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When a Depressed Partner Falls Out of Love

John Folk-Williams has lived with major depressive disorder since boyhood and finally achieved full recovery just a few years ago. As a survivor of ...Read More

Depression can have a devastating effect on close relationships. Sometimes depressed people blame themselves for their pain, sometimes they blame their partners.

It’s baffling and shocking to see them turn into cold and blaming strangers. After years of affection and intimacy, how can they suddenly declare that they don’t feel love, even worse, that they have never loved their partners at all?

Depressed partners may refuse to face the inner pain that’s wrecking their lives. Rather than seek treatment, they come to believe that it’s the existing relationship that is ruining them. Their answer is often to leave and find happiness elsewhere.

The specific effects of depression will differ in every relationship, but this is the problem I hear about most often and the one I lived with.

What exactly is the inner pain that can’t be faced and dealt with? Reciting the usual list of depression symptoms and the effects they can have on everyday life only gets you so far. General lists don’t capture the experience.

Talking about “inner pain” suggests despair or other unbearable hurt that demands an explanation and must be escaped as quickly as possible. Since depression is a condition that can vary from day to day, that active side of pain can be the driving motive.

But there is another dimension of depression that can lead to the idea of escape as the answer.

It’s the one that causes depressed partners to say they’re no longer in love and have never loved their partners.

It’s called anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure or interest in anything.

For me, it was a kind of deadness. Rather than an excess of painful emotion, it was the lack of pain, the lack of feeling, that was the undercurrent of all the surface turmoil.

I believed that the relationship was holding me back. It had become hollow, empty of the intensity I longed for.

I could only find happiness and passion with someone else. It was the fantasy of the perfectly passionate mate that was a constant lure.

I recently re-read a chapter in Peter Kramer’s insightful book, Should You Leave?, that captured this exactly.

As one of the dwindling number of psychiatrists who still practice psychotherapy, he often works with clients who are dissatisfied with their relationships. They want to know if leaving is the best thing to do.

When he encounters someone who is convinced that the marriage is dead, he says that he always suspects depression or another mood disorder.

He can sense that the person before him could well have an undiagnosed depression that has emptied him of all feeling. Anhedonia is the cause of the desire to leave to find a new, more intense life. His relationship feels loveless because he can hardly feel at all.

The problem is that the unaware depressive has such a high threshold of feeling that it takes extreme arousal to evoke excitement and passion. He can erupt with anger and rage because these are more violent emotions that stir him as little else does.

Kramer says that these clients often believe that they’re perfectly capable of feeling. After all, they can go out and have fun with friends. They can feel passionate with others who likely have no constraining relationships or might be seeking the same kind of escape.

But they feel good precisely because these experiences offer exceptionally high levels of stimulation. They may also turn to addictive habits like recreational drugs, drinking, gambling or pornography for the same reason.

Fantasies of escaping into a life full of new intensity seem like the perfect answer to their inner emptiness.

No single explanation covers the diversity and unique facts of every relationship threatened by depression. This one fits much of my experience and also fits many of the stories that readers tell me in comments and emails.

Does it make sense in terms of your own experience? Have you lived through such a crisis or been close to someone who has?

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