Can I fix my depression to save my relationship?
June 5, 2016 3:59 PM   Subscribe

I'm 26 years old, my fiance is 27. I'm not sure how much information to give, I don't want to post a wall of text. I'm mainly posting this question to hear about other people's experiences, good and bad, with working on their depression while being in a relationship.

From my AskMeFi research, it seems like the main deal breaker is when the depressed person does not make an effort to work on their depression. Sometimes even, it seems like with medication and therapy, the depressed person never gets better? Maybe I am overblowing that anecdote. I just hope I can become a more positive person, who loves herself, because I love my fiance dearly, and I don't want my depression to win the battle and drive him away.

My fiance and I have been together for 3 years. I would say spread out over those 3 years, I've had 5 instances where I didn't know what to do next for work, and it has made me feel like a failure and turned me into a mope. I'm probably downplaying it, it has really worn down my fiance who has been an amazing support as I try to figure out my career. (from substitute teacher/waitress, to FT salaried teacher, to temporary admin assistant, to hourly paid preschool teacher assistant). We broke up a few weeks ago and have cautiously decided to try things again, with the caveat that I really work on myself, think more positively, and take care of myself/the house, as I have neglected cleaning up after myself/maintaining my appearance as depression has slowly crept up over me.

I fear that now, I will constantly be on edge, wondering if I'm not being positive enough and driving him away like I did before. I'm afraid I'll always be a miserable mope, always thinking the worst of the future. I'm taking medication again (I took sertraline for a year and went off it in February, which, with a job change, hurt our relationship/blew up my depression significantly.) I also have a very supportive therapist who says she has reason to hope that I can get better (or something carefully and professionally worded like that). Only reason I am afraid I won't get better is because I have my upbringing working against me (parents weren't abusive, just never emotionally supportive), and I've been suffering on and off from depression for the past 10 years.

So hopefully that is enough information to get some answers from ya'll. How have you dealt with depression in a long term relationship? Were you the depressed person, or the supportive partner? Did it blow up in your face, and why? Did your partner/you eventually pull through and become happier?
posted by Leaves22 to Human Relations (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
We broke up a few weeks ago and have cautiously decided to try things again, with the caveat that I really work on myself, think more positively, and take care of myself/the house, as I have neglected cleaning up after myself/maintaining my appearance as depression has slowly crept up over me.

Not being depressed =! thinking positive. I have anxiety, not depression, but one important lesson I've learned this year is that I'll never completely stop worrying, but that I now have tools to acknowledge my worry and set it aside when it isn't productive. Does that make any sense? Forcing yourself to "think positive" isn't the solution to your depression.

Anyway, what you describe as wanting to fix are symptoms of depression... but you need to be working to resolve the depression itself. Is the new medication working? Has your therapist suggested tools to help you manage your depression?

I think you CAN get better, but I also find it a little troubling that the simple fact that you have depression could drive your fiancé away.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:20 PM on June 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

Realize that your depression may be hurting your relationship with your fiance, but that controlling and dealing with your depression may not "save" your relationship. It's still a good thing to do for yourself—one of the best!—but it may not do everything you want.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:28 PM on June 5, 2016 [10 favorites]

Yes, depression can absolutely be cured. Even long term depression. As well as situational depression, which may be in part what you have.

However, curing depression under threat of losing a relationship sounds terrible and coercive. You may find to your surprise that not having your boyfriend's standards for you looming over you is much more healing.
posted by quincunx at 4:37 PM on June 5, 2016 [32 favorites]

Also. Re: relationships- there are some men who purposefully look for an isolated girl with bad family and few friends. They then "mold" her to their whims. Be 1000% sure your boyfriend is not one of them.

There are also guys who, without realizing it, really need to be "fixer/strong one" for the relationship to have a foundation. If your relationship has been co-dependent for a long time, it may be very hard if not impossible to re-found your relationship along healthy non-codependent lines.

