Romance vs. Depression
Emotionally connecting with other people is one of the most wonderful aspects about being human. Meeting a romantic partner and feeling intimately connected to them is special. But what happens when someone in that partnership suffers from depression and/or anxiety?
Mind (2013) is a British mental health charity that joined together with another organisation, Relate, to survey over 1,000 people as part of a research project that revealed how couples dealt with mental illness within their relationship. Of the people surveyed, 74% said that they openly discuss their mental health with their partner and 60% said that being in a relationship positively affected their mental health.
That still leaves 40% of people within that survey who have been in relationships that do not have a positive effect on their mental health. And over half of the people in the survey felt that a mental health problem does define the person.
That being said, I am going to reflect upon my past relationship whilst living with severe Major Depressive Disorder and Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and open up about how a relationship can become toxic if the illness is ignored.
A healthy relationship is rooted in good communication. I met my ex during my first month of university; I was full of hope that I would finally be escaping the depression and anxiety that stifled me for so many years. Guess what, though? Running away solved nothing and the depression and anxiety dragged themselves to university with me, casting a shadow over my life. For a while, the shiny newness of the university experience helped me pretend like they weren’t still there. But that didn’t last more than a few months and my mental state continued to decline. I decided to ignore the fact that I needed help by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
I also chose to mask my illnesses with fake emotions and lured my partner into the false sense of security that things were not as bad as he perhaps thought. I feared that I would be out of control if I was honest with myself. I thought that I would be preserving my relationship and protecting us both if I just buried my emotions. I grew to distrust myself and my relationship, as I had built everything on dishonesty.
Open and honest communication is the key to a successful relationship, particularly when dealing with someone’s depression or anxiety. This is because that partner will already have significantly low self-esteem and self-worth. Therefore, ineffective communication — such as negative confrontation, misunderstanding, or avoidance — will only contribute to someone’s negative thought patterns.
Resentment can fester in a relationship that does not have honest communication, causing the relationship to become toxic. For example, my partner never communicated to me that he had developed insomnia and anxiety from worrying about my condition. (I was only made aware of this by a housemate.) His behaviour became erratic; he often acted like everything was perfectly fine or argued viciously with me.
We lacked an understanding of each other and, as we internalised our own experiences, it lead to both of us verbally lashing out. We began to resent each other and this undermined our relationship; it evolved into toxicity and eventually caused the relationship to suffer and breakdown. A toxic relationship will be emotionally draining for both partners, but when someone in the relationship is battling with depression or anxiety, that feeling of being drained is amplified. This is because someone with depression or GAD is dealing with the symptoms of their mental illness on top of a failing relationship. I felt drained because I constantly felt guilty, thinking that I was a burden on my partner. These feelings led to some really dark, unimaginable thoughts.
A major side effect of resentment is a lack of empathy. As resentment grows, a lack of understanding about your partner’s experience also develops. Partners may begin to blame each other or see their emotional experience as more significant than their partner’s. The loss of empathy can have devastating effects on someone who suffers from mental illness. For example, self-harm, self-sabotage, or self-medication may increase.
I had already been self-medicating for a year, but when the relationship became affected, I relied on it as a way to numb myself. I snorted lines of white powder and drank bottles of wine because I felt I could no longer safely voice what was going on inside me. It may sound backward but self-medication was a physical way of coping with emotions that overwhelmed me. I had such a low sense of self-worth, and was so affected by my failing relationship, that I felt I deserved to treat my body without respect.
I believe that the most effective way of preventing resentment or recovering that sense of empathy is to learn to communicate. There needs to be an equal agreement that both partners will try to recover what has been lost and a commitment to improving their relationship needs to be vocalised.
What I recommend is a non-defensive listening strategy, as well as non-aggressive vocal communication. During a discussion a partner must only describe their feelings. Refrain from using the pronoun ‘you’ because that offers an offensive stance when discussing difficult topics that may cause tension or resentment. Instead of saying, “You made me feel like x, y, z.” Say something along the lines of, “I feel a, b, and c because I interpreted the situation as, x, y, and z.” The difference here is that you are removing a sense of blame out of the conversation. It creates a more secure environment and allows both partners a chance to express their own emotions, rather than fear that they may trigger aggression, a panic attack, or worse.
For many, being in a relationship whilst battling depression can be easier than battling it alone. You’re aware that a partner will be here to hold you up when you feel weak. If the relationship is stable and healthy, their support will lead to a quicker recovery and a stronger relationship. However, if you aren’t willing to help yourself, then your relationship will suffer and hinder your recovery. This will lead to resentment, which will likely lead to a toxic relationship.
If you/your partner are living with depression and/or anxiety, you both need to openly communicate to stay together. It is imperative that both partners are willing to address the root cause of what sparked the depression or anxiety and both partners should want to seek the correct help.
If you can’t overcome the issues in your relationship, and your gut tells you that it’s too far gone, then reach inside yourself and end it. Prioritising your/your partner’s health and recovery is more important than clinging to a failing relationship.
Remember that your/your partner’s mental illness does not need to trigger the end of your relationship. If the partnership is based on empathy, understanding, and honest communication, then you can overcome depression and/or anxiety together.
It is super vital that both partners take care of themselves within the relationship when someone is suffering. I let my health get to a severe state before seeking medical help but found that CBT was the most effective treatment for me in the long term. I disliked SSRI medication but other people feel differently and this is why it is important to seek out what works for you and your loved ones. In Britain, we have organisations like MIND that include helpful support links (including a 24/7 call line for emergencies). In America, there is the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) that has similar links and information on how to support a loved one going through a crisis. I highly suggest reading through websites like these because they will provide well-informed advice and also include directories for therapists.
The supporting partner will likely need someone to lean on, as well. Having someone to reach out to will help to alleviate the full weight of the situation. Both MIND and NAMI have online advice about what to do if you are caring for someone with a mental illness