I have a new friend, she has a giant Despair Squid.
November 1, 2012 6:44 AM   Subscribe

"Emotional affairs" and being a good partner to someone with severe depression: I need a friend, but this new friendship is moving fast and I'm about 99% sure that my partner will be massively upset if she finds out. What do I do?

I'm a lesbian in my early 30s, my partner is about the same age. We don't currently live together because she is having such a phenomenally hard time with... well, life, really. When we got together about five years ago, she was on antidepressants. They stopped working very well about two years ago, and it has been a rollercoaster ever since. Every now and then she finds something that seems to help... a little... for awhile. Diet, exercise, I think about a half dozen different medications now at different dosages.

But now she's just tanking so badly that we're having serious discussions about whether she needs to apply for disability. There are whole days where she basically can't stop crying, and she can't seem to construe anything anybody says in anything but the most negative manner. Someone asking her to hang out is making fun of her. If I don't text her back for an hour, I'm ignoring her; if I try to talk to her, I'm either criticizing if I say anything that implies her life could be better (even though she's openly miserable) or I'm showing off if I say anything about how my life is good. She's not suicidal that I can tell; she's had some self-harm issues on and off, but nothing that poses a long-term threat to her health. It's mostly a huge weight of sadness and hopelessness; she struggles with just getting out of bed many days.

It's a really rough time, but DTMFA is not on the table; this is an illness and I'm sticking around no matter what. But it could be, well, who knows how long until I'm able to just have a nice time with her again.

The thing is--I have a couple male friends who she considers non-threatening for the most part, but I'm not comfortable talking to them about a lot of things. I haven't had many close female friends for awhile. I've started talking to a girl now online who's on the other side of the planet and neither of us is talking about anything even close to sexual, but we have a ton in common and we chat, well, a lot. It's been great for me because I so desperately needed someone positive to talk to. I think she did, too. I feel like I finally have something to look forward to. But it is happening pretty fast, compared to any friendship I've had before.

I feel markedly better now about my ability to weather this, but there's a problem: If my girlfriend finds out, I'm pretty sure there are going to be hysterics about how she feels like I'm going to leave her for this new friend. And I can't figure out the ethical/"right" thing to do, here. Is it okay to conceal this if she's not likely to find out anytime soon, or at least minimize it and act like this is something that's sort of growing over months rather than a couple weeks from meeting to hours-long late night conversations? Or is this a sign that I really need to just step away from this new person because I'm getting overly invested?

Any other good resources for coping with this sort of problem long-term would be much appreciated, too, or for that matter thoughts on how to deal with treatment-resistant depression.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you're committed to your partner, then honesty is simply the only answer. It may be painful, but going through the painful times together is part of what it's all about.
posted by xingcat at 6:51 AM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have to say that if you feel the need to conceal friendships from your significant other, that maybe your determination in continuing your relationship is misplaced. Loyalty and sticking through tough times is admirable, but it's not a healthy relationship if you have to hide your positive friendships and the good things that happen to you. It sounds like you're walking on eggshells. Do you want to be a martyr or do you think you don't deserve a relationship and freedom/happiness, too?
posted by Eicats at 6:54 AM on November 1, 2012 [27 favorites]

Feeling the need to hide or obfuscate the nature of a new relationship from one's partner is generally a sign that at least one of those relationships is not healthy.

You deserve happiness and friends, just like your partner does. Are you in therapy, or at least in a support group?
posted by rtha at 7:00 AM on November 1, 2012 [14 favorites]

It sounds like you need women friends who are where you are. This girl on the other side of the planet - yes, that's precisely a recipe for an emotional affair. If I were in your shoes, I'd be kidding myself just a little, sort of an "oh this seems to be moving fast but I am so lonely and I'm sure it will be fine and not be an emotional affair and I can keep a lid on it", and then things would get messy. Not that you can't keep the friendship, but it is probably a bad idea to keep it in a vacuum, where the new person becomes your sole emotional outlet. It sounds like you need to take steps to have friends here and to have hobbies here.

It sounds like you have unsustainable boundaries with your girlfriend. Depression is an illness, yes, but that doesn't mean that you can martyr yourself to it indefinitely. It's an illness (and god knows I've helped a partner through a bad bout) but it's not the same as cancer, the flu or surgery - you can't just say to a person recovering from surgery who can't get out of bed and has open wounds, "we need to figure things out so that I can go out and do my own thing", but you can negotiate that with a person who is depressed.