Also, if he's threatening to bail and being critical, he's not good husband material. Good husband material would say something like, "I can't deal with your depression anymore, I'm really sorry, for my own health I need a break." Not like, "ugh, you're never fun anymore. Geez. Get hot and get fun or I'm gone." There's a huge difference.
posted by quincunx at 4:48 PM on June 5, 2016 [10 favorites]

It's okay that your partner feels unable to carry an unequal burden in the relationship. But what you both need to realise is that you aren't going to get better for someone else. Depression is an illness, like any other, and you need to work through it for your own sake (not his).

In my marriage, some years ago, I went through a deep situational depression (years) after a huge loss which devastated both of us. My depression was *genuinely* difficult to deal with and I put a huge amount of effort into myself-- not just for my marriage, but also for me. Unfortunately, what happened after that was that dealing with my depression had allowed my ex husband to avoid dealing with his own depression and once mine was better, he went into his own deep depression and left me. This is a completely different situation than yours, but I offer it to show that these things don't work out exactly the way you think they will. Get better for yourself. Part of getting better is dealing with the reality that you can go it alone.

Take care.
posted by frumiousb at 4:59 PM on June 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Dump this guy.

Rethink what's going on with you once you've moved on from him. Why is it your responsibility to clean the shared home??

You are young. This guy is not supportive enough. Don't get back together. Clear up this drama and re-focus on you.

This is my best advice having been in your shoes once.
posted by jbenben at 5:03 PM on June 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

My spouse has depression and the hardest part to me was to watch that person I love getting stuck. I'm supportive of the process of moving in a wrong direction and needing to regroup, but had a lot of trouble with the not moving at all. Medication and lifestyle changes have helped. I think talk therapy can also be really helpful with this kind of arrested development freezing dynamic so it's great that you have that. I think that listlessness and lack of direction about your career, while it can be partly due to depression, is really a separate issue.

I would imagine the issues in the relationship are not all on your end. They rarely are. Couples counseling would help the two of you improve your understanding of what all is involved here, and perhaps create more of a balance so you are not shouldering all of the blame. Otherwise it can become a parent/child type of dynamic, which isn't helpful for a long-term relationship. Speaking as the spouse, I like for the caretaking in a relationship to have some reciprocity, so that is something that had to get negotiated, because the depression made me the primary caretaker a lot.
posted by crunchy potato at 5:04 PM on June 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

We broke up a few weeks ago and have cautiously decided to try things again, with the caveat that I really work on myself, think more positively, and take care of myself/the house, as I have neglected cleaning up after myself/maintaining my appearance as depression has slowly crept up over me.

I fear that now, I will constantly be on edge, wondering if I'm not being positive enough and driving him away like I did before.

It sounds like both you and he are blaming you and putting the responsibility solely on you for the fact that you broke up and for making the relationship work. You say your parents weren't abusive, "just" not emotionally supportive. That actually is a form of abuse called withholding and it can really wreak havoc on a child's life.

People are prone to subconsciously re-create family dynamics in intimate relationships. Your boyfriend doesn't sound like he is emotionally supportive either. It sounds like he has found a convenient scapegoat (your depression) for all the problems in the relationship and he comes out smelling like a rose.

And this "taking care of the house and appearance" thing? That's emotional labor in the best of times when it all falls on one partner's shoulders. It's also a very gendered thing to ask a woman to do, regardless of her depression or lack thereof.

I know I didn't advise you what you should do to keep your relationship, but that's because the first step is both of you realizing that it always takes two people working on things to make a relationship work. If he can't do it, he needs to acknowledge that and let you go so you can focus on getting healthy--for yourself.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 5:05 PM on June 5, 2016 [9 favorites]

My spouse and I have been together for almost 19 years (holy shit! how did that happen?). During that time, we both have developed chronic illnesses: mine is inflammatory arthritis, and his is depression. Things have at times been really really bad for each of us in turn, and occasionally for both of us at once, but we are still together because we're still completely in love with each other, and we still each others favorite people. Neither of us blames the other for the problems caused by our illnesses. It wouldn't be fair for him to get mad at me for sometimes having too much fatigue and pain to keep the house clean, and it wouldn't be fair for me to get mad at him for sometimes being too depressed to keep the house clean. It is not always easy, but it is absolutely possible.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:17 PM on June 5, 2016 [8 favorites]

I have been a partner to a depressed person (prior relationship) and the depressed person in my current relationship.

