Why is everyone I’m attracted to depressed?
February 18, 2013 12:51 PM   Subscribe

I’ve realised in recent months that everyone I’ve been in a relationship with had/has a mood disorder - depression, or in a couple of cases, cyclothymia with crushing lows. This seems like more than coincidence. What can I do about it?

What’s above the fold pretty much sums it up.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about situational depression here - I know anyone can feel “depressed” when going through a hard time, but my partners have had the ongoing, diagnosable sorts that aren’t particularly connected to stress or hard times. Some have had Seasonal Affective Disorder, some Dysthymia, some Clinical Depression, a couple Cyclothymia (possibly Bipolar in one of those cases, but she walked out on every psych, counselor and doctor who suggested it). In many cases it was months or years before I became aware of a partner's mood disorder; in one or two it was made clear at the start but supposedly under control.

However, in every case it’s been one of the sources of major strain in the relationships; often it’s been instrumental in the breakups.

So in thinking about potential pitfalls to avoid in future, I'm wondering about this trend - and whether there's something I'm attracted to that's an indicator of depressive tendencies in a person.

Let me be clear: I don't think that people who experience depression are less worthy of love/flawed/whatever, or with supporting a partner through their depression, as long as I can maintain my boundaries and am not expected to be their sole way of coping. I live with someone I love very much, and do my best to help when he battles the Black Dogs. I am quite worried that this question risks making those here who experience depression feel bad/worse about themselves - please be careful with your answers, if you comment?

But it does strike me as worth considering this aspect, in case there's something about myself that needs examining.

I’m certainly not consciously looking for people with depression to date - I’m definitely not looking to save anyone, I value independence in myself and my partners, and I don’t think I’m co-dependent (despite a troubled upbringing I’ve mentioned here before).

But I’m wondering whether there’s something in what I’m attracted to that predisposes me to seek out people with depression?

The trends I’ve identified in my relationships are:
* I tend to hang around with geeks, gamers, and goths/ex-goths (albeit the bouncy happy goths who like glitter and giggle at people who take themselves too seriously), who on the whole seem more open about talking about depression. Many of us also had a hard time fitting in at school, experienced bullying or ostracism, etc.
* Many of these people learned to hide or downplay their emotions as a self-preservation technique; the guys in particular are prone to trying to use intellectual superiority as a weapon when what’s underneath is “I’m hurting, or scared, or sad.”
* I’m also polyamorous - many of the relationships I’m talking about overlapped - and polyfolk are big on openness and honest disclosure. (At least in theory.)
* I'm bi/queer, and don’t seem to have a physical “type” beyond being attracted to men with little-to-no body hair (which I usually don't know until we get naked - I assume it's a hormone-compatibility thing).
* In non-physical terms, I’m attracted to intelligent, passionate people who can find joy and delight in the world around them - and are willing to share that joy with me. Wow, that sounds totally generic!
* I tend to be drawn towards quieter, sensitive people, who know how to listen and think before they speak. The brash loud ones who dominate a room and are the life of the party are often slightly overwhelming to me in large doses; I love them as friends, but need partners who understand how to be low-energy company when my chronic illness is bad.
* In general, I feel more honoured by the attention of people who aren’t immediately everyone’s best friend, who want me to earn their respect and trust before sharing their private selves.
* I have a cynical streak despite (or because of) being an idealist at heart.
* Many of my friends are talented creative/artistic people, but those I’m attracted to aren’t necessarily artistic types.

I don’t know which if any of these are relevant, though.

So I don’t know. It could be just a statistical fluke - many sources say 1 in 5 people will be depressed in their lifetimes. It could simply be that many of these relationships lasted long enough for major ups & downs to bring out the depression in these unfortunate folks. It could be that I'm erroneously lumping all these conditions together, to see a trend there. Or there could be a pattern here.

I don’t think I’ve provided nearly enough information here for you to tell me, of course.

But how do I work that out, and what can I do about it?

