My Girlfriend Hid Her Depression; Now I Don’t Feel Safe!

My girlfriend was diagnosed with depression a few weeks ago, but she didn't tell me. I don't know how I should feel about this. We have been together for a year and things took a weird turn a couple of months ago when she started brooding more, being irritable, crying at odd times, sleeping our weekends away, and not wanting to go anywhere or do anything. She seemed to "check out" sometimes. I thought she was just tired because she was working a lot, but apparently that was the depression setting in, according to her doctor. She never even told me she was going to the doctor, let alone that she was diagnosed with something. I am pissed. I also find myself questioning how I might have contributed to her depression. Did I make her unhappy? I asked her that and she said it wasn't any one thing, but she didn't outright deny being unhappy in the relationship. I have been a good boyfriend to her; what does she have to be upset about? When she kept her depression diagnosis secret for three weeks, I was so mad I almost moved out. I have a right to be upset, right? She should have told me, right? I have a right to know if the person I'm living with has a mental illness, right? Hiding mental illness from a partner just seems wrong, like a betrayal. I don't feel safe with her now, so I don't know what to do. Help, please. —Befuddled Boyfriend
Dear Befuddled Boyfriend,

Depression can be scary sounding, and exaggerated or altogether inaccurate media portrayals of people with depression often don’t help. I hear that you feel sad, angry, frightened, and even betrayed by your girlfriend, and that you don’t know where to turn or what to do next.

Sadly, mental health issues—including depression—are often misunderstood, feared, and stigmatized because people know little about them. The cure for this is a better-educated public. Let’s look together at what it means to be depressed, shall we?

First off, depression is quite common. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression affects more than 350 million people of all ages globally, and it’s more common among women than men. There are different kinds of depression, too. Most of us have times when we feel sad, “blue,” or unworthy—this kind of depression is pretty common, and we all experience it for relatively brief periods of time. There is postpartum depression, which women experience sometimes after childbirth. There is chronic mild to moderate depression, also known as dysthymia, which can be indefinite. Another kind of depression is clinical depression, which the Mayo Clinic defines as a mood issue that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Also called major depression, this is a more severe form of depression than dysthymia and affects how you feel, think, and behave.

Generally speaking, depression responds best to talk therapy or a combination of talk therapy and medication. The takeaway is that depression is very treatable.

You write, “I have been a good boyfriend to her; what does she have to be upset about?” When you ask if you made your girlfriend unhappy, I wonder if you worry that you caused her to feel depressed. It’s possible that unhappiness in the relationship is a contributing factor to your girlfriend’s depression, but if it is, it’s more than likely one of several factors, factors that almost certainly have nothing to do with you. Even your girlfriend might not know why she’s depressed. That’s normal. Maybe you feel that you can and should make her happy, that being with you should prevent her from being depressed. That’s very romantic and idealistic, but that’s not how these things usually work. You may indeed make her very happy at times, but depression is about a general mood that has to do with the individual’s inner and even unconscious feelings about many things, not always specific to the present.

You are angry that she started seeing a doctor and was in treatment for three weeks before she told you. Although I hear your desire for more openness, I encourage you not to draw negative conclusions from this. Maybe she just needed time to think on her own and to digest the news. It must be said that it seems unlikely that your reaction to all of this made her feel like telling you was a good idea. If you truly care about her, she needs your support now.

She had the courage and good sense to recognize that she needed help and to get it. With depression, that’s a feat unto itself. Not everyone is able to do that.

All of the symptoms you mention, symptoms she showed starting a couple of months ago, are consistent with depression. She had the courage and good sense to recognize that she needed help and to get it. With depression, that’s a feat unto itself. Not everyone is able to do that.

Finally, I’m not entirely sure why you don’t feel safe. I wonder what is making you feel that way. Are you afraid that your girlfriend will harm you? How might she hurt you? Depression is not linked with violent behavior toward others, no matter what you might have read about events in the news or saw on television.

It sounds almost as if your girlfriend’s depression is a deal-breaker for you. Does it have to be? Perhaps you would feel reassured if you visited her doctor with her—if she wanted you there, that is—or if you saw a couples therapist who could help you understand what depression means and how it may affect your relationship. Or you could meet privately with a counselor and learn more that way.

Thanks for being daring enough to write about your fears and your feelings. This wasn’t an easy letter for you to write, I suspect, and you showed courage when you asked your questions. I wish you and your girlfriend greater understanding of yourselves and of each other, and good luck for happy lives.

Take care,
Lynn

Lynn Somerstein
Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT is a Manhattan-based, licensed psychotherapist with more than 30 years in private practice. She is also a yoga teacher and student of Ayuveda—the Indian science of wellness. Her main interest is in helping people find healthy ways of living, loving, and working in the particular combination that works best for them, connecting to their deepest energic source so their full range of abilities can be expressed. Lynn's specialty is understanding and alleviating anxiety and depression.
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  • danielle

    danielle

    July 24th, 2015 at 12:39 PM

    You don’t feel safe? it sounds like she is the one who is afraid of exposing herself like that.

  • Mike

    Mike

    July 25th, 2015 at 11:31 AM

    Of course she will feel uneasy about this but if you have ever gone through being depressed you know that this is not always an easy thing to talk about with other people. I agree that you have the right to know but let her talk about it in her own way and on her own time and I think that that will make the conversation easier on both of you.

  • Carol G.

    Carol G.

    July 26th, 2015 at 9:46 AM

    In all honesty this likely has nothing to do with you, but I understand those feelings that you are having. It would have been great if she had felt like she could share this with you, but you have to understand that this is probably something that she has been living with for a very long time but has just now started working on getting answers that she needs to get better. Time will help the two of you and there may still be more times when you feel excluded but you don’t need to pressure her. This is something that she will figure out and will need you to help her get through this.

  • Cat

    Cat

    July 27th, 2015 at 2:04 AM

    Honestly, given how he responded (anger, taking it personally, threatening to break up), I’m not surprised his girlfriend hid her diagnosis from him in the first place. If he wants her to be more open with him, like he says, then helping to create a safe emotional environment in which she can share difficult things without fear of retribution would be a good first step.

    I think his anger is coming from a misconception. Her depression is not about him (though if he keeps reacts this angrily to it from now on, it could soon be). Sometimes depression pops up on its own, with no rhyme or reason, like any other illness. If she had been diagnosed with a thyroid disorder, for instance, that caused the exact same symptoms, would that make him angry too?

    He sounds like he is processing all of his feelings through the sole socially acceptable male emotion of anger, which is understandable but not helpful in this situation. He might benefit from short-term therapy to get insight into what other emotions (sadness, guilt, shame, fear) are hiding under the anger, and to figure out how to cope with his girlfriend’s diagnosis.

    That’s enough from me. :)

  • maisy

    maisy

    July 27th, 2015 at 7:03 AM

    This could be something or it could be nothing. I don’t think that I would get too worked up over it yet. I would definitely think that it could be a good thing to get involved with her counseling so that the two of you can discuss in a neutral environment what prompted the secrecy

  • Robert

    Robert

    July 28th, 2015 at 5:33 PM

    I don’t mean to be judgmental, but man, you sound pretty wrapped up in yourself and not as worried about her as you should be. It is all about what this has done to you- have you stopped to think about what depression is doing to her?

  • Mike

    Mike

    August 1st, 2015 at 2:35 PM

    Three weeks is a blink of an eye. Some people hide their depression for decades.

  • Caroline

    Caroline

    August 17th, 2015 at 4:22 PM

    I understand that you feel confused, but so is she in all likelihood and she needs your love right now, not just blame.

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