limits on text stuff is stifling and means she can't share things with me, so I don't think cutting out text conversations entirely will be well-received.

wolfdreams01, that's actually what I plan to suggest when I see her, but I know it's not just my decision. I don't want to burn bridges here if I can avoid it, and I'd love to be able to pick things up again when we're both in a healthier headspace. However, most people I've talked with reckon "taking a break" is just breaking up without coming out and saying it, and with the way things seem to be growing out of proportion or all-or-nothing right now, I'm afraid that's how it'll be taken.

(See what I mean about second-guessing things? I'm probably borrowing trouble, but I don't have much hope at this stage.)
posted by Someone Else's Story at 3:23 PM on September 24, 2012

It may get blown out of proportion but it might also provide her with some space for her to see how she's affecting you - sometimes we can't see that when we're in the middle of something. But however she reacts is really her responsibility.

But I agree you need a break.
posted by heyjude at 3:53 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I’m concerned that any attempt I make to step back will bring up the same “making the decision for her” response - even if I’m doing it for my sake.

Mia's response to your decision to break up is not your responsibility. You can't control her reaction so don't try. Do what you need to do for yourself.
posted by headnsouth at 3:55 PM on September 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

she already feels like has complained that my asking for limits on text stuff setting an important personal boundary for myself is stifling and means she can't share things with me, do and say what she wants whenever she wants to so I don't think she will respect my attempts to assert myself further.

Adults are each responsible for putting their own needs first with respect and consideration for the needs of other people. In this relationship, Mia is putting her own needs first without respect or consideration for yours, even when you state your needs clearly. But also, you are putting what you perceive to be Mia's needs before your own, even when doing so causes you mental and physical distress. You need to put your own needs first.
posted by headnsouth at 4:06 PM on September 24, 2012 [7 favorites]

As someone who struggles a lot with depression and has struggled a lot with setting boundaries in the past, I think one of the best things you can do for Mia as a friend is to encourage her to get therapy and to not respond if she engages in distorted thinking ("all or nothing" / "blowing things out of proportion").

I agree with the other comments saying that it's not anyone's responsibility to save one's girlfriend or boyfriend from depression. It's certainly not your duty to put up with boundary-squashing behavior like Mia is demonstrating. She should recognize your text boundary as a healthy step forward and should want to respect it -- and she should see your encouragement to seek professional help as a sign that you care about her as a person. If she can't or won't respect boundaries and seek help, then it's okay to even stop being a close friend.

I know that sounds harsh, but there was a point last year where I was in an incredibly depressed state and I asked one of my friends point-blank if I was being "an emotional vampire," although not in those exact words. His response ("No way. You take responsibility for your actions and your emotions, you take your therapy seriously, you take your medication as instructed, and you try every day to fight this thing. As long as a friend of mine is sincerely trying in their struggle with mental illness, I want to stay their friend.") serves as a reminder for me about how I want to behave. I hope Mia is capable of doing the same, but if she isn't at this time, it's okay to take several steps back from your relationship for a while or indefinitely.
posted by pinetree at 5:42 PM on September 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

So you both are under a lot of stress and your relationship is suffering. And you say you love her but you want to leave. She doesnt sound like a person who you couldnt live with just the person whose stresses you cannot live with. It is not marriage so i guess there are no vows but to walk away when things are going rough, yes that would be what a heel would do. Take a break from it all.
posted by pakora1 at 6:20 PM on September 24, 2012

I don't think you're a heel for breaking up with her but her horse just died...I'd give it a few weeks out of kindness before I'd lower the boom.
posted by Jess the Mess at 7:46 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

You know, being poly adds an extra level of complexity and difficulty to any relationship. It's hard to navigate all the boundaries and communication and scheduling issues, and doing all that while also dealing with the list of stresses you mentioned plus untreated depression? Yeesh!

All of which is to say, I think you completely on the money that this may simply not be the right time to be pursuing this relationship. I think taking a break is smart, and I do hope that if you're both part of a supportive poly community (which it sounds like you may be) she'll hopefully get some reinforcement that "taking a break" in poly terms really can mean "I don't have the time/focus/energy for this additional relationship now, much as I would like to" rather than "I'm breaking up with you but want to say it nicely."