(I have a therapist, who doesn’t think there’s anything to this line of questioning. But we’re in the middle of major work on another front, so I haven’t delved too deeply into this.)
posted by Someone Else's Story to Human Relations (22 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I too tend to be deeply cynical. I don't bother counting facts about past hookups, but of my three long-term relationships, two had depression. I think it is the cynicism that draws me to them. Because my cynicism makes me view people who are too trusting as gullible sheep just waiting for the universe to fleece them, other people's depression and negative view of the world often strikes me (at first glance) as being an exceptionally realistic view of the world - one which is based on an awareness of the inherently evil quality of human nature. Of course, eventually the illogical crazyness starts and I realize that wasn't the case at all - it was only depression.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 1:03 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've observed this and so have quite a few other friends. The basic conclusion is:
  • The rate of depression generally, in the entire population, is much higher than you could ever expect from surface impressions.
  • Relationships are, primarily, about sharing and connection, and one of the basic things you share and want-to-share is details like problems with depression
  • The 'dating ages' - 20-40 - are also prime times for depression, but 'biology-wise' and life-wise.

posted by tmcw at 1:10 PM on February 18, 2013 [8 favorites]

I've found some similar coincidences in my relationships, as well.

Sad to say, I can't help put trace the paths back to my father; a smart man with epic mood swings. I grew up in a household without an even keel, and learned to expect/respect/keep up with a sort of manic behavior from folks, and a lot of the creative types I'm close with exhibit this behavior in varying degrees.

For me, it's not even low energy folks, necessarily. For many of my close friends/lovers; when they're on they're so ON and wonderful and clever, and that seems like the natural flipside to their sadder sides, when they just withdraw into their internal sadness and bad habits.

I've learned a lot about what codependency means, personally, and so I'm not as worried about my own behaviors; I've gotten a lot better at learning that it's Not About Me, offering a reasonable amount of compassion/support, and then just going about my business.
posted by redsparkler at 1:14 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

* I have a cynical streak despite (or because of) being an idealist at heart.
* Many of my friends are talented creative/artistic people, but those I’m attracted to aren’t necessarily artistic types.

These two things, I find, often result in a wide pool of people who tend toward the depression/dysthymia end of a spectrum.

-Depression + humor = a very engaging brand of cynicism.

-The way they say that comics are the saddest bastards alive, well, this applies to other artistic pursuits also. Art can very often be a way of coping with overwhelming badness in one's emotional life.

I'm currently exploring the same issue, and that's as far as I've gotten. In my own case, I suffer from depression and anxiety; I'm both finding and drawing in people who are like me, possibly because we see each other as a safe space for some of those darker phases. But I don't know what the real cues are yet, what could be signaling that to me.

As tmcw pointed out, lots and lots of people are depressed or somewhere in that general range. And frankly, it's hard to maintain permanent relationships when you are chronically depressed, so they probably occupy an outsized proportion of the "single" pool. Among my 10 closest friends, two of us have clinical depression. Guess which two are the only unmarried ones?
posted by like_a_friend at 1:15 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

>Depression + humor = a very engaging brand of cynicism.

Like_a_friend nailed what I was going to say. Do you find yourself drawn to intellectual, creative types with an ironic (verging on dark) sense of humor? They proliferate, I find, in academic and arts-related corners of the world. It's a powerfully attractive mien, and anecdotally, I've found it also often seems to coexist with an intensely self-critical bent, the kind that leads to bouts of dysthymia/depression.

Let me say, thank God for these folks! They contribute so much to the world (so much amazing creative work, for one). But if you keep finding yourself in relationships with people like this, maybe figure out what's attracting you, and learn to look for a different brand of intellectual creativity and humor (because optimists can be damned funny, too...and oftentimes, a whole lot easier on your heart).
posted by artemisia at 1:42 PM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

You're attracted to smart outsiders, for whom depression is a common (if not natural) affliction.
posted by rhizome at 1:47 PM on February 18, 2013 [21 favorites]

Further thought: The brilliant and amazing blogger Samantha Irby once said, the sexiest thing a man could ever say to me is "i was talking to my therapist yesterday."

Now this was not meant as an "I find messed up dudes sexy" statement, but in the context of, it's sexy when a person can take care of himself. You say that sometimes when you start these relationships, it's "supposedly under control," but then becomes a problem. It might be worthwhile to consider whether the depression is the *real* problem here, or the person's immaturity/denial about dealing with it. Well-managed depression is a real thing!

If you find yourself attracted to someone in the future who says their depression is under control, try to get a sense of what that means. Therapy? Meds? CBT? or does he/she just "feel okay now"? The former are workable, the latter is not.
posted by like_a_friend at 1:52 PM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Not caring is sexy. 'Cool' is partly detachment from the world. I've found women are most attracted to me when I'm so depressed or panicked I can barely register the outside world, which they must read as being super laid-back and laconic (as opposed to my usual hyper verbal earnest self).
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 2:07 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maybe you tend to attract depressed people because you provide acceptance, warmth, happiness, stability, etc. And you're attracted to people who are attracted to you.
posted by John Cohen at 2:13 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

You're attracted to smart outsiders, for whom depression is a common (if not natural) affliction.