I mean, I bet that this new thing is assuming such a large role in your life precisely because it's an emotional outlet that you can conceal - ie, something you don't have to negotiate with your girlfriend when everything else is such a burden to work out with her.

I imagine that it feels like you can't set boundaries with your girlfriend - she is depressed, she is in so much need, you love her, it's Wrong and capitalist and evil to be all individualistic and selfish and so on. (I mean, that's how I sometimes feel). And honestly, sometimes all that bougie talk about "boundaries" annoys me. But it seems really clear to me reading this that you need some time to yourself to develop a self/habits separate from your girlfriend's illness.

Now, take this with a grain of salt because I don't know your girlfriend - but even when someone is depressed IME they can often modify really unkind behaviors. And it's unkind to say to you that your are ignoring, criticizing, putting her down, even if that is your GF's subjective experience. It's not like she needs to get up and tapdance, or go out to dinner and a movie or whatever, but you need to be able to say normal things without it being construed wrongly.

Or, alternatively, your girlfriend is so sick that she really, literally cannot modify her behavior even slightly to make things easier for you to support her, and this is going to go on indefinitely. Maybe that's the case! But if that's the case, you don't really have a regular romantic relationship, and I think it would be good to start re-conceiving what you have. You have a relationship with someone you care about and you are their long-term caretaker/support. That's not the same as a romantic relationship, and if you treat it as if it is, I bet you'll come out the other end really damaged and with resentment over wasting your life.

And what is the endpoint? There isn't one, right? There's just an infinite horizon of caring for this person who cannot be there for you as a romantic partner and who routinely says hurtful things. Is that really what you want? The fact that you're starting an emotional affair suggests that part of you really does not want this, part of you wants a regular relationship with someone who can be there for you, who likes you, who is fun.

If you're really serious about staying in a monogamous relationship as a caretaker of someone who has no clear prospect of wellness, I think you really need to own that, not have parts of your personality which are trying to sabotage the situation. I think that would be a reasonable course of action, if you really care about this woman - there are certainly partners who spend years as caregivers because of love. But make sure that's what you're ready for! Do some writing! Do some therapy! Be ready to really commit to a long, long slog without emotional affairs and with a lot of carefulness about what you say. Really let go of expectations of support from your partner, truly let go of them, truly accept that your partner can't provide them and that this is not your partner's fault. Watch out for miserable duty-ridden slogs! Watch out for feeling like you have to care for someone at an unsustainable level in order to be a "good person"! (I mean, that's what I tend to get myself into, and inevitably a collapse follows.)

The thing that would suck would be to grudgingly stay in this relationship in its current format for years, having secret emotional affairs, not really accepting that your partner can't provide you with support, etc etc.

My recommendation would be to negotiate with your girlfriend some time and space for you to build up friendships and hobbies, to dial things back with this other girl (but not drop her), to mention her to your GF and to try to get yourself a little more space in the life that you have now. (I'm assuming in all this that your relationship with your GF has good sides that you haven't detailed in this ask, that it's not just a miserable duty-ridden slog.)
posted by Frowner at 7:12 AM on November 1, 2012 [22 favorites]

I'm sorry to hear that you and your partner are going through so much right now. Reading your question, I get of sense of the things that she is going through, but what are you doing to take care of yourself throughout this? Are you taking care of your emotional and mental health in ways that are healthy and productive to you? Having someone to talk to is great, but I would trust your gut on this one to figure out what is right for you and your partner, and whether this crosses any boundaries in your relationship. Based on what you wrote, having to hide and not being totally honest with your partner is not a healthy way to continue in a relationship. If this was me and my partner, I would be devastated to found out that he was emotionally invested in this way in another person.

