DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve been in a relationship with my girlfriend for four years now. For a lot of that time, she has struggled with mental health, including an eating disorder, anxiety and depression. At times it was truly awful and was fundamentally an abusive relationship. She would scream, and hit (herself and me) and make me make unreasonable sacrifices. We broke up for about 6 months but got back together after she seemed to have improved a lot.
In the past year, things have been pretty good, but there are still moments that scare me. I.e. she doesn’t have eating issues and has anxiety attacks only very occasionally, but still has suicidal thoughts.
I love her but am afraid that (1) she will one day go back to how it was, and (2) that she will not be a good mother, (just like her mother wasn’t). I also have this nagging feeling that I’m constantly waiting for things to either improve to perfect or go completely wrong so I have a clear answer one way or the other.
We also don’t have much of a sex life, though I find her beautiful and she says she feels the same about me.
Am I flogging a dead horse or does the fact we love each other mean we should stick it out?
A penny for your thoughts.
Is Love Enough?
DEAR IS LOVE ENOUGH: Alright ILE, before I get to anything else, let’s clear one thing up: her depression and mental health issues don’t mean that she won’t be a good mother. Especially if she’s been putting in work with therapy and treatment — which it sounds like she has. I hope she continues to improve and finds solutions that help, but the fact that she’s actively addressing her mental health is a strong indicator that she wants to avoid being like her mother before her.
But that’s ultimately a secondary issue compared to everything else.
To start with, I’m gonna leap over everything and address the elephant in the room: your girlfriend has a mental health issue. Depression is a motherf--ker, and it can do all sorts of f--ked up things to the person living with it… but it can also affect the people in their lives. And one of the hardest things to do is figure out whether you can stick things out in a relationship with somebody who’s dealing with those issues. On the one hand, it can feel incredibly callous to dump somebody because they have depression or ADHD or other health issues; even the most charitable among us are likely to side-eye someone for doing so. But on the other hand, if you can’t handle it, you can’t handle it. You don’t get into heaven any faster because you made yourself suffer; doubly so if you’re doing so because you don’t want to be The A--hole Who Dumped His Partner Because Of Their Condition.
And there’re also any number of reasonable fears that can come with it; what if leaving makes things worse? What if your breaking up with someone causes them to go into a spiral and they hurt themselves… or worse? Doesn’t that mean you have a moral obligation to stick around at least until they level out and are in a better place?
Well… speaking as someone who’s been the depressed partner: no. Sticking around to Not Be The A--hole isn’t a blessing. It actually makes things worse than being honest and saying “look, I’m not equipped to handle this.” That’s gonna hurt and it’s almost impossible to not take it on as a personal failing. At the same time however, feeling like your partner is sticking around out of a sense of obligation is actually worse. As I’ve said many times: the clean break heals the fastest, and the short sharp pain is preferable to the long and drawn-out one.
And I suspect that some of these worries are at the core of your question.
But just as importantly is what they’ve done. You went through some s--t with your girlfriend, s--t that has very clearly hurt you and left scars. And while it’s true that she’s made monumental strides in taking care of herself and making things better, that doesn’t undo the past. She may be better now, but you’ve been hurt a lot. You’re still in a state where you’re still tensed up and ready to flinch at the first indication that things are going back to the way they were. That’s no way to live. It’s almost impossible to have a relationship when you keep your guard up, waiting for the worst to happen again. You can’t be relax and be completely vulnerable with someone when you’re expecting to get punished for doing so.
And to be clear: this doesn’t take anything away from the work that your girlfriend has put into her recovery. It doesn’t mean that she hasn’t done enough to make things better, nor does it mean she hasn’t worked hard enough to address her issues. It just means that some wounds are deep enough that you may not be able to heal them while they’re still in your life. And while that sucks and feels really s--tty to say, the truth is that as much as you may love somebody, you have to be willing to love yourself more and do what’s right for you, first. There’s a reason why we tell folks to put their oxygen masks on before helping other people with theirs. If you are always on your guard around her, then all you’re doing is condemning this relationship to a slow, lingering end.
And, frankly, that can be bad for her recovery too. If she feels you flinch every time she speaks above a certain volume or moves in a way that triggers a panic response, then that’s gonna f--k with her head and her depression and anxiety too.
It’s admirable that you both love each other, but as the song goes: sometimes love ain’t enough. Sometimes love doesn’t mean holding on beyond all reason; sometimes love means loving someone enough to let them go. Your being together isn’t making things better; it’s making things worse for the both of you. It’s kinder in the long run to end things now than it is to stick around out of a sense of stubbornness or obligation.
Oh, one more thing: saying goodbye now doesn’t mean that you have to say goodbye forever. If — and this is, admittedly, a mighty big if — she continues to improve and you get treatment for your own wounds and scars, then it’s possible that the two of you could circle back around to each other. To be clear: this wouldn’t be a matter of months; this would be years down the line. These aren’t issues that can be fixed in six months; these are issues that take care and time. Time that you and she haven’t had yet.
So let your love be the reason you don’t stay together. Love each other enough to want the best for one another… and the best, in this case, means you have to go your separate ways, on your own journeys of healing. Maybe that journey will bring you both back together. Maybe it won’t. But for now, your time together has come to its end. Love each other enough to let go.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com