Finally, do you have the sort of relationship with your live-in partner where you can talk this situation over with her/him? I think that could potentially be very helpful to at least get a sense of whether this relationship might have moved to a place where it's negatively affecting your other relationships and commitments, which is a really important boundary to consider.
posted by psycheslamp at 8:57 PM on September 24, 2012

What Jess the Mess said - give it a few weeks if her horse just died. That is essential.

Being poly adds simplicity to this, not difficulty, in my opinion:

One of the really nice things about poly relationships (and this is a huge deal), is that often there aren't permanent breakups. Life is long, and relationships can come and go and change form. For people with abandonment fears, this aspect of poly relationships can be quite nice.

Yeah, in mono dating, "take a break" typically means the end. It can be cruel to string someone along and not give them full closure. But poly relationships (by design) involve ambiguity and being strung along sometimes for years!

You just have to communicate very clearly.

"You're someone I love and care about, and I'd like you in my life for a long time. However, right now you're depressed and I can't take the emotional ups and downs it causes in me, which affect me in ways XYZ. For my own sake, I need to take at least a few months break from this situation."

You can set whatever other boundaries you want, about when and how much you're ok with seeing each other and talking. Some of it is also negotiable.

I think you'd be well served by talking with your friends who are poly about how they manage long term relationships. IMO, this is sort of normal, with people coming and going from others' lives when the situation calls for it.

All that being said, it sounds like this person Mia is really not in a healthy headspace. It might be that you need to get away from her for her sake, too. It's possible that something secondary is not giving her the support she needs compared to something primary, and she's grasping at that support and not getting it. It would be better to cut her off so she will be compelled to find something better for herself. Or maybe she will need weekly conversations instead of total silence to be ok. Overall though, it doesn't sound like she's thriving and that your relationship together is serving her too well, either.
posted by kellybird at 9:36 PM on September 24, 2012

If you've ever been depressed, you can relate to relate to the fact that you really lose perception to how you look to other people. She sounds like she needs real friends, those hat won't leave when she has things that happen to her that go bad.

The texting thing could be explained by she really needs to vent. Why not TALk instead of text so you both can get the real human experience. Tell her you can't talk right now, but you can talk later when you have more time.

Also, if she doesn't have any true friends as I see from this post, maybe she should get a therapist? A person that is willing to sit and let her vent and help her constructively.
posted by eq21 at 11:46 AM on September 25, 2012

Please do not take to heart any suggestions that you're being a bad friend or leaving when the going gets rough. It doesn't sound like you're stepping away because Mia has had some bad things happen, but because she is making demands on you that you can never satisfy, to the point where it is affecting your health, and she's complaining that your efforts aren't good enough.

And indeed, your efforts aren't good enough because you can't be her sole source of treatment, you're not a professional, and she clearly needs professional help. This is only partly a rough patch she is going through. She believes she will always be this way and always has been, and is not seeking treatment of any kind. Her only treatment program is demanding that you do better.

Everything you do to set limits is met with more accusations. You're getting sick yourself from this, only to enable her illness. So yes, it is perfectly reasonable to ask for a break from this, giving a date to reconnect so that she has evidence that you're not just dumping her.

You'll have to let her have her reaction I'm afraid, you can't do anything about that. You can only hope that facing some consequences will drive her to get meaningful help.
posted by tel3path at 12:23 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thank you for your comments so far. (Though a couple of them... Ouch.)

For those who suggest sticking it out a few weeks - how would you handle things in the meantime, given the difficulties we're having?

kellybird, I smiled at your comment - having been poly for over a decade and with most of my relationships in that time having lasted >5 years, I am one of the people approached for long-term relationship advice. Unfortunately (or maybe not?), having mostly long-term relationships means fairly little experience of ending things, and of when/how to step back...
posted by Someone Else's Story at 1:17 PM on September 25, 2012

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