In terms of what you can do, you have to take care of yourself first. It sounds like you really need someone objective to talk to, have you considered counselling? I suffer from depression and my partner has found his occasional visits to a therapist immensely helpful in dealing with me and keeping himself healthy, which helps me by extension. As rtha said above, both deserve happiness, stability, and a healthy relationship. A therapist may be in a better and (safer) position to help you through a really tough situation and can suggest other resources for both you and your partner.
posted by snowysoul at 7:13 AM on November 1, 2012

Mention to your girlfriend that you've made a friend, so that this friend is an established part of your life and you can mention the friend in passing when it comes up. If your girlfriend grills you on this, tell her what you've said here: It's really helpful for you to have someone that you can talk about these things with. That might result in a fight, but ultimately she needs to understand that you're a person and you have needs and wants and feelings too. Tell her, and stick to your guns.

The alternatives are: Step away from this new person, which you seriously should not do. You need a positive presence in your life. Your partner's depression is a real thing, like a monster that sits on her back and makes demands, but you need boundaries. You can't keep feeding parts of your life to the monster, because it will never actually be full; it will never stop wanting to be fed. I would say, though, that if things start heading into a direction where you both want to be more than friends, it might be a good idea to dial it back.

Or: Keep this concealed. Thing is, if she finds out right now, then she'll flip out and you'll have a fight and you'll stand your ground and maybe find some understanding. If she finds out that you've been keeping your friendship with this person secret for, I don't know, a couple months or whenever she finds out, it'll be a lot harder to convince her there's nothing screwy going on.

Moving fast is a thing that happens - we call that "becoming fast friends." You made a friend that you have a lot in common with and who's easy to talk to. This is good, this is fine. You only need to worry if it starts feeling like more than a new close friendship.

On not-really-preview: Frowner's advice is also spot-on, and spells out something I wasn't sure how to say. Your girlfriend notwithstanding, I do think it would be good for you to talk to a therapist.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:28 AM on November 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

I want to second that you need therapy and/or a support group. Either one will help you flush out some of the negative helpless feelings and be a better partner. Therapy will also have the added bonus of helping you set boundaries with your girlfriend. I know how hard that is and how much you want to be there for her in every way. But you simply can't be everything for her and leave nothing for yourself. It's not sustainable and in the long run, doesn't help her. (Burn out is a recipe for relationship failure.) You need to have support and in a way that's healthy for you and your relationship. I believe you can do it. Good luck. You're obviously an amazing person, and your girlfriend is very luck to have you in her life.
posted by stoneweaver at 7:29 AM on November 1, 2012

You've said that you don't have any sort of sexual vibe with NewFriend (NF), yet you used the phrase "emotional affair"; did you call it that because it's what your girlfriend (GF) would perceive it as, or because it's something you personally would call it?

In a very real way, this friendship could be helping your girlfriend. Having a person who cheers you up, supports you, and gives you a more positive perspective leaves you in a state of mind that you can better take care of your girlfriend, and you can spend time with her without getting frustrated and depressed yourself. It would, however, be reasonable to tell her your good news: you've been feeling better lately, and enjoying spending time around her (the girlfriend) even more, because you've got somebody helping you out. If she freaks out, she freaks out, but you've done nothing wrong and have her best interests at heart.

On the other hand, if your friendship with NewFriend is making you feel worse about spending time with your girlfriend, you've got a problem. That might be because you're spending less time with GF, because you're sharing less with her (the need to get things off your chest already taken care of elsewhere), because you're not paying full attention when you're together (distracted thinking of NF), because you're making comparisons (NF totally would not have freaked out like GF is doing) or whatever. This is emotional affair territory, and that means it's time to take action. Action might mean slowing/breaking off with NF; might mean "confessing" to GF, might just mean taking mental/emotional control of the way you're interacting with the two of them and being more careful to treat GF like your real closest relationship.
posted by aimedwander at 7:45 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing that seems like it would make your life a lot easier is if you could talk to your girlfriend without worrying about her reacting badly to everything you say. It's hard to get through the wall of depression, but what worked fairly well for me was to say "I think this is your depression talking. I love you, and I'm not your enemy, and I would NEVER make fun of you or tease you or lie to you because I know that you're sick and can't handle it. You thinking I am is the depression lying to you.".

After repeating this every time distorted thoughts about me came up for a few weeks, it started to get through, and she was able to better reassure herself that I was indeed on her side. It wasn't a perfect solution, but it did help me to feel like I was walking on eggshells less which made my life a lot better.

As for the emotional affair.. it sounds like you're desperate for friendship, but that maybe this isn't a person who can be your friend without romantic emotional attachment. Back off a little bit, and see how it goes. If she doesn't back off too, I'd let the friendship go and work on finding other friends.

