Managing relationship doubts while depressed
November 16, 2014 2:35 PM   Subscribe

I've been with my girlfriend for 5+ years, and lived together for 4. We've moved around the country together, adopted a pet together, and spent a lot of time thinking about/planning our next move together (we've moved around a lot, most recently so she could go to school). Lately, though, I've had significant, plaguing doubts about whether we should be together, and I'm having trouble parsing what's really going on.

My girlfriend is great. She's loving, smart, fun, kind. There are very few things about her that I dislike, beyond silly issues like the way she does dishes or takes forever to get ready to go out. She's been through a lot in the past couple years and has handled it with incredible grace. She's been unwaveringly supportive and patient with me, and I feel so lucky to have found someone who loves me so deeply. Our values are really compatible. We care about the same things.

And yet. Almost on a daily basis for several months I have wondered whether I am still in love with her. I can't seem to access the part of myself that can answer that question. When I think about leaving her, I feel sick and sad. When I think about staying together, I feel uneasy, but in a way I can't really articulate. That's the issue here--I can't get my head clear enough to come to a conclusion one way or another.

I've "dealt with" major depression all my life, and even though I see a therapist, am pretty heavily medicated, and do all the things they tell you to do like exercise and clean eating, it's still really bad, and has been for years. There are times when I feel almost good, but more often than not I'm isolated, vaguely nostalgic for some intangible time in the past, and sad. I'm highly functional but at the end of the day I can't bring myself to socialize or think about the future. I've had decent jobs, I finished an advanced degree, etc., but I'm getting to the point in my early thirties when my peers are establishing themselves in good careers and making money, and I'm not even close to that point. My depression and isolation put a huge strain on our relationship and I feel terribly guilty for that.

My girlfriend is starting a new career and finding her path. I'm totally aimless but I do support us financially. I've sacrificed a lot so she could get her education. We joke about it being "my turn" after she's done with school, and part of me wants to wait it out to see if my sense of unease goes away when I have more space to figure out what I want to do with myself.

In summary, I'm depressed, I'm unhappy with my career, and I'm uneasy in my relationship, even though my girlfriend is pretty amazing. I don't know how much the depression and ennui contribute to this uncertainty. I don't have a "gut feeling" one way or that a bad thing? Do my nebulous doubts mean we're doomed--in other words, if I'm not sure right now, how likely is it that I'll feel more sure in the future? My friends tell me that they have never had doubts about the relationships they're currently in. I find that hard to believe, but it's also possible I've never had a truly "good" relationship. I feel like I'm on the verge of having to make a decision--do you guys have concrete exercises, anecdotes, or general advice on how to approach this? Thanks in advance.
posted by batscam to Human Relations (14 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a concrete anecdote: I felt almost exactly like what you describe when I decided to divorce my first wife, many years ago. She and I were together for 4 years, then married for 4 years. For me, the real red flag in what you wrote is:
silly issues like the way she does dishes or takes forever to get ready to go out.
I'll ask you this: is she chronically late? If so - my advice is get out while you can. It might not sound like much, but living with someone who is constantly late can tear you apart.

Or - here's a question for you: can you picture yourself raising a child with her?

I haven't even addressed your feeling of depression. Regardless of what you do, you should line up a therapist / psychiatrist. 'Cause breakin' up is hard to do. And my guess is that after you start therapy, you're going to discover that the relationship is what's causing your issues.

Don't get married or get her pregnant until you resolve this shit. Please.
posted by doctor tough love at 3:16 PM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

It sounds to me like your depression is acting up and you're looking for reasons for it. This can sometimes be helpful, but in my experience, it's just as likely (if not more so) that the reason you're feeling doubtful and unhappy is that you have depression, rather than it being an external thing. My gf deals with stuff like this a lot, and what I've told her (and what's worked for us) is that talking about how she's feeling is more likely to help both of us than her trying to sort out her own, perhaps weirdly-chemically-balanced brain without external input.

So my main advice is: talk to your girlfriend. Tell her you're feeling generally not-so-good, you can't pin it down, and you want to try to sort out what's external and what's internal. Ask her what your moods have looked like to her. Talk about y'all's future plans, and your immediate circumstances. Get a better grounding in the relationship itself, so that you can see the whole picture.

And then you'll have more information - enough to take to a therapist to discuss what your next steps are. Maybe this isn't really the right relationship for you. Maybe it is, but your depression is slipping its leash and you need some new strategies. Regardless, I wouldn't make *any* decisions before you've poked at it some more, and talked to your partner.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:18 PM on November 16, 2014 [25 favorites]

This sounds like the depression talking and perhaps you feel even more down because she is handling things so well, whereas you are struggling - "how could SHE love ME?" kind of subconscious psychology. So then you are turned off her because you don't love yourself.

