I Can't Take It Personally: My Boyfriend Has Depression
How do you keep your own happiness while having empathy?
I am a giver. I want to help and fix people. I am cursed with the impossible belief of thinking I can change my romantic partners. (This is not a thing, believe me, I've tried.) I can also be a little bit of a doormat. These are some of my personal character defects, and they often lead me straight into the arms of people who are suffering. It makes sense: those who want to help are often led to those who need it. If you're a light, you want to illuminate a dark room.
My last partner dealt with depression. For weeks at a time he would shower me with affection: flowers, love notes, surprises and smiles, and then like a light switching off I would watch his soul escape from his eyes. He'd distance himself from me and stop talking. He wouldn't ask for plans and he'd want to sleep alone at the end of the night when we finally did see one another. I'd find that little things would make him defensive.
Basically: he shut off.
The first time I experienced this, it was hard. I convinced myself of the worst: I was being cheated on. He hated me but was afraid to do anything about it. I had done something to offend him. My boyfriend was about to break up with me. I did the only logical thing I could think of; I broke up with him. (Reject before you can be rejected, right?)
The only problem was this-- I still cared about him, and he cared about me. We just weren't dealing with the third party in our relationship: his depression.
I would not wish depression upon anyone. An unwavering, uncontrollable, and seemingly unending feeling of despair that takes over your entire body? It's terrible.
My boyfriend and I ended up getting back together and he explained to me his struggles with mental health. And as a partner, I listened, tried my best to understand and empathize, and then figure out what I could do to make our relationship most successful.
Author Lisa Esile of Tiny Buddha explains that, "when you're depressed, you can't access feelings of self-love. And since the love you feel for others is a reflection of the love you feel for yourself, this is why you feel disconnected." She continues that intellectually you understand your affection for your partner, but in that moment, potentially, you can't feel it.
How can you regain intimacy and reconnect to your partner when one of you is depressed? And at what point do you leave, especially in the beginning stages of a relationship, if your own happiness is being compromised?
I had to learn to not take my partners sadness personally. His emotions during his times of hardship had nothing to do with me. If anything, me internalizing them just made things worse for the both of us. Acting needy towards a person who craves isolation is unhelpful to both parties.
What is depression anyway?
It can include: feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness, decreased energy or fatigue, hopelessness, or pessimism, persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood, difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping, lack of sex drive, etc.
We had to create a love language that worked for us in times of hardship, so that we both didn't withdraw from one another at the same time.
Some ways I talked to my partner
When my boyfriend was in the midst of his depression....
- I asked what I could do to help
- I told him I was here for him, and I wasn't going anywhere
- I told him we would ride it out together
- I asked him if he wanted a hug when he was acting withdrawn from me, instead of taking distance from him (my natural reaction)
- I told him he was important to me
- I told him it was okay
Some ways he talked to me
It was difficult at times to be in a relationship with someone who could go from hot to cold without much warning, sometimes for stretches at a time. I didn't know how to help him or anticipate it. So, to keep me happy and secure in our relationship, he gave me a warning sign-- a safe word. When my boyfriend started to feel a little off, he'd tell me he was coming down with "the blahhhs." That way, I was able to distinguish between whether things were a relationship issue, or if maybe perspective was skewed due to the third party in our relationship: sadness.
So if you're dating with depression or dating someone with depression, know that it's very common. We all have our things. It just takes patience, empathy, and the right communication tools, to conquer any relationship hurdles.
You can read more about relationships and depression in HuffPost's "Is Depression Ruining Your Relationship?"
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