Prior relationship -- supporting a depressed person
This fell apart for two reasons (1) my partner refused to get any help for his acknowledged problem and (2) to be honest, even if he had gotten help, I was so exhausted from being his stand-in therapist that it probably would have ended anyway. I waited too long to tell him what I needed and to assess together whether or not we could be what we needed for each other.

Current relationship --- periodically depressed person
I am married to a very upbeat, gregarious guy & have had bouts of depression in the course of our relationship. Even when I am not depressed, I am not upbeat & am introverted. Very different from my partner. We work together to see our differences as a strength for us as a couple. We can help each other where we have blind spots. It's not always easy when I am depressed but we try to treat that like am ill with something like the flu. Also, we have worked together on identifying some of my triggers (not getting enough sleep) & I accept help from Mr. CMcG when he notices I'm staying up too late or whatever.

The key thing here: Mr. CMcG has NEVER tried to change my underlying personality. I'm not sure that's what's going on here, but your partner has asked to become more "upbeat." Were you "upbeat" before your depression? Or are you just naturally a little more prone to caution/worry/being low-key? If your partner is asking you to change your underlying personality, I don't think that will work.

One other thing: being the more, upbeat partner, Mr. CMcG tries to help me see that I do bring things of value to the table even when I am depressed (like, thanks me for basic things like picking up socks or something, whatever I can handle) and if I say bad things about myself, he is my biggest cheerleader. This is also really valuable because (as you know) depression can make you feel worthless & a partner counteracting those types of thoughts is invaluable.
posted by CMcG at 5:18 PM on June 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

So you're miserable, but your partner's issue with you being miserable is that you're letting yourself go, the house isn't clean enough and you're not upbeat enough for him? I tell you what, dump this guy and you'll be halfway towards feeling better about yourself already. That's just gross.

My husband went through a period of situational depression and it never once occurred to me to tell him that working on his appearance was a condition of us staying together. I wanted him to get out of his depression because I wanted him to be happy! And functional! And enjoying life with me! Not so he could clean the damn house and plaster a smile on his face to pretend everything was ok so I didn't have to look at a frowny face.

Your boyfriend is a selfish asshole and doesn't care about you, he just cares about appearances. Tell him where he can shove his conditions. I promise you, if nothing else makes you feel better, that will.
posted by Jubey at 5:20 PM on June 5, 2016 [33 favorites]

Also, I just want to say: Kudos for reaching out to people for help, here and in your "real" life (supportive therapist). It sounds like you are making plans for yourself and following through; no small feat!
posted by CMcG at 5:21 PM on June 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I can't nth Jubey enough!!!!!
posted by jbenben at 5:37 PM on June 5, 2016

I'm sorry, this question just made me really angry. The OP deserves so much better and it makes me really sad to think of her twisting herself into a pretzel for someone who doesn't seem to give a damn about how she's actually doing at all.
posted by Jubey at 5:46 PM on June 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

Depression can absolutely be cured! The thing is, it can't always be cured in a way that aligns with a strict timeline, or while you're in a relationship. From my own experience, it's really hard to get a handle on it when you're with someone who's going to markedly withdraw from the relationship if you're not sufficiently upbeat or put-together. It's okay that your partner wants you to not be depressed, it's just that it's not going to happen on his terms; if he doesn't get that, it's a serious problem going forward.

When I was in a situation very similar to yours, I left. My ex is probably now with someone who'll make absolutely no emotional demands of him whatsoever, and I'm sure he's thrilled about that! I'm not completely un-depressed, but I'm also in a far better place than I ever could have been had I stayed.

People often underestimate the value of going into monk mode to get a handle on one's self-care. It's...not a bad idea, and has helped a lot of us figure out how to move forward and be in relationships where we can keep our self-care a priority. If you're a person who's prone to depression, you have to be very careful about who you date in the future - how empathetic they are, how well they communicate, how they deal with impending compassion fatigue (which sounds like your fiance's problem). Sometimes, the answer if you're a person with refractory sad-feelings is to simply not date until you're 110% sure that you've found someone who doesn't suck at those things.
posted by blerghamot at 5:59 PM on June 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

I feel like a lot of people are reading WAY too much into the question. Sure, it's quite possible that the fiance is horrible, but it also may just be that they both know the relationship will not work unless OP gets better, and nothing more. You don't have enough information to condemn this person.