Please get help with your depression before making any major decisions. It colors so much of your experience.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:19 PM on November 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Before you make a decision, try shaking things up. Do all that stuff they say triggers falling-in-love pheromones/neurotransmitters, e.g. taking a long-but-affordable trip together someplace neither of you have ever been but both think sounds cool. It sounds as if the two of you have been coping and fending off bad stuff for far too long -- good for building solidarity and respect, but not ecstatic glee.
posted by feral_goldfish at 3:20 PM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When I think about leaving her, I feel sick and sad. When I think about staying together, I feel uneasy, but in a way I can't really articulate.

"Sick and sad" sounds a lot worse than "uneasy." As a person with anxiety myself, I feel uneasy about lots of things. It's background noise. You haven't said anything in your question that strikes me as a red flag about your girlfriend.

My guess is you are uneasy about life. She's in your life now, so you're uneasy about life with her in it. If you break up with her, after the grieving process, don't you think you'll be uneasy about whatever life brings at that point, as well? So why break up and add grief for her and you, when it's not going to change this underlying uneasiness?

I'd recommend the book Monkey Mind. It's written by a guy who almost lost a great partner because of his anxiety, about how he maintains the relationship.

I'd also say ask your therapist about ACT. It helps you determine what you really want in life and take steps to work toward it, in spite of whatever curve balls your brain throws at you.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 3:21 PM on November 16, 2014 [19 favorites]

I meant to say also, I understand that you only mention depression. But I would say ask whether you can be evaluated for anxiety as well. Not wanting to socialize, not wanting to think about the future, escaping into nostalgia, asking yourself every day if you love her or you love her not, feeling like you have to make a big decision (even though it is not clear why it is so urgent to decide right now)... sounds like anxiety to me.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 3:41 PM on November 16, 2014 [11 favorites]

I agree with everyone who says this sounds like general unease/ennui/depression, and you've pinned it on your relationship mostly because you need to attach it to something.

It also sounds like you're uneasy about the future in general, not just in your relationship, and like you're building up this decision as an all-or-nothing thing, like if you don't break up now you're committed forever. You can always end the relationship later, when you're certain you want to break up, if that's the decision you come to. It may feel like you're running out of time to settle into the career, relationship, etc. that you'll stick with for the rest of your life, but there's no deadline on any of these things.

Before you break up, try seeing what else you can do to improve your depression. Would switching therapists/types of therapy/medication be an option? It also seems like you could use something to give yourself more of a feeling of direction: new job/career? Learning a new skill? You mention exercise, but do you have any fitness goals?

And if you're in the northern hemisphere, the shorter days could be aggravating your depression right now.

Breaking up is a decision you want to make with as level a head as possible. It may or may not be the right relationship for you, but it doesn't sound like it's the cause of your depression.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:57 PM on November 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

Make no permanent decisions while you feel like this. Go to the doctor and see if you need to tweak your meds, or explore different meds, or get a CPAP or whatever.

Talk to your girlfriend and tell her that you have the free-floating, nebulous feeling of unease. Explain that you want to be closer to her but there's something wrong. Talk to her about your doctor's appointments.

Depression is a chronic illness and it fluctuates throughout your life. I have these conversations with Husbunny occasionally, and he tells me how he feels, and what he thinks he should be doing and he asks for my patience while he sorts it out. These talks have led to moves to different cities, ditching one career and starting a new one, dropping out of grad school and selling our house (that one was mine.)

No relationship is perfect all the time. But you should always feel a solid foundation of love, trust and acceptance. If you have that, you can weather doubts and annoyances.

Talk with your girlfriend, she'll appreciate your candor and you'll feel a LOT better.

As for guilt, yeah, depression sucks for the SO, but you know what? We know what we signed up for when we started up with you. We decided that you're worth the hassle. And you are.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:59 PM on November 16, 2014 [8 favorites]

If you suspect that depression has become the lense through which you are interpreting your relationship, it makes a lot of sense to address this first, and then see how you feel after. Depression is notorious for sucking the feeling of "good" out of things that should be adding value to our lives.

One way you can think about this is to ask if your feelings have been changing about other things that have previously given you joy. If so, perhaps your relationship isn't off, just the lens that allows you to view things objectively (and emotionally in an appropriate way). What would be awesome is to address the depression and find out that you have a newfound appreciation of your relationship. What would be horrible would be to treat the depression and find out you've made a big mistake.

