The Heartbreak of Relationships: When Depression Crashes the Party

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Last month, I wrote that there may be times when we are too quick to blame depression for our loving relationships going wrong. Yes, depression is the 800-pound gorilla we bring into our relationships, but even 800-pound gorillas are innocent until proven guilty.


    But then there are times when that 800-pound gorilla turns into Public Enemy Number One. In a question posted yesterday here on HealthCentral, Babylove, who has been in a stable relationship for a year, told her story. Her boyfriend, who has been under considerable stress caring for a member of his family, “started acting a little weird.” As she describes it:

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    A week went by and I just saw a different person. ... He was fine Friday, and said we would hangout Saturday. So he tells me on the phone Saturday: We need to talk about things, because he is severely depressed. He shows up to my house, like a different person. His eyes were puffy from crying, he was beyond stressed, ready to just lose it. ...


    The 800-pound gorilla is loose. Babylove’s boyfriend broke off the relationship, claiming he needed time to himself. Babylove can only wonder: “Will he ever get over this?” Or “do I move on?”


    If only there were an easy answer to this. Okay, Babylove, here goes:


    Life often gets too much to handle, with or without depression. All of us are vulnerable, we all have our breaking points. There is very good scientific evidence linking stress to depression (check out Robert Sapolsky’s talk on on the topic).


    Your boyfriend may or may not be depressed in a strict clinical sense. Time will tell. But right now he is feeling depressed, so much so that he has changed his behavior completely. From what you are describing, life is too much for him right now. He can’t handle it. He’s feeling guilty, he’s feeling inadequate.


    When you’re depressed, your brain plays all kinds of tricks on you. This is why trying to reason with someone in this condition is so difficult. His view of reality may be totally wrong, but you are hardly about to correct it by contradicting him. Your intentions may be good, even noble, but chances are you are only going to drive him away.


    About 18 months ago, in a talk, I addressed my audience on this very point. Here is one of the hypothetical situations I raised:


    Your loved one tells you the situation is hopeless. Life sucks. He is about to lose his job and become homeless and doesn’t want to burden you anymore.


    The temptation is to try to impose your own reality on his. After all, you know better. The catch is nothing you say will change his reality, at least at the moment.


    My audience happened to be very smart and knowledgeable. Just about all of them had experienced something like this happening to them. I got a lot of nodding heads when I put up this slide of suggested things to say:


    “I understand.”

    “I hear you.”

    “It’s okay.”


    Depression is a very lonely place. The best way to make our loved one feel even more lonely is to discredit his reality. As I put it in my talk:


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    I want my partner to say, "I understand," when I go to pieces for seemingly no reason. I want her to say, "I hear you," when I'm upset and distressed. I want to hear her laugh with me, cry with me. I want her to hear her say, "It's okay. I know where you're coming from. I would feel the same way in your situation."


    But don’t expect miracles. You are not going to turn the situation around in one conversation. But if you at least succeed in making your partner feel emotionally safe around you, if you validate his reality, he may allow you back into his life. It is not a solution, but it may be the beginning of one.


    Time will tell ...

Published On: December 31, 2013