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Friday, January 23, 2009 Jenn, Community Member, asks

Q: How should I deal with my partner's isolation?

Like so many others, I am the partner of someone with depression and I am trying to learn how to deal with it when he slides into a depressed state.  My question has to do with how I should respond to his withdrawal and isolation.  He simply shuts down -- no communication at all.  It's been about 3 weeks now.  We do not live together, and while in years past when he isolated himself this way I would call/text/IM him, asking all kinds of questions ('what is wrong?'  'don't you love me?' 'why won't you talk to me?' 'what have I done?') until both of us were really upset, this time I am not doing that (outside of a few brief emails that expressed love & support).  Part of it is for my own self-preservation (I am too familiar with the enormous ache that comes from his cold, frustrated responses to my calls) and part of it is for him: if his behavior indicates he needs space, I am going to respect that even if he's not being straightforward in telling me that's what he needs and why.  It's so hard, though... while I know logically that I haven't done anything wrong to 'cause' his depression, it was impossible not to take these withdrawals personally and feel so hurt.  How can he not turn to me when he's upset about something, especially when he has said time and again "You are the only person who has ever truly believed in me and loved me."  Am I doing the right thing in letting him be?  What else could I do right now?


Some background: We have been together 9 years; I am 41 and he is a few months away from 40.  We come from very different formative backgrounds: he grew up with divorced parents who didn't get along, a mother who was emotionally & physically abusive and regularly told him how worthless he was, a burden, etc.  She kicked him out of the house at 15 (he came home from school to find all of his things piled on the lawn with a note that said "You and this must be gone when I get home").  He went to live with his father, who treated him well but was more committed to his own 'swinging bachelorhood' than being a father.  My partner spent a lot of time alone while growing up and a lot of time feeling bad about himself (not 'normal' as he says).  In contrast, my parents have been married forever and I grew up in a home that, while not perfect, was safe and supportive.  Communicating was a priority.  My partner married at 20, in what he calls a blind attempt at having a 'normal life' (his now ex-wife came from a rather "Leave it to Beaver" background), and by 26 he had 2 children, a mortgage and a major breakdown.  I met him 4 years later, after he had divorced and 'done work on himself' (his words) and we have been together ever since.  Most of the time, we are utterly compatible -- both teachers, both intellects, same political views, same eco-minded approach to the world.  We truly enjoy each other's company and love to take road trips for the reason that we get hours & hours of talking time in the car.  But within the first two years of our relationship he had one of his 'episodes' of withdrawal and moodiness that came out of the blue.  I was freaked out by it, panicked, certain he was trying to break up with me.    Others followed, maybe one every other year, and every time I was caught by surprise and scared because he would shut down on me.  He always 'came around' and we just resumed our lives together,  but when he'd shut down the next time I never felt confident he'd return to me and I drove myself to distraction trying to figure out what I had done to drive him away.  I used to regard his sudden withdrawals and moody, irritable behavior as isolated 'periods' that followed some upset (an issue at work or an argument we'd had) or trauma (the death of his hiking partner while they were on a hike).  The latter happened in '07, and he went into a 6-month depression that was terrifying.  He simply SHUT DOWN, barely talking except when he absolutely had to, and irritable all the time.  Any suggestion of therapy was met with anger.  I got myself into therapy and the therapist said my partner had PTSD and, based on my anecdotes about his life, depression in general.  We were living together and ended up separating homes; about 3 weeks after we got our own places, he 'woke up' and came around, as he always had before.  He felt guilty about everything he had put me through, said he realized that his withdrawing was what he had learned to do as a boy to survive and that he couldn't do it as an adult. He was open to therapy, but I didn't want to push, and I honestly thought he had turned a huge corner.  He kept saying "It won't happen again; I've learned that I can't retreat into myself."  I believed him and we moved ahead with our life together and all had been very, very good.  Sometimes I said I was worried about how we would handle the next time, and he said there wouldn't be a next time.  I suppose I wanted to believe.  Then this past December we had a run-of-the-mill argument one night, and he's been "in his cave" ever since.  Our ordinary argument came not long after my partner had decided to drop out of a Ph.D. program he'd been in for a year.  He dropped out for very practical reasons, and was already looking into other programs and seemed OK with it all.  But my partner teaches at a prestigious private school where 1/2 the faculty has Ph.D.'s and the other 1/2 has Masters from top-notch schools.  My partner has 'only' a B.A. and I know that he feels rather insecure about that.  Indeed, what I know about my partner is that his esteem rests on his leadership roles, his expertise, etc. in connection with work.  He is never more himself than when he is "leading" and it often seems like he feels he needs to prove himself.  Indeed, he is constantly busy at work and seems to put on a happy face for the people there.  I am wondering now if that is the 'existential' trigger that has brought his latest depressed episode -- a feeling of inadequacy, failure, not succeeding.  My partner said a few weeks ago in response to my frantic questioning about what was wrong, "The thing that happened in December is weighing on me and I just need to work it through in my head..." But when I then asked "Exactly what 'thing'?  What was so horrible about that argument that you can't communicate with me?" he brushed me off, saying in a frustrated tone "I don't want to have a conversation about that now..."  But I don't think his behavior right now is the result of our argument...the reaction doesn't fit the cause.  Does this make sense?  It seems to be more internal, a frustration with himself.  I am certainly his biggest fan and he knows this, he's said as much.  I guess my heart just can't understand why he'd turn away from me if he knows I am a constant, true source of support.  Some people think I am a masochist for not leaving him; but I deeply love my partner, and I know that at times like this I am not dealing with my partner but with his depression, which overtakes him.  I am hopeful that he will 'come out' of it again and we can begin the work we probably should have started years ago.


