Dear Dr. G.,
Hello. I have been with my girlfriend since we were in high school and we were 16. We’ve been together for 4.5 years now. We’re both 20. And I feel like I have no solution to my problems. My girlfriend struggles with severe anxiety and depression and I feel like our relationship is dying. I love her. I have feelings for her like you would not believe. I always want to help her. I always want to be with her but there is this underlying sadness in me that always brings me back to the thought of what I can do with my life without her there. She loves me as well. She has told me many times that she wouldn’t have made it through the last year of high school without me and made it through anything else thereafter. And that I am the only person who has truly ever been there for her in any time of need. She came from an extremely verbally and physically abusive family. Her abusive mother and father divorced when she was 10. We currently live in her dad’s basement together and pay rent. I was the one who got her out of her mother’s house. I convinced her to do the “impossible”. And she has done so much for me. She has made me more open-minded about life and everything. She has also made me more open-minded about different kinds of people and different opinions. My problem is I don’t see us going anywhere with our future. And I feel like I want to move on but I’m stuck. I am stuck thinking that if I just leave her, like her parents pretty much did, she’ll go back into self-harm. She has so much potential but she can’t see it because she’s too scared to try. She rarely trusts anybody as she was sexually abused as a child and that has obviously taken a toll on her life, along with the abuse from her family. All I want to do is what’s best for her and what’s best for me because being in this relationship feels like it’s making me depressed. I sometimes come home from work at the end of the day and just bawl my eyes out because I feel stuck. Every time I see a picture of us from a couple years back or even a year ago my heart wrenches and aches because I don’t want to leave her behind. I would greatly appreciate some advice on this matter. Please and thank you.
A Distraught Partner
Dear Distraught Partner,
I am so pleased that you reached out to me. It is very clear from your letter how much distress you are feeling. It is also clear that you want to do the right thing but that it is not clear what the right thing to do is. It appears that you have very good intentions and that you do not want to hurt your girlfriend. Having said that, I must agree with you that your situation is very complicated.
On the one hand, you love your girlfriend. You have invested a lot of time in the relationship and are very connected. You have helped each other in a number of ways. That is lovely. On the other hand, you describe feeling stuck because you want out but you do not want your girlfriend to fall apart and to become increasingly depressed, anxious and self-destructive. Your girlfriend seems to have become very emotionally dependent on you. That makes sense given how supportive you have been to her after all that she has been through. You are worried that your girlfriend may have a terrible reaction to a breakup. I get this. It is very possible that she will have a tough time with a breakup. It seems like you too might have a difficult time as well given your level of attachment. Nonetheless, you sound like you are at a point in your life where you would like to explore life on your own.
I must tell you that breakups are rarely easy but that it is nonetheless not a good idea to stay in a relationship because you are worried that your partner will be very distressed by the breakup. If you stay in a relationship because of your partner’s mental health issues you will become increasingly resentful and will become more and more distressed. The important factor when breaking up with a depressed and fragile partner is how you handle the breakup. I would advise you to speak to your girlfriend in a gentle and loving manner about your feelings. Help her get into therapy so that she has the support needed to deal with the breakup. You also may need to see a professional who can help you deal with your feelings because my guess, based on what you have shared, is that parting with your girlfriend will stir up a lot of feelings that are already developing.
The breakup will not be easy for either of you but it seems to me that that is an inevitable next step. You state that you don’t see the relationship having a future. You are also quite young now and were very young when you became involved in your current relationship. Individuals change during these young years and so do needs for independence and different sorts of relationships.
I believe that breakups should be handled with the same level of care and consideration that you put into the relationship at every other point in time. This will not be easy but it appears to be inevitable. Good luck handling this as graciously as possible. And, please attend to your own well-being during the process. Keep in mind that even though breakups are painful in many cases they also provide opportunities for emotional growth.
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