The last thing you need is *two* people in your life making lots of demands of your time and energy.
posted by zug at 7:52 AM on November 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

Your girlfriend is a real mess, and it's okay for you to have another friend to talk to. Talk to your girlfriend. So what if she gets upset? That's part of her illness.

You can simply say, when she's in a decent space, "I met a really interesting person on-line, we chat pretty frequently. Too bad she's in Timbuktoo, because I think you'd really like her too."

If she does go into hysterics, "Your illness is not allowing you to see this rationally. I'm allowed to have friends of both sexes. This is an online friend, she's nowhere near here, and I understand that you're threatened, but I'm allowed to have a life too."

Simply don't let your new friendship turn romantic. That's not on the table. Enjoy the exchange with someone who clearly has interesting things to say, but if you're with your girlfriend, romance with someone else isn't an option.

You are not your girlfriend's hostage. You might want to remind her of that. It's okay to tell her when her illness is clouding her judgment.

Are you in a support group for partners of people with mental illness? That might give you some perspective.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:07 AM on November 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's unclear from your question whether there is actually anything remotely romantic about your relationship with your new friend or if you're referring to it as a potential "emotional affair" because that's what your depressed girlfriend would assume that it is. If it's the latter, you need to avoid the trap of buying into your girlfriend's distorted worldview.

I will say that if you intend to be there for your girlfriend through the long haul, it is essential that you have outside friendships and activities which can help recharge your emotional batteries and give you the strength that you need to be supportive.
posted by tdismukes at 8:14 AM on November 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Wait, just to make this crystal clear, is this an emotional affair or not?

Is this just a new friend you have made because you don't have close female friends and you need one, and it is entirely platonic? Or are you becoming infatuated with / having romantic feelings about / obsessing about / falling in love with this person? Be honest. Even if you never "intend" to meet this woman in person, or declare anything to her, are you becoming infatuated with her?

It is just about one of the worst feelings in the world, for me, to watch my partner fall in love with someone else. On top of the extreme emotional pain, it makes me feel helpless, worthless, humiliated, and scared. I am not a person who has ever had issues with depression or hopelessness, and that is how it makes me feel.

The worst part of all though, is when people who are doing this deny it, and act like I just have a distorted worldview, or I'm just hysterical, or I'm just not seeing things rationally, or I'm just jealous and threatened, or I was just selfish/unreasonable and didn't respect their need for friends, or, or, or...

If you know someone very well, and you are their partner, you know exactly what the reality is.

If you are really and truly having an emotional affair, or you think it could become one, here it would be very easy for you to use those lines that people in my life used on me. After all she IS depressed! After all she DOES have a distorted worldview - medically diagnosed - can't argue with that! After all, she IS so emotional - look at how much time she spends crying in bed!

I think it would be insanely, insanely cruel and fucked up for you to do that to her.

You need friends and support? Make friends and find support. It's not a justification for having an emotional affair. This woman is not the only nice woman on the planet. If it is an emotional affair and you know realistically that you aren't going to stop yourself, make sure your girlfriend NEVER finds out. No dropping references to the other woman and insistences of how it is Nothing and she is just being Irrational.
posted by cairdeas at 8:45 AM on November 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have had a lot of online relationships. Plenty of them were with people very far away. The ones that moved fast frequently ended abruptly, often after not too much time. You might be making a mountain of a molehill. This girl could be gone before you have any real need to "do" anything about the situation.

I would take this new fast moving friendship as an indicator that you are needy and should seek out more friends and other forms of support. Internet friends can disappear overnight, sometimes for completely unknown reasons. One day, they just don't appear online to chat at the usual time. It may be weeks or months before you hear back. You might not hear back at all. If you are as needy as this question indicates, you would do well to not rely overly much on a single source of support that could be gone in the blink of an eye with no explanation.
posted by Michele in California at 8:50 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was going to say exactly what Michele in California said. I'll add that online relationships lend themselves particularly well to crushes and emotional affairs. Not being able to hang out in person leaves many blanks, which you can then fill in in a way that increases your crush. Your image of them can all too easily be your perfect fantasy. The online forum makes it seem like they are always there for you. But it can all quickly vanish, and when it does, it can really hurt.

