Q: Dear APW,
I’m in a long-term relationship with a man I love deeply, but after a year of big changes for both of us, I’m afraid he’s not seeking the help he needs for his mental health—and our relationship.
Last year, we both moved separately to the city we now live in and started new, fairly high-profile jobs in town. For me, it’s been a year of fulfilling professional growth and excitement, but for my partner—who I have always known as a high-energy, active, and lighthearted guy—weekdays have left him feeling zapped and frustrated in a job I believe he does not like.
It’s also been an extremely difficult year personally for him. We moved to a city I have lived in previously, have a lot of close friends nearby, and meet people my age through work; he works mostly with middle-age to older colleagues, and travel distance between him and his tight family grew with our move. His grandfather was diagnosed with cancer and died; his grandmother and last surviving grandparent immediately began having serious health complications after her husband’s death, and last week had a limb amputated in emergency surgery. My boyfriend went to the doctor for pain he didn’t tell me he had, and found out through a specialist’s appointment that he had a chronic degenerative disease with no treatment available, that he (a former athlete) will have to live with the rest of his life (he didn’t tell me this for a week. I found out as he was telling a visiting friend). All of this is rolling into a months-long depressive cycle, which he acknowledges and talks to me about, but I strongly suspect I am the only person he shares these things with.
It’s hard. I want him to know I am here and supporting him, but he goes into non-communicative cycles for one to four days where he only talks when I initiate contact. He backed out of a major work event celebrating a product I helped significantly on because he wanted to nap. I understand sex isn’t a priority right now, but it dropped off the map, as well as most of the physical affection and nicknames he used to have for me. He puts an intense amount of effort into maintaining relationships with family and friends, which I have always loved about him, but now it is feeling like it all comes at the expense of maintaining a supportive/romantic relationship with me. Most of all, for months now he’s maintained that he absolutely does not want to see a therapist.
I nearly broke up with him at the start of this month, and although we talked through that ledge and I tried laying this out as honestly yet lovingly as I could—and he did not try to fault or guilt me for any of my feelings—I feel like the “no therapist” thing is going to continue to be a roadblock as he tries to work through all these things that aren’t going to end any time soon. This is a long question, but I guess what I’m wondering is, how can we move forward after this restart? How do I navigate his “no professional help” edict when I truly believe it’s what he needs the most, and how do we talk about meeting my needs in a relationship, too? I feel guilty even asking.
A: Dear Anonymous,
Don’t feel guilty. Depression is awful, not just for those experiencing it, but for anyone around, also impacted by it.
You seem to really understand how much depression can impact a person. You’re gracious and compassionate about the ways he’s fallen off the map, withdrawn, let you down. You seem to recognize that a lot of what he’s doing isn’t him, it’s the depression talking. That’s really awesome and understanding of you.
But I’m going to draw a line for you. It’s wonderful to be understanding of the ways in which depression takes over someone’s life. But it’s altogether another to be dragged along on that ride, without any roadmap or brakes or seatbelts.
You are allowed to ask for a plan to move forward. He doesn’t want to seek therapy; I honestly have few ideas outside of it. What are his ideas? What is the plan for dealing with this? Coasting along may be alright for him, but it’s not fair to you.
Even if he does agree to start seeing a professional, depression may be something he’s saddled with in spurts for the rest of his life. It’ll be hard, in all of the ways you’ve already experienced, and then some. But it’s possible. People do it. The key is to be partners in it together.
And I’ll be frank—the picture you’ve painted so far doesn’t conjure much of a sense of partnership. You, you’re being a great partner. But he didn’t tell you about a significant medical diagnosis? He stops communicating with you completely while still pouring time and energy into other friendships? It seems inconsistent, at best, that depression causes him to withdraw so selectively.
If your partner won’t take care of himself, that’s one thing. But you have to take care of yourself, no matter what.
This is all with the caveat that we are not professionals, so we also wanted to get the perspective of an actual mental health professional. We reached out to APW Sponsor Yours, Mine, & Ours and they connected us with one of the amazing counselors in their network (which they’ll also do for you, it’s free on their site), psychotherapist Judy Hu, LMHC of Judy Hu Counseling in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is what she had to say:
I agree with needing to draw a line and set healthy boundaries, but I also think that based on our patriarchal system, he is actually trying to be a “good” partner. While toxic masculinity is finally getting the attention it needs in order to transform, it will take generations to undo. Until then, men are not fully supported to show their vulnerabilities. Add on top of that the stigma of depression, a job he dislikes, and a chronic degenerative disease, and you have a young man who might be grappling with his identity, even his self-worth. I wonder if he goes into non-communicative cycles because he is trying to protect himself and/or you from tarnishing the image of the “high-energy, active, and lighthearted guy” with whom you fell in love, and which society values so highly.
Hopefully, this depressive episode is situational. Moving to a new city, a new job, the death of his grandfather, health complications of his grandmother, and the diagnosis of a chronic illness are major life stressors. He is dealing with all of these within a single year. I’m not surprised he’s shut down. And you certainly shouldn’t feel guilty about asking your question. Your courage to ask for help might be just what you both need to get through this challenging time.
I’m actually really hopeful for your relationship. It sounds like you have an authentic and deep connection. You are facing an opportunity for growth. The choice is if you grow together or apart. My suggestion is that you leverage your relationship. Give him a choice to move forward together in good faith, from one of the following options:
- Read the book I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression by Terrence Real.
- You both go to couples counseling and help unpack what is happening and how to best cope.
- He can go to individual counseling to work on his grief.
If he refuses to choose any of them, then you have your answer.