How can you leave someone when they’re at their lowest? Breaking up with someone always feels bad, but when they’re also struggling with mental illness, it can seem impossible to go when you feel responsible for their health and happiness. When Amy, a 32 year old English teacher, decided to leave her fiancé Dan*, she felt as though she was being blamed for his illness. ‘His family, and some of the people close to him were quite angry with me.’ What they didn’t know is that Amy only agreed to get engaged because she was trying to manage his condition. ‘Looking back, I think he asked me to marry him because he thought the excitement of a wedding would fix the fact that he was feeling low, and I think I only said yes because there was part of me that was frightened about how he would feel if I said no.’
Sadly, it's an all-too familiar story, and one we've seen played out in the public eye earlier this week, when it was announced that Mac Miller, rapper, singer and ex boyfriend of the singer Ariana Grande had been found dead of a suspected drugs overdose (although the cause of death is yet to be determined). Shane Powers, a close friend of Grande’s ex, Mac Miller, described Grande as ‘an unbelievably stabilising force in his life’. Yet, since his death, she’s been on the receiving end of an enormous amount of abuse from fans of Miller and people outside the relationship. The implication? That her decision to leave him was the reason for his further spiral into addiction, and ultimately his death.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. When Grande broke up with Miller in May, she was also trolled and abused in a similar fashion. She responding by tweeting ‘shaming/blaming women for a man’s ability to keep his shit together is a very major problem’.
She's right - of course. And we’re currently living through a real crisis in male mental health. We know men are especially vulnerable in managing mental illness, and some studies show that men are less likely to seek treatment and support than women. However, this is a crisis that affects women too. There is a rarely challenged assumption that behind every suffering man is a woman who will fix him. Women are expected to be enthusiastic mothers, helpers and nurses, embracing the burden of constant care without complaint. When a woman dares to put herself and her happiness first, she’s punished for it.
So how can you break up with someone when everyone seems to hold you responsible for their wellbeing? Is it ever OK to decide that it’s just too hard to make a relationship work when your partner is really ill? Dee Holmes, a counsellor and senior practice consultant with Relate explains that compassion is key. ‘As long as you’re treating your partner with kindness, you’re doing all that you can. But you’re not responsible for them, and if the relationship isn’t working, it’s absolutely OK to leave. You can guide them so that they get the help they need, but you’re not the right person to provide that help. There are people out there who are qualified to support your partner, but it isn’t your job and you don’t have to make it your job.’
Amy explains that if she knew more about depression, she might have dealt with the relationship differently. ‘Initially, I worked so hard to be a cheerleader, to be kind and supportive and gentle with Dan when he was struggling. I made his favourite meals, booked mini breaks to give him something to look forward to, and told him I didn’t mind about cancelled plans when he didn’t want to go out. I wish that I’d encouraged him to get professional help from the start. His work offered a counselling service, but he was really worried about using it because he didn’t want any of his colleagues to find out he was struggling. He tried to go through the NHS, but the waiting list was long and he got upset and frustrated. He wouldn’t consider trying antidepressants because he’d read somewhere that they were part of a big pharma conspiracy. In the end, I was struggling so much that I went for counselling myself! My counsellor was brilliant and explained that there really is only so much that you can help someone if they aren’t at least trying to meet you half way and let themselves be helped.’
Nelle, a 29 year old actuary tells me that breaking up with a man struggling with depression made her much better at helping her current boyfriend to deal with his depression. ‘When I was at uni I fell for Andy, and our relationship was incredibly intense from the start. When he was up, he could take over the world, but when he was down life became very frightening. If I expressed any sadness, negativity or uncertainty about the relationship, he would tell me that he was going to kill himself. I was in a constant state of high alert, obsessed with preventing any situation that might upset him. Towards the end of the relationship I was barely eating or sleeping. I ended it really badly – I got drunk and told him I couldn’t be with him any more. I feared the worst, but he immediately started sleeping with one of my friends. It took years, and quite a bit of therapy for me to see that we were wrong for each other, and there is nothing I could have done to make him better.’
Dee explains that in some cases, threats of suicide or self harm are used as a form of abuse. ‘If your partner is threatening to hurt themselves if you leave, they’re using coercive control. It’s really important that you speak to a doctor or a mental health professional about this, but no matter how much your partner is struggling, you shouldn’t feel obliged to stay in the relationship because they have made you scared of the consequences of leaving.’
Nelle says that this difficult experience made her current relationship much better. ‘I’ve realised how important it is to encourage my boyfriend to see his friends and have a wide support network that I’m not necessarily part of. He has lived with depression since he was a teenager too, but he takes a lot of responsibility for managing it. I’ve learned that I need to show up for him, love him, and support him, but also to take a step back sometimes and give him the room to work through his feelings. We both know that we can’t be wholly responsible for each other’s happiness, and that feels incredibly healthy. At the moment, we’re really good together. If our relationship stops working, I know that it’s not my duty to stay with him for the sake of his mental health.’
We can all make things better by being more honest and open about the conversations we have around mental illness. The burden of care frequently falls to women because of the cultural conditioning that makes it difficult to men to talk about their feelings with friends, family and colleagues. As partners, we can only ever be part of a wider support network. We’re not therapists or counsellors. Breaking up with anyone, for any reason, can be incredibly hard but it’s much less difficult than staying in a relationship that has become codependent to the point of toxicity.
Amy explains that her break up with Dan was best for them both in the long run. ‘It took a little while, and we had a few false starts, but when the relationship ended Dan started to understand that his depression wasn’t something that one other person could fix – he had to find a range of tools and resources and work out a way of asking for help. We’re friendly now, and he’s acknowledged how difficult our relationship was for me when we were together, which means so much.’
Dee explains ‘If your relationship has come to a natural end, leaving your partner might give them the best chance of getting better, allowing them to focus on managing their illness. It’s important to be careful about how you offer support. If they’re having difficulty dealing with the end of the relationship, it can be better to maintain a clean break. If you reach out too often, you might not be giving them the time and headspace they need to move on.’ Sometimes recognising that you’re not the person who will be able to make your partner better means letting them go and giving them the chance to find the help they really need. Ending the relationship doesn’t mean that you haven’t helped them enough, or that you didn’t do your very best by them for as long as it was possible.