Over and over, I find online stories about the transformation of a loving partner, most often a man, into a depressed stranger. As I’ve often written here, I have been that stranger.
I’ve told several stories about what happened during that time in my life and what I’ve tried to learn from my own depressed behavior. I’ve described fantasies about becoming a new me, blaming my wife and my work for the unhappiness, losing control of myself in rage – and then pulling out of it before losing everything.
The story was all about me, and that’s always the way it is when depression is ghost writing at my side. My wife had a different story. Of course, it started with the crisis I had set in motion but then shifted to everything she did to sustain herself. When I “came back,” the old relationship didn’t come back with me. Instead, we had to create something different because we were both different. It wasn’t about me or her then but both of us.
Because of what I’ve been through and knowing how my wife took care of herself, I worry about many of the stories I read online. They tend to be all about him. I hear a great deal about what the depressed partner is doing, what may be wrong, his refusal to get help, his on-again off-again emotions, his confusion and pain. The hopef-for turning point of this story centers on whether or not he’ll get over it and return as the loving partner he used to be.
What I hear so much less about is the person who has to live with Depression Fallout as Anne Sheffield calls it – the emotional damage caused by living with a depressed partner.
I always want to ask, What about you? Where are you in all this? Except for a brief mention here and there about pain and perhaps efforts to get help, I have a hard time getting as sharp a picture of who you are and what this relationship means for your own sense of self.
Are you worried you won’t be you anymore once he’s gone? Why do you think you can change him? Why do you ask only about what will happen to him? Where are you?
There is so much invested in a close relationship that it inevitably affects the sense of who we are. Each partner, hopefully, feels enough trust to open and share a usually closed emotional core. Once it’s clear the relationship is a lasting one, there’s a sense of fulfillment and sureness of commitment on both sides. I’m still me, but I’m also more.
Even when troubled, angry or hurt by each other, the emotional resonance and mingling can move two people to some sort of healing. It’s all the more shocking, then, when depression takes control of one partner and rips the relationship. It’s not only a betrayal; it takes away the part of me that emerged through closeness to my partner. That cuts too deeply. I won’t feel complete anymore. How can I survive this?
I think the depth of loss of that joint identity varies a lot. At one extreme, there’s a complete dependence on another person to feel like a “real” person. That’s what I went through In my early twenties when I had the experience of being left abruptly. The crisis for me was extreme because I couldn’t imagine myself without this partner. I had no sense of my own value as a person and looked to her to make up for everything I wasn’t. In my state at the time, I could only feel OK because she was with me.
As I told myself, there was nothing left to fill the inner emptiness, so I fell apart. For a long time, I couldn’t accept what had happened and obsessed over the relationship, convinced I could do this or that to turn back the clock. Every attempt failed miserably, and my condition got worse and worse. It took a few years to get past that, but the long-term result was a much healthier sense of who I was.
That’s one extreme. Another is a level of independence of two people that they limit carefully the amount of time they spend together. There’s a fear of losing personal identity by getting too enmeshed in each other. One couple I knew (obviously wealthy) built side-by-side houses connected by a common space so that they could choose when to be together. If one had a serious problem like depression, there was certainly a loving concern but also a safe distance preserved to keep one from damaging the other – or so they thought.
There’s a balance that has to be found between needing a partner to feel good about yourself, as I did, and feeling so autonomous as to see a depressed partner’s problems as his own and having nothing to do with you.
As Peter Kramer puts it in his thoughtful book, Should You Leave?, society as a whole values independence and self-fulfillment far more than fulfillment through the interdependence of a relationship. But the goal for so many is to combine both.
Kramer offers a beautiful image of the way two people can be closely entwined without losing their own identities. He tells about his great aunt, who offered this comparison when she learned of his wedding engagement.
[She] pointed to a pair of white pines planted close together. They had developed a cone of branches and needles around the two trunks, responding to the sun as a single tree; if you were to cut one down, the other would look unbalanced, bare on one side and rounded on the other. A couple, she said, should be like those trees.
I suppose the continuing challenge is to find the balance between a healthy sense of one’s separate self and the shared identity of a close relationship. Neither can exclude the other, and even if relationships fail, they’ve given as much as they’ve taken away.
Sometimes I find out how the online stories have ended – though not so often as how they began. Usually, it’s encouraging, not because the relationship has been restored (that’s rare), but because an inner resilience has led to acceptance of what’s happened. The new story begins, and it’s all about you, no longer about him.
So that’s why I ask: where are you in the story you tell? Are you worried you won’t be you anymore once he’s gone?