How do two depressed, stressed people have a sustainable relationship?
July 18, 2016 5:55 PM   Subscribe

My partner and I both struggle with mental illness in different ways. We have been dating for a year and a half and do pretty well together but sometimes we aren't able to be there for each other or hold back out of fear of burdening the other. How do you practice self care and be a good partner in this kind of an arrangement? How do you confront a partner about habits and actions that might result from their depression, while being cognizant that they are struggling? What's a reasonable expectation for emotional support in a relationship?

X and I have been dating for a year and a half and are doing pretty well for two people who have never been in a serious relationship before. We talk to each other very easily and are each other's best friend. We live together and he just graduated law school. He is studying for the state bar in a week and is stressed out of his mind. I work a very time-consuming, stressful job that is great but that can be pretty exhausting. We are both in our mid-twenties.

I think we both have very stressful lives. I work a 10 hour+ job a day which I really like, but the the nature of the work is stressful/draining. I also suffer from depression and an eating disorder and anxiety. I have been struggling with this for awhile and see a psychiatrist and therapist, take medication (have tried out several) and am trying to recover. I often have a really hard time getting motivated and tend to self-isolate. X plays an active role in my recovery and I am open about my ED. I tell him if I feel like purging or have food anxiety, I fess up if I did purge, and he checks on me and listens, and helps me calm down when I am anxious to prevent the purge. He is good at not making my problems his and becoming upset about my lack of progress, although sometimes it is hard not to feel sad or frustrated about it sometimes. I really appreciate that about him.

He just graduated law school, is taking the bar, and needs to find a job (lawyers=crazy work hours). He struggles with depression but has never been to therapy and has a hack psychiatrist who has prescribes him more adderall than necessary. It exacerbates his anxiety and insomnia, and he sometimes gets panic attacks. He can be impulsive and do things that like take more adderall to study. His sister is schizophrenic and parents close to retirement; he worries a lot about whether he will make enough to support all three of them in the future. He is okay day to day but every so often, and now on a daily basis because he is under so much stress, he is very hard on himself, feels hopeless and worthless. There were times before we met that he felt suicidal. I think he will be able to breathe more once we get past the bar exam hurdle, but I am worried about his long-term mental health since working at a law firm isn't exactly a cakewalk. And I am worried about how long I can keep supporting him before he decides to get help himself.

I sometimes have a lot of difficulty letting him approach his depression on his own because he doesn't see any medical professionals and has, for the duration of our relationship, said it was something he would do after the bar exam. I think he sees it as something he just can't handle emotionally with everything else going on. But there have been several times in our relationship when he had panic attacks or difficulty breathing because a combination of family illness/school pressure. I don't know if there's ever a right time to ask a partner to go to therapy. But it's hard, because it means he's not really able to hold up his end of the emotional labor thing and because of my own issues, the length of my rope is short. He doesn't ask me to do things for him up front, but he can lean on me, and the fact that I don't like the idea of just letting him languish and sink into depression. I want to help him feel better earlier and prevent a lot more anguish down the road.

Unfortunately, his depressed habits are the opposite of my needs. He sort of needs to be alone and focus when he is really stressed about work, and forgets to eat and loses his appetite. I stress clean and need things to be orderly when I feel anxious, and he gets messier when he's depressed. It drives me crazy that he doesn't eat because it makes him tired and more depressed, plus I don't want him to get sick. I don't want to nag him or have to force him to eat -- but I also know that if he doesn't he will be in a worse place in a few days. I also don't want to remind him about stuff like not leaving his stuff all over the floor, because I know he's just really in a bad place and I don't want to make him feel worse. Also, I don't want to be his mother.

When it's my turn to break down, he's there for me and will walk me through eating and listen to me and bring me all my favorite things. Sometimes he won't tell me what's on his mind because he wants me to feel like he's there for me, but I know he's doing badly too. I know it can be really frustrating because sometimes I lie to him and engage in eating disorder behavior anyway. There have been times when I've fainted and had to have him pick me up, or when he has to goad me to eat because I have not for a long time.

The eating disorder behavior for me is cyclical; there are months when I am okay and months when I am not. He is a really smart person who has never had the emotional support to feel like he can be successful and I know he's trying really hard to get through life. I am not good at what he does -- comforting me to the extent that he can and then going about my day. I'm a worrier. Sometimes I feel resentful because he would rather lean on me than start therapy.

Sometimes we are both in a bad place and unable to be there for each other. We both moved from different places and don't have a lot of friends, although he has more of a social network through law school than I do. We don't fight a lot but I'm wondering at what point we are not a healthy pairing. Can two people with mental health problems be in a relationship? I don't know how to talk to him about this dynamic.