This is self-congratulatory delusion. Real (spiritual) intelligence is living well. If "depressed" people don't make you happy, don't date them.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 2:34 PM on February 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

So speaking as a dude who had depression and sounds vaguely like your type (cynical, creative, gamer/geek/former goth), what I represented to women was a puzzle or, if you'd prefer, a challenge. They'd see my indifference or lack of caring about anything as a riddle to be solved.

The extreme example of this is a former girlfriend who got obsessed with getting an emotional reaction out of me and she pulled bigger and bigger stunts to finally piss me off until I finally caught her in the act of cheating. And she went bonkers because I just went "Get your shit and get out" rather than getting visibly mad about it. I can count the number of times I've actually lost my shit on one hand (3), but otherwise, I just don't react that much.

Like I said, women tend to see my indifference and lack of reaction to them (and everything else) as a detached cool or a riddle to be solved rather than Dysthymia with Depressed Affect, which is what I actually have. I don't react to you because I don't react to anything, my moods go from about 3-7 (outside of major depressive episodes) rather than 1-10.

But of course, they think you're being a detached loner and they just need to crack your emotional shell and to certain women it was fascinating. I was darkly fond of saying "I'm like an onion. You start peeling away layers and there are more layers and soon you're crying and peeling away layers but then there's nothing in the middle and you're crying and have made a big mess everywhere."
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:38 PM on February 18, 2013 [13 favorites]

I could have posted a very similar question once, although it would have gone more like "why do all these dudes, who on the surface are very different from each other, whom I and my friends date, all turn out to be depressed?" the best answer I was able to figure was that depression is just really, really common -- more common than I had ever realized before I looked at the sample set before me and realized that it was more common than not.

It may be that it's more common among single men who are available for dating. I couldn't speak to that, as I haven't gotten close enough with a lot of married guys to know what's common in that demographic.

Anyway, I think I've only dated like two or three dudes who didn't have it; and honestly two of those were casual enough that I might not have know if they did. I married the one who I knew didn't have it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:50 PM on February 18, 2013

This was me. I had parents who were remote/depressed. There was a link.
posted by Riverine at 5:37 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think once you've identified certain behaviors and patterns as being emotionally unhealthy through personal experience, you can more easily see them in others before you become attached to them. Healthy people tend to be attracted to other healthy people, and if you're emotionally grounded you won't find neurotic behavior charming or intriguing below the surface, nor will you feel strongly compelled to rescue anyone or act on such feelings. However, if you find yourself attracted to and entangled with unhealthy people, and especially if you are unable detach from them knowing there is a problem of this nature (e.g., mood or personality disorder), you most likely have your own issues to work through. If that is the case, I can't recommend strongly enough that you act on this information and do what you need to do to get yourself better.

I won't bore you with the details, but it took me over a decade from my own rock-bottom - the moment I decided to change my life - until I uncovered the part of myself which was at the core of all my anxiety and co-dependent behavior. Even though I knew intellectually what caused my issues, and I had already been in therapy for years, I didn't connect my own behavior to it until I had the last in a series of breakthroughs - when I reached the end it was clear. And the first thing I did was to cut a couple toxic people from my life, a painful decision critical to my well-being I couldn't make until that moment. It feels very much like a fog has been lifted. I no longer carry this burden of needing to carry other people's burdens. Life is never going to be perfect or easy, but it's possible to get to a place where you stop making it hard on yourself.

Let me be clear: I don't think that people who experience depression are less worthy of love/flawed/whatever, or with supporting a partner through their depression, as long as I can maintain my boundaries and am not expected to be their sole way of coping.

You need to frame this in terms of what's right for you first. Of course depressed people are worthy of love. Are you obligated to be romantically involved with someone who is depressed, just because they are worthy of love? You are also worthy of love.

I’m certainly not consciously looking for people with depression to date

Not consciously.

I’m definitely not looking to save anyone, I value independence in myself and my partners, and I don’t think I’m co-dependent (despite a troubled upbringing I’ve mentioned here before).

