I’m going to go out on a limb here and call myself the poster child for therapy. I tell everyone who will listen how much I love it — it’s basically the mental health equivalent of telling people I’m juicing. But as deep as my affection for therapy and my therapist (seriously, she’s a fucking queen) goes, I always say I don’t know how she listens to other people’s problems all day long without becoming depressed herself. I internalize both my and other people’s shit, so I could never have a job where I attended to sadness on such a regular basis. Yet somehow, I slowly took on that exact role in my last relationship.
We met over the summer, and I was pretty much sold right then and there. He was smart, hilarious, sarcastic, silly, thoughtful, and a seemingly good person. After our first date, we started seeing each other twice a week, at least. Even the most mundane activities were fun with him. I tend to extremes — I either hate or I love — and Sam* definitely fell into the latter category. I had never felt this way about anyone, and I had, as the kids say, all of the feels.
When we broke up after knowing each other for a year and about two months after becoming official, in no small part because of his emotional issues (and mine), I was devastated. I couldn’t go to work. I couldn’t eat (and I can always eat). I embodied the typical sad-girl-going-through-heartbreak Hollywood archetype.
Now, eight months later, sans tears, I can see clearly that although Sam and I aligned personality-wise, there were some things that never worked. When we were together, we were completely present and in tune. When we were apart, we were distant and inconsistent. There were days when I wouldn’t hear from him until 2 in the afternoon, upping my anxiety to the max. When he did emerge, it would be in the form of cries for help over text or Gchat: “woke up and felt like the world was crashing down on me” or “just had to leave work because I had a mental breakdown” — you get the gist. While these messages weren’t particularly uplifting, at the time, I found them comforting, not only because I had finally heard from Sam, but also because I thought I had found someone who understood how I felt all of the time: anxious, overwhelmed, and caged in. I didn’t, however, through my heart-shaped sunglasses, see how much of a mental toll it was all taking on me.
I was in the throes of therapy, where I was working on my own personal shit, wading through my childhood and commitment issues, you know, the fun stuff. And while I was trying to sort out that mess, Sam was choosing me to reach out to for help. I was piloting my own aircraft of confusion, but I couldn’t just let him crash from depression. No, I convinced myself that I couldn’t. Instead, I got out of my plane, jumped into his, and started flying for him. I put my own therapy on hold and backtracked in my progress. I matched my moods to his, checked in on him, and woke up in the middle of the night to answer his FaceTimes. I was his lifeline.
“If your partner is depending on you to help manage their mood, anxiety, and depression, you’re a hostage to their mental health.” – Megan Fleming, Ph.D.
“If your partner is depending on you to help manage their mood, anxiety, and depression, you’re a hostage to their mental health,” says sex and relationship therapist Megan Fleming, Ph.D. I was, in fact, a prisoner to Sam’s needs. Yet, when I’d talk him through his issues, I felt a sense of accomplishment, like I had done my duty of making him feel better, no matter how emotionally exhausting it was for me. I didn’t feel trapped, but in retrospect, it’s clear that I was locked up, at his beck and call whenever and wherever he needed counsel. That I was acting as his sole source of support was a red flag, a sign that this was a chronic rather than acute crisis, says Fleming.
It kept happening, as I’m sure you guessed. And the more Sam shared with me, the more I felt inclined to share with him. I’d talk to him about things that I otherwise would’ve kept to myself. Like, major skeletons. I divulged my secrets because I wanted Sam to feel as close to me as I did to him. I wanted him to understand me — or at least feel like he did. But when it came to my shit, instead of feeling cleansed, I felt icky. He didn’t give my issues the same time and attention that I gave his. “A healthy relationship has that reciprocity and when you’re in a caretaking, therapeutic role, you lose that,” says Fleming.
After I stopped being all Elle Woods post-breakup with Warner and moved into my this-is-for-the-better phase, I realized how sad I had actually been. Without Sam, I wasn’t constantly worried that I’d missed my window to reach out or that something I said in a time of need would do irrevocable damage. While I’m still trying to heal from the emotional damage he inflicted, I am mostly grateful. Dating Sam forced me to take a look inside of myself and gave me the ability to decipher the difference between being one source of support for your partner and being their be all and end all. Happiness, as Fleming says, is an inside job. You can’t depend on other people (especially ones who are not licensed professionals) to solve your issues. I learned that my mental health is just as important as any partner’s, and I can’t be expected to jump out of my plane to save them. I always wondered why the airline safety demos instruct you to put your facemask on before someone else’s. I finally get it — you have to be able to breathe before you can help someone else.
*Names have been changed.