And I would encourage you to not consider "being late" as a deal-breaker for the relationship quite yet while you work out the above-mentioned.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:32 PM on November 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Almost on a daily basis for several months I have wondered whether I am still in love with her. I can't seem to access the part of myself that can answer that question.

The brain chemistry involved in love changes over time. Early in a relationship, there's a lot of hits of dopamine, which results in the "in love" feelings. Over time that fades and is replaced by hits of oxytocin, which is associated with more "mature" long-term love, both in pair-bonding and in parent/child relationships. Basically, dopamine is like sex and oxytocin is like cuddling.

Five years with a good person in a relationship that doesn't seem to have anything except trivial problems is not an investment you want to throw away just because you're not getting regular hits of dopamine from it anymore. Any relationship with any other person will eventually be like this, with the only exception being those really unhealthy ones where you can never feel secure enough to transition to the oxytocin stage (and while those relationships can be exciting, in the long run the drama really isn't worth it). So definitely don't break up with her over this because switching partners isn't going to solve this long-term.

Nthing that it sounds like your real problems are depression and/or anxiety and that you should focus on getting treated for that. Additionally, if you want to recapture some of that "in love" feeling, try doing new and exciting things with her (this is why a lot of relationship counselors suggest instituting a regular date night). While you're now comfortable enough with her that her mere presence isn't enough to give you a hit of dopamine, doing other things that do give you dopamine hits while in her presence will replicate the effect.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:36 PM on November 16, 2014 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Try not to think of this as an issue that needs to be solved right now. When my depression starts to take hold I get a sense of urgency and feel like some decisive action must be made soon when there's really no reason to rush. These kinds of issues have no quick fix and as long as there is plenty of good in your relationship (even if it's difficult to articulate as "love") it's okay to give yourself and the relationship some time.

Continuing to work on this through therapy and talking with your girlfriend is the best you can do. And be easy on yourself. You say, I feel so lucky to have found someone who loves me so deeply, and so should she by the sounds of it. You're financially supporting the relationship and have made sacrifices to allow her to pursue her career. You feel aimless now but you're truly not. A life can't be broken down into a simple narrative with a clear arc and purpose. It sounds like you are ready for a change and depression is warping your perspective. You're doing much more than your depression is allowing you to realize.
posted by AtoBtoA at 4:52 PM on November 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Make no permanent decisions while you feel like this.


Been there. You're ruminating. It's so easy to get stuck in a cycle of do I love them how do I KNOW if I love them if I'm not having butterflies now do I love them how do I KNOW if I love them do I love them. And then you start focusing on their imperfections and it just gets shitty all around.

Take a deep breath. I've recommended Sheryl Paul at Conscious Transitions before and she can be a little new-agey woo for sure but there are some GREAT nuggets of brilliant advice on her blog that really helped me (maybe start at the beginning of it, don't read backwards).

Relationships are hard and this is PRECISELY one of the reasons that saying is so true.

PM me if you need to talk or want any further recommendations! I have been there. ( obvious since it's basically the only time I respond on the green.)
posted by good day merlock at 8:10 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Most likely you are unhappy with yourself and are projecting. Also you might be insecure and feel you are not good enough for her. Or, you are finding your life to be in a rut, not moving forward and you need change and need it quickly. The only few things you can change quickly is dropping her, which in your mind, would be a major change and would satisfy your need for change. However it most likely is not the right change you should want but it would fill that emptiness you feel and also that growing dissatisfaction with your own life. So change, any change, is what you seek and this good relationship you have may become a casualty.
Look into important areas in you and your life that really need a change and work on that.
posted by jellyjam at 8:21 AM on November 17, 2014

Best answer: I'd like to specifically caution you that you're at a really risky place regarding having an affair. Depressed men are known to seek out something that's exciting, that cuts through the fog, that gives them that hit of adrenaline that their long-term relationships don't give them. This creates two things: a contrast between the feel-good affair and the ho-hum relationship, and problems in the long-term relationship. The problems increase the depression, which increases the contrast, which is a downward spiral leading to leaving the LTR and ... turning the affair into an LTR. And you can see that that's not going to fix anything. It just substitutes one LTR for another, and the substitute LTR is with someone who can't be trusted. Not a win for anyone. (Also, that ho-hum feeling is a natural part of a cycle, not a stasis that will be there for all time. LTRs go up and down, plateau and rise and fall, and it's the big stuff -- which you and your GF have going right -- that matters, not the moment-by-moment feelings.)

So be really careful. If you find yourself looking at someone else to compare your feelings for her vs. your feelings for your GF, know that it's entirely inappropriate to compare early-relationship feelings to late-relationship feelings.
posted by Capri at 11:17 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

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