I think it's important to take people at their word, so I believe that this is how you really feel. However, this is exactly what I would have said about my own relationship issues a couple years ago. In my case, it wasn't correct, but I was in denial and had difficulty assessing my own behavior until I was able to find the cause of it and make an emotional connection to it. Something that kept me coming back to therapy was the fact that I continued to suffer from anxiety after working through some major stuff and developing healthier lifestyle habits. It wasn't easy to get to this point, and I can't even count how many times I've had to forgive myself and others, but my only real regret is that I didn't start sooner.
posted by krinklyfig at 6:10 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Lots of people have depression, lots of people in your demographic have it, and we are generally more attracted to familiar things than unfamiliar things (except for those of us who are the complete opposite - but most people tend towards the familiar).

You could try dating types of people well outside of your usual attractions and see what happens, but I don't know if you've really got a problem here other than a perception of something being a problem.
posted by heyjude at 9:25 PM on February 18, 2013

What everyone else said about this being very typical for your age/friend group areas. It's probably harder to find someone who doesn't have a depression issue.

I hate to say it, but are you absolutely sure you don't have any depression issues yourself? Like tends to call to like on that one as well.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:20 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was going to ask if you were low energy and then you said you were. That's your answer imho. Low energy people that I know often seem to end up in friendships or relationships with depressed people because they see each other as unlikely to make a lot of demands. You're thinking "this person is low key" and they're thinking "I will never have to leave the couch if I don't feel like it ever again, thank god". Its a crossed wire in the selection process.
posted by fshgrl at 11:46 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for your answers so far; there's some thought-provoking stuff here.

A couple of quick clarifications, in case of future comments:

- The point about artistic types and emotions is well taken, but perhaps I should've phrased "those I’m attracted to aren’t necessarily artistic types" differently; the people I get involved with tend not to be artistic types. I am one myself, but my partners have mostly been in science/tech/engineering trades.

- The point about people dealing with depression possibly being overrepresented in the "singles" pool is a good one, but not relevant to me personally; I'm poly, and everyone I've been involved with during the last decade had other partners. I'm also going to gently reiterate that my dating pool is not limited to men, either.

- And a good question from jenfullmoon: my doctors are sure I'm not depressed (we had to check as procedure for various disability/healthcare services over the years). I do have PTSD these days as my posting history mentions, but that post-dates most of the partners I'm thinking of. So it wasn't a factor in their attraction to me.

Ghostride The Whip: Ugh. I can see that what you're saying is definitely going to be true for some people, but - Ugh. I have a visceral aversion to the notion. I want partners to tackle the problems, challenges, and adventures with, not to be the puzzle. (Though I did laugh at the onion comment - will have to remember that one.)

(Oh, and having mentioned adventures - my version of "low-energy" involves hiking trips, travel, and going out dancing when I'm capable. It's just that some days my health means not leaving the house/bed - often when I'm recovering from those adventures.)
posted by Someone Else's Story at 12:06 AM on February 19, 2013

Here's a thought: maybe the incidence of clinical depression is just so high in this day and age (due to what reasons?) that the percentage of people you date who are clinically depressed just reflects the percentage of the general population who are clinically depressed?
posted by Dansaman at 6:03 AM on February 19, 2013

I was gonna suggest what Dansaman just said. I wouldn't think much of it, especially in a context of relatively educated well-off people in a developed country... I would imagine it's even more so in the US (even just on a personal anecdotal level I already notice big differences both between Europe and US in terms of incidence of a diagnosis of depression or related "mood disorders", and lots of variations among different European countries, and I'd guess that there is some data on this stuff for those inclined to investigate more).

Aside from that, for your own benefit and to be fairer to life and its complications, I would suggest you try and think of your past relationship in terms of the specific ways in which they didn't work out, and think of your ex partners in terms of their individual specific personalities, rather than lumping them all together under the umbrella of DSM diagnoses.

Being "depressed" or "bipolar" or "cyclothymic" etc. is not a description of a personality trait, you know? It's something a person has been diagnosed with by a doctor (for better or worse). It doesn't say anything about how that person behaves to other people, how they handle life in general, what their ideals are, what their aspirations are, what are their quirks and what are their fears and what sort of lifestyle they want to lead, etc.

Sure there may be things that are common to people suffering from depression, specific to the way the depression manifests itself (the all or nothing thinking, the not seeing a way out etc. etc), but even then there will be differences in how each one handles all that, and anyway, the depression itself is such a wide diagnosis, it can never overshadow individual differences of personality.