To answer the OP's question: I've been the supportive SO to somebody who was very depressed. This person told me that they were, and that their negativity affected lots of things and that they wished they could get better. I unfortunately took this to mean that they were actually working on treatment to get better. Over the months that we dated, this person blew up at their closest friends, telling them that they weren't true friends, and doing worse to me. Anything nice and supportive I had done was ignored, if they were feeling down, and I'd be berated and told I was worse than useless to this person. Eventually, I made the mistake of bringing the previously-acknowledged depression up as gently as possible in an effort to volunteer to 'team up' on it or help out somehow. That was when the relationship ended.

Basically, I think your fiance will need to make some allowances for when you are sad, but I think your fiance is also owed some sort of assurance that you are trying to get better. But you can definitely get better! As others have said: do it for you, though. Not your fiance.
posted by destructive cactus at 6:09 PM on June 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Last summer, I was in the middle of some mild situational depression. One day, I'd been crying in the shower, and my husband walked into the bathroom as I was toweling off. He saw my face, asked "What's wrong?" and before I could even respond, followed up with, "But if nothing's wrong, that's okay. That is, if you're sad for the same reasons you've been sad for a while, that's totally okay, it's just that if something new has happened to make you feel bad maybe I can help, so if you could just me know..." and he trailed off and I almost laughed at how ridiculous it felt like our life had become.

But...he never made me feel bad about it. That was what he said most often: "Don't feel bad for feeling bad." Even when he reassured me, "Someday you're going to feel better," he'd pair it with, "But it's okay to feel unhappy right now." This lasted the better part of two years. And all that time he was patiently asking, "How are you doing? Do you want to talk about it? Do you want to talk about something else? Do you want me to leave you alone? Do you want me to make you a cup of tea and then leave you alone?" When I tried to be perky but was clearly not feeling it, he'd tell me not to expend energy trying to force it.

This was the second stretch of mild situational depression I've had during our marriage. During the first one, he was, by and large, unsupportive. Obviously, we survived, but the difference between the two was night and day. Which is almost funny, because I was a miserable mess in both cases, was easier to get back to feeling mostly okay when I was a well-supported miserable mess.

Supporting someone gets draining, as it sounds like you recognize, so I don't mean to downplay that your SO may also need support. There was a point when my husband said he didn't think I was getting better or that he could help more, and that he thought I should see a therapist, which I did. And your depression sounds more severe than what I've experienced. But when you say

We...have cautiously decided to try things again, with the caveat that I really work on myself, think more positively, and...I fear that now, I will constantly be on edge, wondering if I'm not being positive enough and driving him away like I did before

That sounds anxiety-inducing. I'm not saying to dump your SO - you're distilling a doubtless complex situation into a couple of paragraphs - but you'll be okay regardless of what happens in this relationship, and I hope you get to feeling better soon.
posted by orangejenny at 8:13 PM on June 5, 2016 [10 favorites]

I'm quite certain getting treatment for my depression saved my (at the time) on-the-rocks relationship (now marriage of 15 years). A significant difference in my situation was that I had evaded treatment at all prior to then, aside from paying occasional lip service to the idea that it would "probably be a good idea" that I never followed up with. So it was possibly a more distinct change for me. A few thoughts based on the particulars you shared:

I found it very necessary that I looked at part of my goal in therapy being coming to terms that the relationship could end, was significantly out of my control, and that I had to commit to being okay and committed to my own health and well-being regardless of what happened there. The decay in the relationship was the (partial) consequence of my mental health that made me take notice and really seek change but I don't think therapy would have worked if I was only or mainly in it for the sake of the relationship. I think your instinct is substantially correct, that if you attach your hope and work in therapy to maintaining your relationship it will be to the significant detriment of both.

