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Stuck In An On-again, Off-again Relationship For 10 Years


I just got out of an on and off relationship of ten years. I’m 26 years old and very frustrated. Every time we break up, 2 or 3 months pass by and he comes back. Of course, I go back. It is very unhealthy for me because it makes me feel worthless. I know I am not ugly, I can actually say I’m attractive. I say this because there are lot of guys interested but I can’t seem to move on. That does not help my self-esteem though. When I am not with him, I tend to get very depressed and you might say suicidal. All I wasn’t to do is sleep so I won’t have to think about it. I take sleeping pills so I won’t have to feel this pain I’m going through. There’s been times that I’ve taken so many pills that I can’t feel my body anymore. How can I get over this, I’ve tried going to a therapist but it did not help me at all.

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The mental picture I have based upon your letter is of a woman who is currently fairly dependent in orientation. By this I mean that your sense of self is not based upon how you judge your own actions, but rather on what other people (particular people to be sure) think of you. This is clear enough in how you regard yourself in terms of how other people view you (e.g., I have worth because I’m not ugly). This is not a freakish or weird way to be; many people’s sense of self is biased in this direction towards dependency on what other people think of them. The problem with this way of being is, however, that when you are dependent on how other people regard you for feelings of self-worth, your mood goes up and down like a yo yo every time someone looks at you funny. When your own moods are linked so strongly to how other people are regarding you, you are essentially at their mercy and not captain of your own ship. It would be bad enough if you were this way and weren’t aware of it, but you are aware of it, and that makes you feel even more pathetic and hopeless and stuck, which of course leads you to feel depressed. Your dependent motivation for becoming depressed is so common and normal that there’s even a name for it. Psychodynamic psychotherapists call it Anaclitic Depression, and distinguish it from other motivations for being depressed.

Your depressions are a serious problem and intolerable to such an extent that you are ambivalently suicidal and resorting to taking sleeping pills so that you don’t have to feel. The major problem here with this numbing strategy for coping is that sleeping pills can kill you. That may be the point, I understand, but I also hear that you are ambivalent about killing yourself. You’d prefer that your depression remit and your self-esteem raise up instead of having to kill yourself, I suspect. Lucky for you, depression is a treatable condition. It would be a shame if you killed yourself accidentally before you were able to experience this fact first hand.

You are playing with fire when you take sleeping pills, I think. Instead of playing chicken with the pill bottle, how about you go get some treatment for depression instead? You say you’ve been to a therapist, and it didn’t work, but what you might not know is that not all therapies are created equal. The best therapies for depression have specific names. Find a therapist who can offer you Cognitive Behavioral therapy, or Interpersonal Therapy for depression, and work with them for several months before you decide that therapy is worthless.

Apart from psychotherapy for depression, there is also medication for depression. Go see a doctor please (a psychiatrist would be best but any old doctor will do in a pinch) and tell that doctor about your depression, suicidal feelings and tendency to abuse sleeping pills. If you are really as depressed and suicidal as I think you are, you might benefit from antidepressant medication as a form of mood support and stabilization. You don’t need to choose between antidepressant medicine and psychotherapy, by the way. You can benefit from both at the same time.

You may feel that you are stuck in a never ending cycle of being at the mercy of your boyfriend and whomever else you have come to feel dependent upon, but I have this suspicion that you are only as stuck as you are willing to be ruled by fear. The typical anaclitically depressed person is fearful of being abandoned. The typical thing fearful people do is to try to avoid having to feel things that make them afraid. Maybe this explains why you are so willing to cave every time. You avoid having to feel afraid of being abandoned or worthless by caving, but then that makes you feel depressed. So maybe your problem is really, at root, a sort of anxiety disorder, rather than a pure depression. The way to beat anxiety disorders is well established, luckily. You need to stop avoiding feeling the fear long enough to realize in your gut that what you fear isn’t as bad as you think it is. A good therapist can help you work through your fears, and medications can make you less moody in the first place.

Passive, dependent people often can benefit from reading about assertiveness, and starting to understand that they have a right to set boundaries and to say no to requests. Passive people often feel they do not have a right to set limits. It feels selfish to them and they may feel that they don’t have a right to act selfishly. In fact, you do have that right, and a certain amount of selfishness and not caring about what other people think is good for a person who is passive to develop.

You’re very young and have time to mature out of this dependent place you’re living in. It will likely feel uncomfortable to challenge yourself to do this, and it may feel that you don’t have the right to do it, or can’t afford to take the risk of doing it, but in actuality, you can do it, you do have the right to do it and it is seemingly in your best interests to do it (because otherwise you’re so depressed that you are flirting with killing yourself). That’s no way to live! Go get some help for your depression and explore with a new therapist ways to break out of your shell.

More "Ask Anne" View Columnists

  • alb

    I have been in a relationship for 19 years and it just get worst as time goes by. It seems he wants to break up, but then he does something nice and i think he cares again.

    What is wrong with me i don't understand why can't i let go. He has stopped calling me he no longer ask me to help him with any thing, but he never says he wants to call it quits.

  • Annazayla

    You have grown use to having him around--19 years is a long time to be with someone who isn't treating you right. The longer you stay, the harder it is for you to leave. You should have left a long time ago, but it's not to late now. If you can withstand getting over the hearbreak and being alone for sometime, you can do it. If not, then I guess you will go back to him each time he tells you he is "sorry." It's sad what human beings put up with - our lives are very short and so many of us spend it on useless people, places and things.

