When Your Relationship Breaks Up - Can Depression Actually Be a Coping Tool?

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Last month, I wrote on how depression can be a relationship-breaker. What I typically hear from loved ones here at HealthCentral and elsewhere is that their partner is suddenly acting very out-of-character, in a very bewildering fashion.


    Typically, the partner no longer engages with his or her loved one. Often, he or she wants to end the relationship. The other partner is devastated.


    This month, I will look at depression in relationships from a completely different perspective. What I describe here happened to me fairly recently. In fact, I am still experiencing some of it, what I hope is the tail end.

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    We are talking about after the relationship breaks up. If you are normal, you will feel depressed. This is a situational depression, which is an appropriate response to loss. The expectation is that in due course you will pull out of your grief. Life goes on.


    This assumes you have a brain wired for resiliency. But in those of us who are more vulnerable, a situational depression can trigger a clinical depression. 


    Ten years ago, at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting, I heard anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University present an evolutionary perspective on depression following a break-up.


    Depression, she told her audience, is the failure of denial. The rose-colored glasses come off. Reality sets in. We stop wasting our efforts on things we can’t change. We regroup. We put our efforts into finding another mate. Our genes - including our depressive ones - survive into another generation. 


    This is related to “depressive realism” that has wide support among psychiatrists and psychologists. Nassir Ghaemi of Tufts referred to it frequently in his 2011 book, "A First Rate Madness," using Abraham Lincoln as his depressive realist poster boy.


    The theory also enjoys a perverse form of support from Martin Seligman’s positive psychology. Numerous studies have found that upbeat people (naturally) tend to be a lot happier than their downbeat counterparts. These same optimists, though, also evidence a certain amount of delusion about their own abilities. 


    In essence, everyone thinks they’re smarter than average, not to mention being better drivers. Even pessimists delude themselves in this fashion to a certain extent. But they have a far better picture of reality that do their glass-half-full counterparts. 


    So how does this work in a break-up situation? The case we can make for optimism is this: Optimists tend to take credit for the things that go right in their lives and attribute the things that go wrong to chance. As a strategy for fending off the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, this is a pretty darn good one.


    But optimism comes at a cost of sometimes living in your delusions for way too long and making disastrous personal decisions, as a result. Sometimes, we need a strong dose of depressive realism. That special someone, the one who is not coming back - sooner or later we need to own up to the truth.


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    I can’t begin to tell you how many years of my life I have lost to one of the most malignant conditions on this planet. But every once in a blue moon, depression can be your friend. That’s why it’s a vital part of your natural selection survival kit. 

Published On: January 30, 2014