Similarly, though this has been a much later and slower coming acceptance, it's increasingly clear to me that (in terms of my mental health, anyway) the issue of work is largely a red herring. Work woes consumed my mind because I was depressed, I wasn't depressed because work woes were consuming my mind. I'm still very unsatisfied with where I've landed work-wise and at nearly 45 the clear-eyed reality is that I may never sort it out all that much better than I have. Contrary to the aggressive motivational rhetoric prevalent all over the internet this isn't some core existential tragedy, it is closer to being the norm of existence for the great majority. Again, I'd love to find myself on the path to some soul-fulfilling dream job saving the world but if that somehow happened I wouldn't suddenly become un-depressed. I'd have to work just as hard on my mental health. So it might be worth working on unwinding those issues in therapy. Speaking just for myself therapy is a nearly useless venue for trying to sort out career woes and looking back I think almost all the time I spent on the couch discussing the issue was time wasted.

I feel like some are being pretty harsh on your partner in reaction to a very slender thread of information but in this presentation you are taking on seemingly 100 percent of the blame for the problems in the relationship, and that's never really the case. The ability/willingness to take care of oneself and one's environment is a legitimate ad-hoc barometer for the psychological weather but as a condition of keeping a relationship together it feels a little superficial to me. Working on the relationship has to be a two way street.
posted by nanojath at 9:05 PM on June 5, 2016 [6 favorites]

I do think you need couples counseling; the ways he is trying to help are like textbook "helping not helping" that actually make the dynamics driving the depression worse. One of the really important things for the spouse of a depressed person to do is go to the therapist and learn how to be a good spouse to a depressed person. Not to adjudicate the relationship or assign blame or anything like that, but to simply learn from a professional what is going on, and what helps, and what is counterproductive. If you had diabetes, he wouldn't expect to know how to help you with that based on some stuff he saw on medical dramas! He'd go with to your actual doctor and learn about blood sugar and insulin and what do and how to help! That's what needs to happen here; he needs to educate himself. And you need to educate yourself about being depressed in a relationship (because it changes the dynamics of both the depression and the relationship, and you can gain knowledge and skills too!). Like, you both need a couple of rounds of therapy-to-learn-skills as opposed to therapy-to-solve-problems, treating the therapist as a medical resource who can provide specific strategies to stabilize your relationship by giving you tools for your unique problems.

Since you're a teacher this metaphor may help -- the thing it reminds me of most is when I go to ABA therapy for my kid, but most of the appointment is actually teaching ME how to apply the skills the therapist is using. We're there to get him therapeutic intervention, but it largely consists of teaching me how to do those interventions at home, where he spends 99% of his time. You guys need some take-home skills that will make your interactions around depression more productive, safe, and affirming. For both of you.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:14 PM on June 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't think you should reengage this relationship until you've had some time to yourself to heal. Your feelings for this guy are likely to interfere with the healing process. You said it yourself; I fear that now, I will constantly be on edge, wondering if I'm not being positive enough and driving him away like I did before. That's exactly what I would expect, and there's no way you can take time and energy to devote to yourself if you have this nagging voice in the back of your mind BUT HOW CAN I JUSTIFY THIS WHEN BOYFRIEND IS EXPECTING ME TO BE HAPPY ALREADY.

Note that this doesn't even require malice or even carelessness on his part. This is something inside your head that only you can address.
posted by disconnect at 7:37 AM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have been the depressed person in a relationship. My husband acted as my therapist for years until I got my own therapist and into treatment for anxiety/depression. He was unfailingly supportive, and me going to a professional for treatment took that burden off of him and gave him back a significant amount of time and energy.

In my case, my depression was primarily caused by an underlying hypothyroid condition - treating the thyroid condition helped with the depression. Make sure you get tested for other underlying conditions that can cause depression, like thyroid, Vitamin D deficiency, even anemia.

A couple of times when it was really bad, he mentioned that I had let my appearance go. I'm not sure how your fiance framed it, but my husband addressed it as "I'm really worried about you because you seem down and haven't been taking care of yourself with your usual routines." That's a very different framing when using it as an indicator versus "you're not pretty enough any more".