  • Greg

    Unfortunately it sounds like you are out of the "romantic love stage" and on to a different stage of the relationship... I would term it the "business phase." This stage is where you have a relationship that is vested both financially and emotionally in each other. It also sounds as though one of the parties here is feeling a bit detached. This may be due to some sort of percieved betrayal or percieved inadequacies on the others part however, just because that person could be exploring their lives in new ways (ie without you) doesnt mean that they are entirely through with the relationship. I would suggest some self reflection and some possible ways of spicing up the relationship and exploring new ways of living together that would change your viewpoint on life together. For example doing adventurous things together and entirely new and exciting things together might just ignite that spark that brought you together in the first place.

  • Darth Taybur

    You have become acostumed to him and that is why you dont want to leave him. I know it hard but you must get out of this relationship before you get hurt and have emotional scars that might never heal up. I know a friend how is in a on and off relationship and her self-estem is very low and she uses alcohol and weed in order to easy her pain. this is what might happen to you if you keep on with this, there might be a man out there that will make you happier than the one that you are seeing now.

  • Katie

    I feel your pain, sister, I've had a 9 year on off relationship. Firstly it was the 3 month gaps, I reeled around, first angry and confused, then dejected and broken hearted, waiting...sleeping. Then I managed for 6 months without him, and finally last year, for the whole year. It is tempting to sleep your time away, trying to feel nothing. You feel you are literally free falling.

    There may be excellent explanations in psycho babble for this, backed up with anti depressants. I'm not so sure this is the real CURE. After years of trying to get to grips with why I felt like this, several things came to me which helped immensely. None of them was a result of dazing my central nervous system with sleeping tabs or antidepressants, and the money I spent on therapy was straight down the swany. How can you get over a problem endlessly talking about it? Here are some realisations which helped:

    1. I really loved him, this ending causes extreme pain. It means that until you meet a guy who you have the same or stronger love for, he will be 'your love'. This is nothing to do with being needy, or having a complex. It is a deep love. The fact he messed with it, and really ruined it, doesn't take away from the fact that for you it was real love and now you must be really, really tough. Make your mind up for once and for all that this love is not working, make it YOUR decision to move on no matter what. It sounds to me you are dependant on him financially too. When it's your decision it doesn't matter if he comes back, you've thrown HIM out, and you won't wait for him. So that's the sleep sorted, which is good, because you need to throw yourself into work or study and make your own way in life. This will make you more independent.

    2. I was fortunate enough last year to meet a wonderful friend. She is 15 years older than me and we are just really good (straight) girlfriends. She has wonderful energy. You need someone like this around you. I used to be the type of woman who felt things were a bit empty without a boyfriend. I just went through the motions going out with the girls. But now I've learnt differently, this lady is high octane, going for an artist's opening here, a dramatic production there, charity fundraising climb of some mountain, meal out, coffee here, she calls in to see me unexpectedly. It never costs much money, which helps as I haven't had much to spare. When you're in your hibernation mode, a fun person kicks your ass and gets you into the world. And instead of walking on eggshells like with the inevitable breakup with the on/off boyfriend, you won't just breakup with your friend. You can enjoy yourself and it's good for your self esteem to get on with people. You'll see other people with problems too, just doing their best.

    Please get a good friend and do things, anything EXCEPT talk about your ex. Get fresh air. Tell her to call without notice to your house. You will take care not to be asleep all the time :D You will pick up on her enthusiasm for life. If you sit around talking and talking, even to a psychologist about your problem, you will stay in the situation. If you look at the world and surround yourself with enthusiastic, fun people, you will climb out of this hole. Have plenty of exercise, try anything people ask you to and you will be asked again. Your world will expand, and though you will still have feelings for your ex, he will not be the centre of your universe. You will not be visualising him, dreaming about him, longing for him and feeling deprived.

    It's unfortunate in one way you met this type of man while you were so young. But in another way you are lucky, you will now learn the skills to avoid these guys in future.

    They are charming liars, they are selfish, they have a great line in excuses and blaming you, and they are easily led. They want their cake and to eat it. What they tell you one day with such conviction will be the opposite the next day. You cannot count on a single thing they tell you. After 10 years you have nothing, he has stolen those years. Men like him should get an oscar, it is NOT your fault, they are con men of the highest order. Anyone saying it's your self esteem etc has not been manipulated by someone of this high skill and charm before. They usually have a prestigious job and social recognition. This makes your feeling of something wrong with you worse. I NEVER let a guy away with anything before this on/off relationship, I always blew a guy out if he misbehaved, and never looked back. Since we broke up I've dated other guys and have been sure of myself with them. But 1. I didn't love them, and 2. They were not accomplished liars and con artists. See the difference?

    When you say you are goodlooking and have other options, I totally believe you. Of course you are to attract this guy. He wants you on his arm when it suits him, any ordinary mouse wouldn't do. I also understand you that you MEAN you could have other guys, so you aren't desperate for him. However he is the one you fell badly for. And now that time is over, for your good make sure of it.

    No matter what people say about not caring what people think of them, practically everybody does. I hate the way psychologists say that if you care what people think your self esteem goes up and down. EVERYBODY cares what people think, that's how society is successful. Law enforcement 'judges'. Ladies wear makeup, look their best, we study, try to 'do well', it is all by a pre-set bar or what people think is successful. We are all conditioned to our society to one degree or another. Magazines and advertising make a fortune on this humanity. No-one would buy a badge car, nice clothes, a house in a 'nice' area, if we could be immune.

    But remember one thing, even though people may think your on/off boyfriend is wonderful and you are this that or the other, YOU are the important one and this relationshp is not good for you. Avoid charmers, guys with empty promises. Learn from your mistakes with him. If you meet somebody and they are untrustworthy, or blame you, get them out of your life. For all it's hardships, it's a beautiful world, you've had the thorns, it's time for the roses. Get some good girlfriends, visit at least one disabled person regularly, thank your lucky stars you're young enough and well enough to enjoy your life. I pray for you, I have been through it too.


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