There are many strains that depression imposes on relationships, and the most extreme can lead to a sudden break-up. Depressed partners seem to change overnight, turn on their loved ones and decide to leave. They may offer an explanation, but many refuse to communicate at all. The abandoned partner is desperate to do something but often has no idea what might be possible or what to hope for.
I went through a crisis like this with my wife, not as the abandoned partner but as the depressed one looking for a way out. I stopped short of a complete break, but a great many do leave, hoping in this way to end depression. Of course, it’s no solution at all, and they only succeed in victimizing those who love them most.
The partner who suddenly loses a loved one to depression, witnessing the transformation from intimacy to hostility almost overnight, is stunned and disbelieving. While reacting from the depths of hurt and anger, she’s also scrambling to explain something that seems to defy explanation.
(This might seem unfair, but I’m referring to the depressed partner who leaves as a man, the one left behind as a woman. Although I know that women with depression also leave their families, I’m writing in this way because almost all the comments, posts and emails I’ve read online come from women trying to understand why they’ve been left. Those are the situations I know best.)
Making Sense of a Collapsing Life
I think the need to have an explanation for such a deep crisis is overwhelming. When a basic prop of living is knocked away, we’ve got to restore some sort of balance. No one can live in total confusion so it’s natural to seize on the first thing that appears to make sense. There’s a story we come to believe that helps us put the disaster into a setting that is at least understandable, though it doesn’t solve anything by itself.
What it does is to offer some hope that things can change, for better or worse, and it usually defines a step to take. It relieves the sense of helplessness because we have a clearer idea of what to do and what to hope for.
Both partners go through this in different ways. There’s no excusing the destructive behavior of the partners who leave – despite the influence of depression – and no escaping the consequences of the hurt they cause at an intimate level. It’s important, however, to understand the stories they tell themselves in order to have some guidance when reacting to the loss.
Depression in Control
The depressive who ends a relationship may appear to be more in control of the situation, but I think that’s a false impression. He’s reacting to a baffling illness that has disrupted every aspect of his life. There must be a way to explain it, and unfortunately he finds a way by blaming his partner, the most loving and supportive person in his life.
Depression has turned him away from others so completely that he’s not seeing his partner as a person anymore. She’s only a symbol of what is wrecking him inside. If he believes a different partner will make up for everything that’s wrong, he’s not seeing that person in real terms either – she’s only a symbol of what he wants.
He’s gripped by the feeling that’s he’s lost control of his life. He can’t get himself out of a downward emotional spiral. He’s lost the motivation to do anything, his job performance is getting worse all the time, he can’t keep his mind focused on anything. He can’t talk to his family or his friends, and when he does it’s usually in anger. Everything is collapsing.
That’s the crisis he needs to explain, but tragically he takes the most destructive path that only imposes pain on others without lessening his own.
The Depressed Partner’s Stories
I’ve heard many versions of these false explanations, the stories that push a depressed partner to leave. Each one makes it easy to deflect an honest effort to deal directly with depression.
I never had such emotional turmoil or trouble at work before this relationship. I wouldn’t be depressed if I were with the right person. She’s the problem. Getting her out of my life is the solution.
I don’t love her at all. She doesn’t give me what I need, and I can’t feel much of anything anymore. Only by leaving can l find the right person who will give me all the passion and intensity I don’t have in this relationship.
My depression is so terrible that I need to be alone to deal with it. I can’t handle the demands of an intimate relationship. Once on my own, I’ll be able to get rid of it.
I have a dark and dangerous power within me that can only hurt the people who love me. I need to get away in order to spare my partner the damage and torture of being exposed to my dark side. Controlling and hiding this monster is something I must do at all costs. Leaving is the best thing I can do.
None of this will help in the long run. A partner who leaves for a better life won’t find it. This is only a way to avoid realistic treatment for depression. To quote the title of Jon-Kabat Zinn’s well-known book, Wherever You Go, There You Are. Depression doesn’t disappear because you change relationships or any external aspect of your life.
The Abandoned Partner’s Attempts to Understand
The initial attempts to explain so shocking an event are tentative since abandoned partners don’t really know what their partners have been thinking or going through. Besides the leaving itself, they have only hints or brief explanations to go on.
I must have done something wrong, though I don’t know what. I need to show how much I really care and that I’ll never lose that love. That’s the solution that will bring him back.
He’s depressed but doesn’t know it. I need to help him see that he has this illness and can get help. I’m the only one who cares enough to make a real difference in his life. He’ll see that, get treatment and we can start again.
I can’t understand this at all. We had the greatest relationship imaginable, and he just walked off. He won’t talk to me, but I have to know why he did this and let him know that we can deal with whatever it is. I have to keep trying to get a message through to him. so that I can understand. I just need to know why.
I’m desperate and can’t live without him. There must be something I can do to get him back. Even if everything fails, I will always hope for his return and need to let him know I’m always there for him.
The common thread is the desperation to stay in touch and to get some response – in other words, to keep the relationship alive. There has to be hope that he’ll come back, even if all the signals indicate that he won’t. That hope and the attempts to communicate provide a sense of purpose, however shaky.
I can’t imagine any other response, no matter what the reality may be. I felt exactly that way when I went through a similar crisis in my early twenties. I was the one who was abandoned and felt I simply could not survive without her.
The Next Phase
There are lots of other explanations, I’m sure, but these are the ones I hear most often. Each one tries to explain what’s happened to make it possible to get through the crisis and do something to relieve the sense of helplessness.
I think all the stories are understandable in the midst of such emotional turmoil and the feeling of life collapsing. Once things have settled down a little, though, there are a few steps that can be taken, though the damage to the relationship may be permanent.
I’ll take that up in the second part of this series.
Have you lived through anything like this or know others who have? How did you/they initially try to explain what was happening? How did you/they come to see things after the initial shock?