For instance -- just from taking a quick look at your past answers, in the one where you talk about leaving your then girlfriend who's depressed, seems to me you also mentioned issues and incompatibilities and drama in communication that could have affected any couple, even without a DSM diagnosis lurking over their relationship. So maybe your therapist is right that there's not much to this line of questioning? You should talk to him/her anyway about it, and delve deeper if it's something bothering you. Maybe the real question is more about figuring out what you do want in a relationship so that you'll be better equipped to recognise earlier if the next one is working for you or not.
posted by bitteschoen at 7:56 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I too think like_a_friend nailed it with his link between cynicism + humor = depression. I used to be attracted to guys like that too. I had a much more cynical view of the world. I wanted someone who agreed with me about politics and who I could sort of see as being part of my team against the world. My interactions with my ex-boyfriend were a lot like this -- we would bounce ideas off each other, talking about articles we read that day. We had a special sense of humor that we shared. It was great to be with someone who seemed pretty much like me, except a guy. Unfortunately I think we were really not good for each other. We spent a lot of time watching TV shows that we both loved and becoming more isolated from the world.

Now I'm with a wonderful optimist who I would have immediately dismissed five years ago, as being too simple, too idealistic, too unwilling to confront the realities of the world. I cannot imagine anyone less likely to be depressed. But after two years with him, it's clear that it's not that he doesn't understand that the world is a crazy horrible place, but that he doesn't that's reason enough to wallow in the misery of it all. When I fall into a fit of the blues, he pulls me back up. Obviously things don't always turn out OK. But there's no other day-to-day working philosophy that works quite as well, so it pays to be with someone who believes it. Honestly, it's great, I highly recommend it.
posted by peacheater at 8:40 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is my experience:
Subculture's tend to harbor more people with personality disordered ideology. You've got people who don't fit in, who think against the grain.

People who are innately happy and engaged with playing and having fun don't sit around seeing problems in the world or the status quo and trying to change it.

You like people who dislike status quo-- traditional dating, traditional gender norms, traditional social norms in general... these are often people who like to toss out pretty good sound advice from the Rents/Society about going to bed at a reasonable time, eating a good diet, avoiding binge drinking and illegal drugs, making careful rather than free-spirited decisions regarding sexual intimacy and the consequences, avoiding dark creepy music that makes you feel dark and creepy...

A lot of things that the dorky normal folk think of as enjoyable are, quite frankly, frequently more healthy. I mean, seriously if you're sitting around listening to radiohead all day long and then you wonder why you're wanting to sob and bash your head in the wall because life is just SO DEPRESSING-- you might want to address whether you're FEEDING a depressed way of life. If a person wears all black and covers their windows so they can live in the darkness that reflects the black of their eternal tortured soul, color me un-suprised when they discover their psychologist is listening to that and thinking the person might be a WEE bit depressed. Maybe.

There are a lot of subcultures that essentially embrace personality disordered and mentally ill ways of thinking as a lifestyle repackage it as healthy and defend against any mention of the possibility their lifestyle might be part of the problem by claims their self expression is being stifled!

I would weed out the difference between: person has some mental health issues that might mean they cry some evening, or have to do breathing exercises/see a therapist more regularly thatn usual to deal with bouts of anxiety and a person who is flat out celebrated a really unhealthy set of life ideals. It's up to you what you think is or is not healthy, but most people can't tolerate wallowing in darkness as a way of life without it either reflecting on a problem they can't change, or preventing them from actively moving toward that change.

Look for people who are engaged and happy with life.
And write out the behaviors, as opposed to emotional states/diagnosis that are deal-breakers for you.

For me, self harm, substance abuse or heavy drinking, mean spirited insults, and a lifestyle that reflects embracing really dark ideologies about life are deal breakers. I'm more likely than not to get along with people who may have some of these things in their history but for me it needs to be many years in the past and I need to see they are an active participant in living a healthy life and embracing love and treating themselves and others well. (Rather than embracing self destruction and apathy which are very trendy.)

I think you might be getting upset about the part where your partner TREATS YOU BADLY. This is a different matter than simply having a mental health diagnosis. If your partner is emotionally over-whelmed to the point they are yelling at you, constantly upset with you over something, distant, angry, moody, or criticizing you I would focus not on that "they have a mental illness" but that they are an abusive crappy partner. I know it's not fun to date people and THEN find out they are going to treat you badly, but you're in a demographic where you're just going to have to weed through people and be strong about leaving when someone treats you bad. Also use the getting to know you stage to really get to know the persons ideology, health habits, values, outlook on life, how they handle stressful situations and take care of themselves. Share these things about yourself as well. I think the getting to know each other stage happens way to fast in our culture and we could all be spared a lot of grief by finding out a lot of compatibility issues at the start before becoming too involved.
posted by xarnop at 2:42 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

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