It's not like this every day -- there are plenty of days where we have ups and downs, are there for each other, feel comforted by each other, and help each other without making it a burden for the other person. We generally accept that we can't take on each other's problems, and we don't expect that of each other. But there are times when we are just both doing so badly it's hard to understand what to do with each other when we barely have the energy and emotional fortitude to help ourselves. Even when we are both miserable we find a lot of comfort in each other, I just don't know if it is enough emotional support to sustain either of us. I think it would be different if we had more friends.

Is it just that we can't always be there for each other? Or is this not a sustainable relationship?

What kind of things can both of us do while being empathetic of each other's struggles?

What should we expect of each other?

Neither of us want to break up (and we haven't talked about what I'm describing in this post, because he says he's too stressed to have the conversation right now). We have been good for each other overall and are doing a lot better than we were before we started dating. Honestly, I haven't been this happy since I was a kid, but I also feel like I'm in a struggle for my life (with my ED and depression). It's like we are both struggling to negotiate our love for each other and hate for ourselves.
posted by mmmleaf to Human Relations (4 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
First off put these thoughts aside until after the bar. The bar is one of the hardest things in life he will do, it is super stressful and insanity making. The bar will be over in a week. Support him as best you can, it's tough. And if he doesn't pass keep encouraging him, many lawyers don't pass their first time around.

My partner and I both have PTSD. There are things in her side (ADHD / Learning disabilities) and my side (disassociative disorder, history of anorexia) that complicate things futhur.

My advice #1 is you both have to be willing to care of yourselves as hard as you take care of eachother. If this doesn't happen it will never work. Your eating disorder will take you or depression will take him.

#2) each have your own therapist, and if possible a seperate couples Therapist.

#3) you need to communicate, communicate and communicate. In my relationship we have to really analyze events that go south for whatever reason and be honest with ourselves and eachother. This sucks. Sometimes things clash in stupid ways, or something reminds me of my dad or something reminds her of neglect. Sometimes I'm just an asshole for no good reason .

#4) Crisis is hard. I went through a hospitalization and crazy times, and while my wife was amazing, b it put serious strain on our relationship in ways I wasn't able to recognize until the crisis was over.

#5 develop outside support. No one should take care of another person 100% of the time. Friends, family whatever. Do things outside of eachother. I had to go to a church group and stick with it until I made friends. It took awhile and was emotionally crippling for awhile, but now is great.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:37 PM on July 18, 2016 [7 favorites]

I think he will be able to breathe more once we get past the bar exam hurdle, but I am worried about his long-term mental health since working at a law firm isn't exactly a cakewalk.

I'm not sure if this will be reassuring or not, but, if he doesn't already have a job offer from a large firm at this point, he's not going to get one. Which means that, wherever he lands, he's probably not going to be working sixty-hour weeks. Every kind of law practice has its own particular stresses, but he's unlikely (though it's not impossible) to be working the same kind of draining hours you are.

You asked if two mentally ill people can be in a successful relationship. My dearest friend has struggled with depression and anxiety all her life. She's been married now for more than twenty years to a man who also has serious problems of the same nature. It is a challenge, I'm sure far more than I can understand from the outside. It's very hard to live in a household where both members are semi-disabled. But they do love each other, and try to take care of each other, and they've made it work a lot longer than many people who've had a far easier path. They both work meaningful jobs and they own their own home. You could do a lot worse.
posted by praemunire at 6:46 PM on July 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yes, wait until after the bar and be as supportive as you are able right now, celebrate, then print out out this post and open up the topic for discussion. You sound very thoughtful and insightful about the dynamic. If you can communicate about your needs and the difficulty you have had getting them met, as well as your concerns for him--and he can start to do the same--you are in a good place to work together. If this discussion doesn't go well (and it might not--it is hard!) a couples therapist is the next step.
posted by loopsun at 9:00 PM on July 18, 2016

It sounds like you're really doing your best. My husband and I are similar if that helps - actually almost frighteningly similar, as I read your post. I work long hours and have depression and anxiety, he's trying to improve his education in a really stressful way and has always had difficulty with focus and mood and temper.

It's hard. It's really, incredibly hard. To be honest if you'd taken me on a "Christmas future" tour back when I was 20, I might have abandoned the relationship. The ways in which we are dysfunctional do not align well (he's prone to shoutiness, I panic at loud sounds. Affection comes hard to him, I have low self esteem and need constant reassurance, etc. etc.)

It's harder than a "normal" relationship would be. But if you're both sufficiently determined to make it work and willing to do the hard things that are required to make it work, it can be made to work. At least, we've made it work so far. One day at a time, sometimes.

Professional help... helps.
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 7:41 PM on July 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

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