That's why I'd recommend you seek out support and friendship from people in person. It will develop more slowly, have greater reality, hopefully be more enduring, and be less likely to take on an affair-like tinge.
posted by salvia at 9:05 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

it sounds more like you're her hostage than partner. i can understand that you feel loyalty to her and want to help her, but it doesn't sound like you two are effectively in a romantic relationship, even if you still are "officially". so, you are overly invested. i don't think you can really help your girl friend. support her if you want, but i don't think you have any obligation to feel guilty about your friend on the other side of the globe. i don't think you should tell your girlfriend about the other friend, it would just make things worse.
posted by cupcake1337 at 9:24 AM on November 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't know why it's bad to have female friends. She probably isn't even a lesbian or bi or anything, so why be worried. There are some things that females can relate to better than males. If you are developing a crush on her, that is a different story.
posted by eq21 at 10:22 AM on November 1, 2012

I have no input on what to do with this friend but I'm seconding support groups to help you weather this.

Check out NAMI family to family. It's a 12 week course for family members of mentally ill people. It might be helpful and it might help you network with people who understand what you go through.
posted by 7life at 11:30 AM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hey, OP. I was in a situation very similar to yours for a long time. MeMail me if you want to chat.
posted by Lieber Frau at 11:31 AM on November 1, 2012

If she's going to be miserable no matter what, you have to distance your decision making from her misery. We'd all like to think that we can make our loved ones happy, and with that belief comes the flip side: we think we can make our partner sad, too. However, neither of these emotional states are truly under our control. We can influence them, yes, but in the case of severe mental illness even that is not necessarily true.

If you are able to truly accept that you have no control over her emotions and reactions, you will be much better off.

You also need to set boundaries about how she talks to and interacts with you. You don't have to tolerate accusations or guilt trips. Yes, it's an illness, but using you as a punching bag doesn't count as treatment. Having been depressed and having said some shitty unfair things to loved ones, all it did was make me feel worse about myself. When they started setting boundaries and demanding basic respect, it became much easier for me to interact with them in a positive way or at least a way that wasn't embarrassing and alienating.

Finally, not all depressed people benefit from being in a relationship. Sticking with her no matter what is, again, not a form of treatment.

Good luck.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:06 PM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

If she got sad and upset about you brushing your teeth, would you stop brushing your teeth? If she accused you of mocking her because you shower and she forgets to shower, would you stop showering? That is the logical result of judging your behavior based on her reactions. You'll cripple yourself as a functional person and she won't be even a little bit happier.

I might sound harsh but as someone who has a father with depression and who has been depressed myself, don't do that to yourself, that's not how you show love.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:17 PM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I dip into depressive states, my partner says essentially what zug suggested: "I am on your side. We're in this together." When your partner spirals into depression-induced thoughts, this may help her find her way back out. Remind her that you guys are in this together -- that it's you and her versus the depression, and that you believe it'll get better.

This will fight back those things preventing her from hearing what you are saying -- and you need to tell her about your new friend, because it will be much more damaging later.

I'm touched by your decision to support your partner. I hope that your determination outlasts her depression.
posted by Pwoink at 2:41 PM on November 1, 2012

Or, alternatively, your girlfriend is so sick that she really, literally cannot modify her behavior even slightly to make things easier for you to support her, and this is going to go on indefinitely. Maybe that's the case! But if that's the case, you don't really have a regular romantic relationship, and I think it would be good to start re-conceiving what you have. You have a relationship with someone you care about and you are their long-term caretaker/support. That's not the same as a romantic relationship, and if you treat it as if it is, I bet you'll come out the other end really damaged and with resentment over wasting your life.

I totally second Frowner on this. I don't think your girlfriend sounds like she's even capable of maintaining a romantic relationship right now, or that you even have on in the meantime even though you used to. Regardless of what you do with the Internet friend, right now you're a caregiver rather than a girlfriend in practice. And maybe it might help your sanity to go there.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:36 PM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you're willing and able to put up with her illness, then it isn't unreasonable for her to be willing and able to put up with your need to have friends to chat with that aren't going through her illness so that you can get through the tough times with her. And if she can't, well, what Frowner said.
posted by davejay at 7:21 PM on November 1, 2012

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