Please help me balance my relationship with my depression & anxiety!
February 12, 2017 4:17 AM   Subscribe

I am in a wonderful relationship & I have chronic depression & anxiety. What are your tips for preventing mental health issues from sabotaging relationships? Snowflakes to follow.

I have been in a wonderful, loving relationship for over a year & a half. I've managed my chronic depression & anxiety for over a decade with medication, therapy, & behavioral tools. My SO is fully aware of all of this. Recently, I had a significant flare up of my depression & anxiety (they now go hand-in-hand, yay!) & realized that I'd never been in a serious, IRL, non-long distance relationship when this has happened. I am genuinely distressed by the idea that my inability to cope with these issues while in a relationship will destroy my relationship. I know part of this is fed by my own fear & anxiety, but I'm concerned that I don't have the tools to navigate this well.

In the past, I coped mostly by fulfilling my responsibilities & hermitting myself away until I was back on track, which I know is not the healthiest way to deal, but it worked at the time. When you have a partner, however, you can't just fall off the radar for weeks on end, & honestly, I don't want to, but I also don't want to be a constant downer or source of worry. I know communication is key, but I'm also trying to decide how much disclosure is too much. For example, during a flare up, some (okay, most) nights the idea of a couples' evening fills me with anxiety & dread, but the plans have been agreed to ahead of time wth my enthusiastic okay, my SO is looking forward to it, &, once we're all together, I'm fine & have a good time. In the hours leading up to it, however, I'm stressed, anxious, & wishing I never agreed to it. I'm trying to decide when it's appropriate to speak up, even if it's last minute, & when I should just move forward knowing that hanging out with mutual friends is not a big deal. Mostly, I've just been sucking it up & putting my best foot forward.

This is something I'm discussing with my therapist, but sometimes these more practical issues are easier to sort through when you have the input of others in a similar situation. So, if you have mental health issues, how do you successfully navigate that while managing a rewarding, loving relationship? Conversely, if you're in a relationship with someone who has anxiety &/or depression, what helps you make the relationship work when those issues are front & center? Ultimately, I'm just trying to build a toolkit so I don't sabotage one of the best things in my life by not striking a good balance between managing my mental health & being fully present in my relationship with my SO. Much thanks in advance!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I'm going to give you a Devil's Advocate answer: are you certain at your core that you're happy in this relationship? I ask because I've learned over the 30-something years I've actively been in relationships that when I've felt anxious it's because I was ignoring my inner voice trying to tell me that it was NOT a good fit.

If you're 100% certain that it's not that you're ignoring all your instincts screaming at you to end this, I apologize. Just an idea.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 5:03 AM on February 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

FWIW depression combined with anxiety is also very good for interpreting things in the worst possible way. Don't make any life-changing decisions while you're at your worst.
posted by mushhushshu at 5:29 AM on February 12, 2017 [16 favorites]

I've had to deal with my own depression and anxiety in the context of a relationship, and I feel you. (And counter to yes I said yes I will Yes's comment, I think if you know you have a history of depression and anxiety, and you feel happy and supported when your brain's not throwing stuff at you, and there's nothing in your interactions with your partner that trip the switch, it's probably not a case of incompatibilty.)

I think it helps to tell your partner what's going on, in a "my brain is doing this" context rather than a "I feel" context - and, when possible, to mention your plans to care for yourself and/or when and how you think it will subside. This helps them understand what you're going through, since it's not always obvious, and resassures them that it's the depression/anxiety talking and that you know what's going on. It can also help you identify what's going on as you experience it, before it runs away with you. So for the couples' evening example, it probably won't help to say "I'm filled with dread," but it might be good to say "I often get anxiety before social situations like this one, but I always have a good time when I get there, so right now my anxiety's telling me not to go but I still want to go."

Therapy is great; keep it up. You may want to try other things to manage your depression and anxiety, if you haven't already - for me, switching my antidepressant did a world of good, and regular exercise and a consistent sleep schedule help too.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:51 AM on February 12, 2017 [10 favorites]

Being honest about how your brain is making you behave, or how you think your brain is making you behave, is important. I think my bare minimum expectation for a partner who's depressed and anxious (and for myself, as someone who succumbs to those tendencies, too) is to be able to talk about that and give your partner some notice. This is a facet of who you are that isn't going to just go away, so strategies for addressing that should start to include your partner, even if only insofar as you give them notice when your anxiety is making you pull away or not want to follow through on social obligations.