If you have read all of this, thank you!!  I really appreciate ANY insight & advice & feedback anyone can offer.  My heart goes out to everyone struggling with depression, whichever side of it we fall on.  I wish love was enough to combat this.


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Answers (5)
sandy, Community Member
1/24/09 12:53am



There are books are websites that help people who are partners with a person that goes thru depression.  I have recently gone thru it and it is a very horrible and lonely thing to go thru.  Don't push for answers of what is going on or what caused it because he probably doesn't have the answers himself.  I didn't.  When you are going thru it your mind gets so distorted that nothing makes sense.  I at times wanted to be totally alone to and other times I needed someone to talk to.  I had a really good friend that never pushed and asked what was it from.  She would just sit and listen when I needed to get all the crazy thoughts out of my head.  She would just tell me over and over that it will get better and don't lose hope.  I would cry for hours.  When I went thru it the isolation, for me, was because it was hard to be around people who were laughing and talking when I wasn't even able to feel anything but complete sadness, emptiness, lonliness, even if people were around, panic, etc.  I think men probably handle it different than women.  I would suggest getting on the web and reading articles about how to help.  I went on meds. and they have helped tremendously.  Trust me when I say it has nothing to do with you.  If you love him all you can do is let him know you are there for him in whatever way he needs you to be. 

Don't push and ask alot of questions that only makes the person feel worse.  We  don't want it and can't will it away. I tried.  It is all about getting help and time to go thru it. Read as much as you can about depression if you are going to stay with him.  It is hard on family members and it will make it easier on you to deal with it to.  Nobody wants it to come back but it may.  At some point he may have to consider meds. and/or counseling.  I am doing both because I don't ever want to go thru that nightmare again if I can help it.  It is like you are living in a nightmare and no matter how much you want to get out of it you can't until you give it time.  But the person also has to put work into working thru it to and it is hard work. Hope some of this helps.



Vic, Community Member
1/25/09 2:01pm

Hi Jenn. I am trying to answer your question but it is from a person that is suffering from depression and being treated. The first thing that you probably need to ask yourself is, "Do I deeply love him?". Because if the answer is is 'no' or you have to think about it a little than  would recommend that you get out of the relationship. I really don't know how my wife dealt with my depression because, somewhat like you mate, I acted much in the same manner before I was diagnosed. I would go to work, burying my self in it, come home and go to the bedroom and lay on the bed. That was pretty much our relationship for months. When I was alright, it was more of a mask that I was projecting trying to say what she wanted me to say and do what she thought I should do. All a big facad. I would be very abusive when she would do the 'what's wrong?", why are you mad at me?", 'what do you want me to do?". She was reaching in every way that she could and I answered with abrasive, rude and hateful responses. Finally during one of my "responsive times", she suggested that we go see my doctor. I actually agreed and there began the slow path to where I am today. She now tells people that I smile and I'm happier. Although she accepts my condition she has yet to completely tell her mom the story and we are your age. In the beginning and sometimes still, I feel ashamed of my condition, like it's leprocy. Like there is something ugly wrong with me that needs to be hidden. All I can say is if you truely love hime, support him. Try to be there for him. If sometime, you feel the time is right, ask him to get help. That it's nothing to be ashamed of. That there are many people that have the same problem. This isn't something he can just fix. I know, I tried for a long time.

