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Heavy Meddle: Am I A Heel For Dumping My Boyfriend When He’s Down?

A woman who has struggled with depression struggles feels guilty for wanting to dump her depressed boyfriend. (Pavel Badrtdinov/ unsplash)
A woman who has struggled with depression struggles feels guilty for wanting to dump her depressed boyfriend. (Pavel Badrtdinov/ unsplash)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

I am unhappy in my current relationship, but it isn't a deep unhappiness that keeps me from enjoying my boyfriend's company. However, I am no longer attracted to him; I think it's accurate to say I love him but am no longer "in love" with him.

It gets complicated when I explain our personal histories.

For a long time I was severely depressed and anxious, much of it stemming from a family history of such disorders and exacerbated by a desire to succeed. I developed an eating disorder in college. I cried a lot, relied on my boyfriend, but he could not understand what I was going through and sometimes dismissed my struggles. He was as supportive as he could be, but he didn't understand. So I got a therapist, made lots of positive changes in my life (medication included, which he still doesn't agree with), and have been doing fantastic managing these issues on my own. I can say I'm happy now.

I feel I have a life ahead of me and am excited about it, and feel dragged down by his depression.

Unfortunately, the same does not go for him. Almost at the same time that I began to lift myself up he began to have his own identity crisis. We had just graduated college and he became stuck in the post-college blues of directionless frustration. He needed help, it was clear, and tried a therapist. It didn't help and he stopped going, and he would never consider medication. He tried new hobbies, got a job, but is still incredibly depressed. I try to help but feel defeated. It is an utter role reversal, and the good news is we can both understand the other's position.

The bad news is, after all of this progress I've made, I feel resistant to staying with him until he can get back on his feet. I feel I have a life ahead of me and am excited about it, and feel dragged down by his depression. My question is: Am I a hypocrite for wanting to end things? Do I owe it to him to stick by him because he stuck by me?

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Sincerely,
Heartbroken Hypocrite

Dear HH,

I absolutely understand your reluctance to leave your boyfriend when he’s depressed, especially given your history. But you can’t stay with someone out of obligation. It’s dishonest and unfair — to both of you. You’ve worked hard to heal yourself and, after so many years of suffering, you deserve to feel excited about the life ahead of you. And your boyfriend deserves to be with someone who feels unbridled love toward him, not devotion tinged with guilt.

As for the history of your relationship, let me repeat back to you what you wrote, with some italics for emphasis:

I cried a lot, relied on my boyfriend, but he could not understand what I was going through and sometimes dismissed my struggles. He was as supportive as he could be, but he didn't understand. So I got a therapist, made lots of positive changes in my life (medication included, which he still doesn't agree with), and have been doing fantastic managing these issues on my own. I can say I'm happy now.

Based on this account, it sounds like you did most (if not all) of the heavy lifting when it came to your own recovery. And it sounds like your boyfriend, while loyal, wasn’t especially empathetic towards you. In fact, he opposed your use of medication, which falls into the category of interfering with your recovery.

Staying with your boyfriend isn’t going to make his depression go away. He’s going to have to do that hard work on his own.

I’m not trying to vilify the guy. He was a young man in college who was doing his best in tough circumstances. Now he finds himself mired in a depression. And yet he stopped going to therapy and won’t consider medication. Those are decisions he’s made, ones that I’m guessing you oppose, and perhaps the reason you “feel defeated” in trying to help him.

As you learned the hard way, people heal themselves only when they are prepared to manage their own recovery. Staying with your boyfriend isn’t going to make his depression go away. He’s going to have to do that hard work on his own. You can and should support him as a friend, to the extent you’re willing, and that he’ll allow it.

I think you’re writing to me in the not-so-secret hope that I’ll give you “permission” to leave this guy. But only you can give yourself that permission.

You do know what your boyfriend is going through, and that makes it hard to bear the idea of betraying him. But there’s such a thing as self-betrayal, as well. Sometimes we have to choose the pursuit of our own happiness over our feelings of obligation to another’s misery.

Good luck,
Steve

Author's noteThis question is played out in some many relationships, because human beings want to think of themselves as compassionate to others, sometimes to the exclusion of being compassionate to ourselves. But perhaps I’m being too harsh, or missing some part of this. Let me know in the comments section below. And hey, send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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