What Can I Do About My Boyfriend’s Extreme Apathy?

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Reader’s Question

Q. My boyfriend has been suffering from bouts of extreme apathy. It seems to come in cycles of 3 months. Everything will be great for a while, he will be optimistic about his future and content with his current situation, and then seemingly out of nowhere, he becomes detached from everything, he talks about how much he hates his work, how financially stressed he is — everything just seems to be spiraling downward for him. Over a period of a week or two this apathy consumes his feelings about our relationship. He becomes distant, he stops being affectionate, he becomes very easily agitated with me, and when I confront him about it all he gets unbelievably annoyed and angry, telling me that I am being too insecure and needy — and then he breaks up with me. A few weeks later he comes back and tells me how much he misses me and he realizes it was not me that was making him so unhappy; we resume our relationship and he is the amazingly sweet wonderful man that I love again, for about 3 months, and then it starts all over again. This has been going on for 2 years. He has admitted in the past (when he is his “happy” self) that the apathetic version of him is a problem that we need to try to work through instead of just breaking up — but when he is in that apathetic state he can’t see past his unhappiness.

We are currently taking a few weeks apart because he is in one of these moods (this is the first time he has taken any steps to work with me on it instead of just totally ending things and running away). I am desperate to find a resolution to these situations — it is heartbreaking and stressful for me to go through this all the time, and it is frustrating to me that I cannot do anything to make him happy when he is like this. I promised him that I would try to be patient through these episodes, but I’m reaching my limit. My boyfriend works in the mental health field, and I’m afraid that because of his close interaction with mentally ill people, he may be blinding himself to the possibility that he himself may need to seek help.

Do you have any advice as to what could be the cause of these episodes, and what can be done about it? Is there something I should be doing differently when he gets like this? I love him more than I could possibly describe, I want to spend the rest of my life with him — but not like this. I’m close to giving up on him.

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— Thank you, Alissa (25), California

Psychologist’s Reply

A. Patterns of severe mood swings may represent the presence of a mood disorder. Most likely is a condition known as Cyclothymic Disorder — we have great names for just about everything. In this condition, the individual experiences at least a two year history (in the textbook!) or period of wide mood swings that cycle from happy to depressed. In the depressed phase, there is typically a clinically significant level of emotional distress that creates problems on the job, socially, or in their relationships.

I don’t have enough information to assess the level of the happy phase or the severity of the depressive phase. However, if the depressive phase also contains symptoms such as sleep/appetite disturbance, loss of energy, social withdrawal, impaired concentration, and other physical manifestations of depression – then I would recommend consultation with a psychiatrist. There’s a big difference between being emotionally “down” and neurochemically “down”. Frequent dips into moderate to severe depression may place him at-risk to develop more serious problems with mood swings. The sooner he addresses this the better.

I would recommend researching this issue with him. As he explores the symptoms and patterns present, he may be more accepting about the need to do something about it. As you describe, these mood swings are damaging to any relationship and will eventually emotionally exhaust their loving partner.

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