sha, Community Member
7/ 1/09 1:25am



I have walked your shoes.  I'm going to be short and blunt with you about this matter. You are not getting any younger, and it's been years of this stuff with him.  Things are not going to get better, and his episodes are not going to stop.  I've been the suportive girlfriend, waiting on him hand and foot,and satisfying all of his needs.  As much as I loved him, I had to roll out before I winded up like him.  I can't handle emotional rollercoasters, and he is taking you on one as well. You are not a psychologist, and therefore you cannot help him.  He has to want to help himself before he can sustain a healthy relationship.  Move on Jenn, and don't waste anymore time with him.  He is a sick individual, and it's just going to pull you down with him. 


You have done all ypu can Jenn, and now it's time for you to be happy.  Those same behaviors you explained about him, is the same things I was noticing with my former boyfriend.  Everything is going great, and then all of a sudden the big one would do it's thing.  I did not see it coming, and it always took me for a loop.  Your friend has a lot of issues, and he needs deep therapy to start the healing process.  Also, he needs medication for treatment as well.  Run for your life while you are still in your right mind.  

Annia, Community Member
3/31/10 5:17am

Hi Jenn,

I have just found your post looking for a help in understanding the behaviour of my boyfriend who thinks has bipolar disorder.


Your post is old - I am curious how  did your situation evolved.

Did your partner came around again? Or is your relation over?


And how are you?



Greensleeves, Community Member
11/ 1/12 3:21pm

I just stumbled onto your question, Jenn. I have been with my partner for 4 years now (almost). He is the best man I have every known, but suffers from regular bouts of depression. He has sought treatment in the past, but all meds made him worse - the only thing he has been able to find peace with is self-medication (marijuana - thank goodness we live in Colorado where he can get good, quality medical grade stuff and not buy skunk weed from the skeevy dealer down the street). I have struggled with his depression, the feeling of "why won't he let me help," and the inevitable taking-it-personally route. Even though I know better, I find myself taking it personally when he gets crabby or withdraws. I'm trying to stop that but it is so hard. I love him though, deeply love him, and I will weather this storm with him.


So I guess my answer comes from the airplane safety instructions: put your own mask on before you try to assist him with his. You can't help him if you're miserable too; try to do things to make yourself happy. We don't live together either, so I understand feeling especially bad because you want to spend as much time as you can (but he may decide to pull away). We've gone as long as 3 months without sleeping together - that was the hardest one. I felt so ugly and lost, but I know now it wasn't me at all. It never is.


I now strive (though I'm not always successful) to just keep telling him I love him, to listen when he calls to talk (I don't want to discourage the discourse - better out than in with those thoughts, spiralling inner dialogue is MUCH worse than rambling), to try not to ask those "what's wrong" "are you mad" questions - they only make him feel worse, and in turn I feel terrible. I just spent 10 minutes apologizing for one of those reactions actually.


So long story longer, just try to ride it out as best you can. You can't fix him, and he has to get to the point of wanting to be fixed. Just keep an eye on him, and step in if he tries to self-harm - let him be mad at you if you need to call 911. He'll get over *that* at least, and even if he doesn't well...


Do you love him enough to keep him alive, even if he breaks up with you for it?


That's the question I face a few times a year. It's incredibly stressful...thank goodness for knitting. :)


Good luck, Jenn, and thank you for letting me know that I'm not alone - I hope you know now that you aren't either. Much love.

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By Jenn, Community Member— Last Modified: 01/04/14, First Published: 01/23/09