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Sexplain It: I Love My Girlfriend, but I Can't Handle Her Depression Anymore

"I’m not helping lift her out of her depression; I’m being dragged down into it."

depressed woman
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I'm Zachary Zane, a sex writer and ethical manwhore (a fancy way of saying I sleep with a lot of people, and I'm very, very open about it). Over the years, I've had my fair share of sexual experiences, dating and sleeping with hundreds of people of all genders and orientations. In doing so, I've learned a thing or two about navigating issues in the bedroom (and a bunch of other places, TBH). I'm here to answer your most pressing sex questions with thorough, actionable advice that isn't just "communicate with your partner," because you know that already. Ask me anything—literally, anything—and I will gladly Sexplain It.

To submit a question for a future column, fill out this form.


Dear Sexplain It,

My girlfriend and I have been together for four years. Her depression got really bad at the start of Covid. I stood by her side and did my best to support her. Of course, I understood why she was depressed. The world was going to shit. But now, it’s been over two years, and her depression hasn’t improved at all. I understand that the world is still a stressful, shitty place. But I can’t anymore. I’m not helping lift her out of her depression; I’m being dragged down into it.

I want to leave her, but I feel like it would be such a dick move to leave because she’s struggling with mental illness. I feel like I should be there to support her, and I really do love her so much, but it’s just really hard on my own mental health. Should I break up with her?

— Am I a Dick?

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Dear Am I a Dick,

You're right: It would be a dick move to leave someone just because they're struggling with mental illness. Between your wish to be a good human being and the fact that you love this woman a lot, I don't think you should break up with her. At least, not yet—not until you've explored a few more solutions to alleviate some of the challenges you're both facing.

Your first action item: building out your and your girlfriend's support systems. When I showed your question to therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, author of I Want This to Work, she recommended asking yourself: "Would I be happier in this relationship if my girlfriend reached out for more help or if I had others to lean on?”

You say you've done your best to support your girlfriend, but I can’t help but wonder if you’re actually doing too much. Sometimes, the partners of people with depression end up taking on the role of 24/7 therapist. It's well-meaning to want to be there for your partner round the clock, but, as you might now be realizing, it can take a serious toll on your own mental health—especially if you're the only person your partner has to talk to.

"You can't be the sole person helping her through her depression and not expect to feel drained."

This kind of arrangement isn't sustainable long-term. Does your girlfriend have a therapist? A doctor she can talk to about medication? Friends and family members besides you that she can talk to? You can't be the sole person helping her through her depression and not expect to feel drained.

I also think it’s necessary to talk to your girlfriend about the state of your own mental health. I get that you might not want to burden her with your problems on top of everything else she's dealing with, but you need to let her know. Your feelings are as valid as hers. If you keep your struggles a secret—as opposed to presenting them as an issue to tackle as a team—you could end up feeling resentful, and resentment is a recipe for an strained relationship.

“Let her know you are feeling burnt out and are wondering if there are solutions for supporting her while also giving you the support you need as well,” Earnshaw says.

After you do all of the above, give it a few months. If you try your hardest to strike a balance, but you still feel as if you’re being dragged down into her depression instead of lifting her out of it, then yes, you should break up with her.

“Your girlfriend deserves to be in a relationship built on choice and love,” Earnshaw says. “If you are only in it due to obligation, your girlfriend will likely feel that.”

If you only stay with your girlfriend because you feel obligated to, that's a dick move, too.

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