Ask Anna: Can I Support My Depressed BF Without Sabotaging Myself?

Anna Akbari advice column

Talkspace is pleased to introduce Ask Anna, a new Question & Answer column featuring Anna Akbari, sociologist and author of “Startup Your Life: Hustle and Hack Your Way To Happiness.” Send your mental health questions for Anna to [email protected].

Hi Anna,

When I first started dating my boyfriend, he was really ambitious, was a leader at his work, and was really excited about what he was doing. I feel like the combination of success and stress has made him flatline a bit. I’ve found that he’s gotten increasingly more agitated, less motivated, has lost his sense of ambition and is starting down a self-destructive path. On the weekends he is binge drinking and taking partying to a new level––the night always end in a fight or worse. Whenever I ask him how his day was, he says “it sucked” and completely shuts down. Every time I bring any of this up, he gets really defensive and refuses to talk about it.

I love him and want to help him, but I am at a crossroads. This is affecting me in a negative way and causing me to question our future together. How can I support him without sabotaging my own happiness?

– The supportive but not stupid girlfriend

Dear Supportive But Not Stupid Girlfriend,

Thanks for sharing your story. Your boyfriend’s situation is more common than you might think. Depression affects 15 million adults — or nearly 7% of the population. And, unfortunately, nearly half of those who suffer from depression don’t seek treatment. His behavior is a symptom of his depression, which — when undiagnosed and untreated — diminishes the quality of his communication and takes a toll on your relationship. It’s likely he’s also frustrated by his feelings and behaviors, but feels stuck and unable to change them.

The good news is you can work to course-correct together. But it takes more than a simple conversation or even willpower. Depression is a complicated and serious illness, and requires thoughtful attention and care.

Every relationship has challenges, and depression is a significant one — though it’s not insurmountable. While you want to take care of him and support him, eroding your own health and happiness in the process is not the best option. You can tackle depression together and it can make the relationship stronger, but you both have to be willing to work on it. Find a time to talk to him about your concerns and how it’s affecting you, and ask if him he’s willing to have his mental health professionally assessed and diagnosed. It is only after it is formally recognized and named that you can start to make real, sustainable progress.

Remind yourself that your boyfriend’s depression is not caused by you, nor is it your not problem to fix — while also letting him know that you are there to work through it with him. Educate yourself on the symptoms and triggers of depression so you can separate the illness from him. You can also encourage healthy behaviors, like developing clear goals (such as diminishing drinking or increasing exercise) or even attending therapy together.

Treating depression is not all about “fixing.” Creating outlets for joy — whether it’s a weekly date night or taking up an athletic hobby together — is just as important as therapy. Intimacy should also not go by the wayside during this time. Find ways to soothe and connect with him that feels right for you. Sometimes touch is more powerful than words.

If your boyfriend does seek assistance, be realistic about how long it may take to see results. It varies by the person and their condition, but 10-20 weeks is not an unrealistic timeframe for psychotherapy to kick in, and even medication takes around 2-4 weeks to start working — so be patient.

You can’t determine his best treatment or exact timeframe, but you can set whatever boundaries and timelines you need. Constantly check in with yourself to ensure that you still feel healthy and loved in the relationship. That’s not to say that one off day should signal the end of the relationship, but if you clearly communicate your needs and expectations in the relationship, even during this trying time, that will help you to be more supportive of him, while also staying true to yourself. Be sure you tend to your own needs and cultivate a circle of support for yourself, not just for him.

If you reach a point where you simply aren’t able to get what you need consistently and your own mental and emotional health is suffering, give yourself permission to step back from the relationship. You don’t have to completely abandon your boyfriend, but you may need to redefine the relationship. Only you can determine what that boundary is and when it feels right — so be honest with yourself and honor your own needs. Remember: his depression does not preclude you from feeling down, or unloved, or having needs. Relationships require work — even the good ones — but that challenge should still feel healthy for both partners.

In sum, here’s a 5-step course of action:

  1. Educate yourself
  2. Discuss treatment and make a plan
  3. Create joy and foster intimacy
  4. Be patient — but set boundaries and be true to you
  5. Practice self-care

– Anna Akbari, PhD, Sociologist and Author of “Startup Your Life: Hustle and Hack Your Way To Happiness”

Got a question for Anna? Email [email protected].

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