I think as the partner who's overtaken by this sometimes, I always want love and understanding if I'm not dealing well with things that day. And as someone whose partner is also sometimes overtaken by this, I just want to know what to expect and to be given space to do what I need to do when they're not available. As the latter partner, it would make me sad if, after a while, I could see a pattern emerging where you weren't ever choosing to engage with your friends, or me, or our mutual friends. But as the former partner, I'd also want space to work out for myself how to deal with a situation that makes me uncomfortable. I wouldn't want to (haven't wanted to) be berated or chided for it.

So you need to work out with your partner how you address this stuff together, too, and how and what is appropriate to say, what standards are appropriate to be held to, etc.
posted by limeonaire at 6:25 AM on February 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'll say this as well: If you always force yourself to do the thing you don't want to do (be in social situations with friends, etc.) when you're not actually up to it, 1. that's not sustainable for you and 2. your partner will pick up on that, and that's going to affect them in various ways even if to you, the whole point is to maintain continuity and meet your obligations by doing something you said you'd do. To me, it's better for you not to go at all than to go and be uncomfortable the whole time or leave me as the partner holding up our entire end of the social engagement, leave me worrying about how long you can stand to be out, etc.

What I'd want in that case just goes back to wanting you to be honest with me and with yourself about your capacity to bear social interaction at that time. And to, as a next step, either work on ways you can be a true partner in social engagements or otherwise think through what your relationship to social situations and our mutual friends should be. As someone who's the depressed and anxious partner sometimes too, I do consider figuring that out my obligation as well.
posted by limeonaire at 6:38 AM on February 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

In the past I coped by fulfilling my responsibilities... [after initially dreading a couples night,] once we're all together I'm fine and have a good time

Sometimes all relationships are work. What helps me get over the initial hump so I can get to the good time is treating the obligation as though it is another responsibility, part of the job of my relationship. In that frame, it's no longer optional.

Other things I do:
  • coach myself that I will probably enjoy myself like I have previously under the same circumstances;
  • promise myself that I can throw in the towel if I'm miserable after some reasonable time, like 90 minutes;
  • contribute a planning idea to the evening that guarantees at least part of it will include an activity I enjoy and/or will create a logical bail out time, like the end of a game or a meal.
  • go to the bathroom for a quick hit of alone time, which also supports the need to leave early.

    Supporting your urge to to bail out then becomes part of the work of your partner's relationship with you, certainly, but that'smuch easier for your SO to do after you've given the evening a good effort.

  • posted by carmicha at 7:17 AM on February 12, 2017 [7 favorites]

    The other aspect of contributing a planning idea to the evening is that it adds to the event's obligation quotient--the jobbiness, as it were--that enables me to treat attending as a responsibility I must fulfill.
    posted by carmicha at 9:07 AM on February 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

    My wife also suffers from depression and anxiety. We've been happily married for 44 years, so take heart. It can work. I have two messages for you which I will put in separate posts. Let me start with an anecdote.

    Back when we'd been married for just a couple years, my employer had everyone attend some talks about getting along with other people. Talking about dealing with a person with emotional issues, such as depression, the consultant listed about 15 ways that you can respond to them. Things like offering advice, or lots of empathy, or whatever. "All wrong," she said, the only good response is "reflective listening". (You can look that up.) So the next time I was confronted with my wife's depression, I offered up a reflective listening response, and she immediately replied "Don't try that shit on me!"

    So there I was, with no way at all to respond.

    So this is my first point. Your SO is in a bit of a fix. It's hard to work out a good way to deal with a depressed person, and adapting someone else's good idea by rote is not likely to work out well. So you need to be patient with him, and understand that maybe the only way he can be there for you is just by being there with you.
    posted by SemiSalt at 11:31 AM on February 12, 2017 [11 favorites]

    Point #2.

    Briefly, your SO is not your therapist, and you are not your SO's patient. You may need someone to listen to your rants, and to complain about how wretched life is, but it's not your SO. Likewise, it's not his job to fix you, or tell you what to do, or especially to tell you how to feel. It's his job to be authentically the best version of the person you love that he can be.

    Best of luck.
    posted by SemiSalt at 11:44 AM on February 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

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