I don't know if your fiance is an ass or is supportive and at the end of his rope - I hope it's the latter. I hope you can find the mental and emotional space to take care of yourself and start feeling better. Taking the emotional support burden of depression off of a relationship and to a paid support person can help a lot.
posted by bookdragoness at 9:10 AM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've been both the depressed person and partner in the same relationship. As the depressed person, I felt the same anxiety you did, and I think ultimately (though the relationship ended 4 years later) it did a lot of damage to the relationship. As the partner of the depressed person, I did feel drained. He went to therapy, but never did the exercises the therapist recommended. He eventually went off his meds, then back on. The draining part was feeling that he wouldn't do anything to help himself, but night after night kind of descended into this black hole of negativity. It's so hard to watch someone you love feel so terribly and be so helpless. Ultimately, the relationship ended because I didn't trust him or feel supported...I could never be down because he always was, and I had to pick myself up, which isn't always easy.

Know that apart from depression, some people are simply too selfish to take care of their partner when needed. Other people's feelings can be too much of a burden for someone who is seriously self-centered. Your anxiety might be rooted in reality, and you should talk to your partner about it. Hopefully, you'll be reassured that you won't get dumped for showing negative emotions. Perhaps your partner doesn't understand the nature of depression and only has a shallow understanding. Maybe you can help educate him. I agree with suggestions about couples counseling because it sounds a bit to me and I could be reading it wrong, that you're reliving the relationship with your parents, viz "never emotionally supportive" with this fiance.
posted by serenity_now at 9:45 AM on June 6, 2016

My depression only becomes less of an issue when I feel like I'm allowed to be a huge mess and my support people won't disappear. I then go through briefer periods of being a mess, am able to direct my limited energy towards developing/using coping skills (instead of spending it all on panicking about my people leaving me), and feel less like my world is likely to fall apart at any second. Recovery can happen for some people but it should never be a condition imposed on you because that "tough love" crap simply does not work.

Some of the most wonderfully supportive relationships I have had were with other depressed people or abuse survivors. The relationships were not huge messes despite us sometimes/frequently struggling with our own brains. The things we struggled with, that led to us breaking up, were things that we would've struggled with regardless of our depression/trauma - usually mismatched goals or mismatched life styles.

It sounds like this partner does not want to be your emotional support through this and does not want to see you struggling. If you want to make this relationship work, you will need to find alternative sources of emotional support. Frankly, I think your partner has unrealistic expectations and I think that a relationship that requires you to act not depressed is not worth being in. You deserve someone who is willing to make space for you as you are, who is willing to support you through the hard times, and who doesn't make you feel broken. If your partner is balking at supporting you now, what about when bad life events happen? What about when you develop other chronic health issues?

Honestly, I am much happier on my own than I was with the partners that were trying to fix me. You do not need to settle for a relationship that makes you feel unacceptable or like a burden.
posted by buteo at 3:31 PM on June 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've seen both sides. Depression is always very stressful on any relationship.
posted by ovvl at 5:27 PM on June 6, 2016

Thank you everyone for your responses. I guess I'm supposed to post a follow up response? That's how AskMeFi works?

I think I really needed to hear this from orangejenny: "you'll be okay regardless of what happens in this relationship"

Everyone has made really good points. I think our relationship is ending but we need to give it time to really let it die out, because it's hard to go from living together for three years, to broken up. I've moved back in with him and it's great to be around him again, but there is definitely a distance between us (he barely kisses me, won't say "I love you"). It's pretty sucky but it's good to be around my old best friend again, and to be back in the comfort of my old apartment. I had been staying with my sister in a shitty neighborhood near where shootings happen occasionally, and that was not really helping my mood.

My fiance is not being a jerk about all this, I think I just have phrased it in a way that casts him in a worse light than necessary. He is being very nice about everything and I think that we're just not right for each other anymore. When he told me to be more clean, he shares an equal part in the house cleaning, so it's not just him wanting me to be the maid.

I think people are right that he could be acting a little selfish, caring more about appearances than is necessary. At the same time, I agree with others like serenity_now who say that it can be too much for one person; that if one partner is always depressed, it can mean that the supportive partner never gets a chance to be supported.

TL;DR This sucks, it's over, maybe we will do couple's counseling just to sort out our feelings, until then I'm just taking it one day at a time.
posted by Leaves22 at 5:56 AM on June 9, 2016

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