My Boyfriend Cuts Himself off From His Depression

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Reader’s Question

My boyfriend of two years recently revealed that he suffers from depressive moods. I have known about it, to a degree, and have always been there to listen and help him. Until recently, however, he never revealed the extent of his depression. His method of coping with it is, usually, to think logically about situations that are at hand. He can be very calm, level-headed and reasonable. However, he says that he separates the “Emotional” and “Rational” sides of his personality. I just saw his “Emotional” side, and it overwhelmed him completely. But he says separating the two is the only effective method he’s found of coping.

He has been to therapy, but has never revealed himself emotionally like he did with me. He feels as though seeking help — even telling me this — fosters emotional manipulation and child-like behavior, and it leads him to despise himself more than I’ve ever seen him despise someone else. He described his depression as an “emotional trump card” that people won’t be able to look past. He doesn’t want pity, and he doesn’t want to be defined by his depression, but as a result he distracts himself from it and pushes it aside instead of dealing with it head-on. He doesn’t appear to be depressive — he is very intellectual, successful, driven, and cares so much for the people around him. But it seems as if all of this is at the expense of accessing his emotional self. He deserves so much to be free of this, but I don’t know what I can do beyond listening, understanding his emotional needs and validating how he feels. I want him to feel as though he doesn’t have to protect anyone from his “emotional” self, and doesn’t have to feel guilty for expressing it. He is one of the most selfless people I know, and I want to help him help himself for once.

Psychologist’s Reply

Typically, when people are depressed, they are too swayed by their (negative) emotions. So, the most common form of psychological treatment for depression aims to get patients to be more cognitive; to focus on rational thought and questioning the negative assumptions that co-exist with depressed mood. Indeed, it sounds like your boyfriend’s tendency to intellectualize has been an effective coping strategy for him, and thus his reluctance to give it up.

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Therapists sometimes talk about “compartmentalizing” particular memories or feelings that are too difficult to address, or which spill out into the person’s life in disruptive ways. That can be a valuable way to cope with such issues in the short run, when they are overwhelming initially. The potential problem of becoming “too good” at compartmentalizing feelings is the tendency to overdo it, thereby cutting oneself off from most emotion, including those that provide zest and motivation. It isn’t clear that this has happened with your boyfriend, but it does sound as though his intellectualization has prevented him from addressing his depression in ways that would lead to lasting improvement.

Rather than simply having been reinforced for his intellectualization because it “worked,” your boyfriend’s strongly negative reaction to his own negative moods suggests there may be something in his past that led to such an extreme view. Perhaps he was raised under the expectation that weakness or loss of control would not be tolerated, and hence he was punished in some way for shows of negative emotion or “neediness.” So, for him, strong emotion may signal a loss of rational, intellectual control, which may be both frightening and perceived as a sign of extreme weakness. Accordingly, there may be little motivation to change. After all, such change involves challenging long-held assumptions, experiencing anxiety and a sense of lost control, and demonstrating “weakness” that may be, at some irrational level, associated with being unacceptable or unlovable.

Ultimately there is nothing you can say or do to force your boyfriend to change, and I wouldn’t recommend such action even if you had that power. Instead, I think the most you can do is continue to be supportive with an eye toward shaping his attitudes and behavior over time. I’m not implying that treatment of his depression, or modification of the beliefs and attitudes that keep him cut-off from emotion, are your responsibility. Clearly he has to make these changes himself. Still, you can continue to express your concern and your desire to help him in whatever ways you can.

I envision modeling for your partner a full range of emotional experience and expression. As you pull yourself together after a negative emotional episode, you might talk with your partner about how that episode influenced his perceptions of you. If he indicates that it did not, perhaps you can draw a connection to how his experience of negative feelings does not change how you feel about him. If he indicates some sense of anxiety or loss of respect in response to your episodes, then you might use that to open a discussion of where those views came from and whether they fit who he is now, as an intelligent adult.

The hope is that, over time and a variety of experiences, your relationship together provides a safe context for emotional experience and processing of those emotions after the fact. Such experiences not only lead to individual growth and maturity, but foster increasing intimacy and strengthen the relationship. Perhaps you can help reveal these benefits so that experiencing of emotion begins to take on more positive associations for your boyfriend.

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