My Partner Wants to Break it Off ...

Patient Expert

Does depression cause relationship breakups? This is a frequent concern raised by community members here at HealthCentral.

I have written on this issue in the past, but it is always worth revisiting. A question or comment from a reader may go something like this:

My boyfriend and I have been dating for two years. He has been under considerable stress recently, caring for a member of his family. The other day, he came by and seemed like a different person. The next day, he called and said that he wants to take a break from the relationship.

Often the depressed partner is noncommunicative. Or else he or she apologizes for the distress he or she is causing and for being a burden on the relationship, and that there is no point in seeing each other any more.

The other partner typically never sees it coming. Sure, there were warning signs, but hardly for a disaster of this magnitude. Nevertheless, the partner is hopeful: It’s only temporary, they will get through this together, and so on.

Indeed, this is a healthy outlook. Events may take a turn for the better. But we also need to take a hard look at what else may be going on, namely …

Maybe it’s the relationship, not the depression …

This was the topic of a post of mine from 2013. As a general rule, according to cognitive scientists, we are too quick to assign a cause to effect. As I noted in my piece:

No doubt about it, if depression is the third party in our relationships, it is an 800-pound gorilla. But its sheer magnitude could be blinding us to the zillion and one other things that demand our attention. If we are too quick to assign blame, to incorrectly link the wrong cause to a bewildering effect, we may lose out on the opportunity to build successful relationships.

But assuming it’s the depression …

This was the topic of another piece from 2013. Sometimes things go right. But my guess is that nothing has prepared you for this. There are no easy answers here. But I do ask you to consider this:

Your partner, in the state he or she is in, will not be responsive to your logical arguments or your optimism. As I put it in my piece:

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.

Nevertheless, it may be possible to make your partner feel emotionally safe. Suggested things to say:

“I understand.”

“I hear you.”

“It’s okay.”

Here, at least, you are meeting your partner on his or her own terms. Again, from my piece:

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 …