how to (safely) break up with a depressed person
i-D spoke to a psychologist about doing right by the both of you.
Prozac Nation, Jason Biggs, Christina Ricci, 2001, courtesy of Everett Collection.
I remember an overwhelming sense of relief immediately followed by an embarrassing amount of guilt within the first hour of my then-boyfriend (soon-to-be-ex) leaving our home in Miami, FL to move back to upstate New York. We’d really given it a go.
Although he was never medically diagnosed with depression, I’d bet my whole life that he was suffering from it while we lived together. After flip-flopping between our place in Miami and his family in Syracuse, lying to them and me saying he’d prefer be with each of us than the other, he got to the point where he wouldn’t leave bed, be intimate with me, or engage in most of my desperate attempts to cheer him up.
Researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy found that from 2005-2015 depression rose significantly among Americans age 12 and older. They found the most rapid increases in young people aged 12-17. Where only 8.7% of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 reported feeling depressed in 2005, 12.7% did in 2015.
Joa Riboul, M.S., LMHC, who works with students as a behavioral health case manager in the counseling and psychological services center at the University of Albany tells i-D, “Some people experience a major depression and/or persistent depression triggered by a specific event, such as bereavement, financial issues, relationship losses, natural disasters, or medical illness, while others report that their symptoms were not triggered by anything specific.”
My ex’s mother passed away when we first started dating and I swiftly became the epicenter of his world. Three years later, after a cross-country move, blatant alcohol abuse, and a mountain of lies to his family and me, it was like he just broke. Following what felt very much like a seizure in my arms, I called his sister-in-law and decided it was time for him to move home. They felt like he was better off with them, and truthfully, I couldn’t imagine managing him alone any longer.
Like Riboul mentioned, depression can be triggered by a specific event or virtually nothing significant at all. While I could not diagnose my significant other, he displayed a lot of symptoms associated with depression: such as losing interest in or experiencing less pleasure from things that he used to enjoy, fatigue or loss of energy, hypersomnia or insomnia, and extreme feelings of worthlessness. Other symptoms can include significant weight loss or gain and a decrease or increase in appetite.
Despite us trying to stay together after he moved out, I quickly came to realize how much my life revolved around his happiness, tabling all of my interests and accommodating all of his feelings to make sure he was good while putting myself as a distant second priority. I was best friends with my mom. When I put myself in his shoes, I couldn’t imagine not being able to call her everyday.
It did finally get to a point where I realized that if I left, who was he going to turn to? Who was going to take care of him? These questions allowed me to prolong the unhealthy relationship. I remember saying to a friend of mine, “He could ask me to marry him right now and I’d say yes knowing it would be the worst decision of my life.” I said it out loud and I meant it.
He’d eventually break up with me. At that point I knew it was coming, but I couldn’t take the responsibility of doing it. I remember thinking to myself, how could I leave after promising to be there? Therein lies the toxicity of being with someone depressed and abandoning the priority of managing your own mental health and wellbeing. He wasn’t looking out for himself, and he damn sure wasn’t capable of looking out for me.
It’s very difficult to watch someone you care about fall victim to depression, but it’s easily as challenging to forget about yourself and feel responsible for a significant other’s happiness at the detriment to your own, particularly if you once felt ready to spend the rest of your life with them.
No matter how guilt-stricken, committed, or even married you are, you can leave. And although that will present different challenges than a break up between two mentally healthy people, it’s not impossible. We spoke to Riboul on how to come to terms with deciding whether or not you want to leave, going through the break-up, and what you can do for yourself and them after it’s over.
What if I’m not sure I want to leave but I recognize I’ve lost my identity in this person? How can I focus on myself without hurting them?
I think it's important to remember that we have no control over the way another person feels. We can only control our own actions, thoughts, and feelings. However, because our actions can directly affect the other person, being aware and recognizing what they are going through, while being empathic to their thoughts and feelings could be helpful. As always, communication is key not only throughout a relationship, but also when the relationship is coming to an end.
What if I know they’re depressed, but they won’t get help?
There is no way to force someone to get help. Instead you could remind them that you are there to provide support and a listening ear any time. You could even go as far as informing the person that you know of resources available if and when that person feels ready to explore such resources. It is necessary to provide them with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or the National Crisis Text Line (Text 741741) in the instance they are suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Remember that you can make the call or text yourself on behalf of another person in crisis.
Should I consider therapy myself?
Attempting to put my biases to the side, I believe therapy can be beneficial for all. Therapy provides a safe place, free from preconceived notions and judgments, and a listening ear. Whether in crisis or just hoping to feel heard, I believe therapy can be a way to take care of one's mental and emotional health.
Since I’m so used to them depending on me, how should I go about communicating to someone that I’m breaking up with them?
As always, honesty, being genuine, and staying true to one's self is most important. Recognizing and acknowledging the challenges that ending the relationship could bring to the other person could be a helpful way for them to feel your empathy and support. Be assertive, firm, and clear.
What should I say?
You could ask the person to have a face-to-face conversation, and use "I" statements as opposed to "You" statements. When hearing "I" statements, the person is less likely to feel defensive, blamed, and resentful. Therefore, they are more likely to listen and cooperate. For example, "I feel this relationship is no longer working for me." Again, remember that you cannot control the way another person chooses to react. All you can control is the role that you play. You can never be faulted for being honest.
What do I do if they aren’t trying to hear it? Or say they’re not willing to break up?
Of course every relationship is different, but what is most important in all instances is safety. If you feel worried about the person staying safe, in addition to providing them with the Crisis Lifelines, you could inform another person in his/her support system of the ending relationship. In the case that they are not cooperating or struggling to accept your wishes, you could use the Broken Record Technique as a reminder of how you feel. Keeping your distance and supporting from afar is a way to avoid giving blurred or mixed messages. In addition, continually check in with yourself to make sure you feel safe. You can be empathic to how the other person is feeling, while keeping your mental, emotional, and physical health as priority. If you are questioning your own safety, reach out for help from someone in your support system and/or seek additional resources, such as the Domestic Violence Hotline number at 1−800−799−7233.