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This is my first question on the Interpersonal Skills StackExchange. I have browsed through a number of earlier questions regarding identifying and approaching depression but I have not quite found what I was looking for. In accordance with the Help Center rules I will try to make this more about the interpersonal skills than about the case at hand but I believe some of the backstory might be relevant in an attempt to identify what might lie beyond. Please feel free to point out if/how the question can be improved or if you think it is lacking some specific details.


The Greater Backstory

I've been in a relationship with my significant other for a little more than 12 years now, they are in their late twenties, I'm in the mid thirties. We've been living together in our rented apartment for about half that time. It has not always been easy and there has been a significant breach of trust on their behalf on several occasions about two years ago. I do not believe there has been since and we have recovered from this. We usually get along quite well.

The Current Situation

About two years back, I finished my PhD, moved into industry and am rather successful at it and happy with the job I am doing. They have finished their bachelor's degree quite awhile ago and started the master's at a German university in our vicinity. While they are still technically enrolled they have expressed the intent to not finish and have ceased all coursework since for a variety of reasons. They are not actively looking for a job inside or outside field and would rather prefer to work on a self-employed basis. I am happy to support this but while they get the occasional job/contract I observe a clear lack of effort required to really kickstart their business. Right now, this is going nowhere.

They rather spend most of their free time, of which they have a lot, doing the things they like which includes what I would regard (they wouldn't) as an excessive amount of social media and contact with online acquaintances.

The Actual Problem

Talking about serious and important things has always been difficult with them from the beginning but things are at a whole new level recently. This includes distancing them from close friends who really care about them (because they might raise some uncomfortable questions/topics such as their studying or business progress) and spending a lot more time with loose acquaintances with whom they only speak jovially.

I would wish to discuss our future with them; like moving to a bigger apartment, improving the quality of our relationship and communication skills or, maybe, marriage. I would also like to encourage, motivate and help them to spend more time on and move forward with their business.

I am desperately trying to have this conversation for about four months now and it is going nowhere, to the extent that they would completely ignore me and any approach to bring up the topic. I have tried in person and I have tried in writing (when we routinely spent some time apart due to my business trips). This can include anything from simply dismissing my message text to them locking themselves up in the bathroom to avoid confrontation if I push too hard.

I have tried to let them know that I want to be patient if this is hard for them and that they can bring up any of the topics at any time. This has not happened. I have tried to let them know that this behavior is deeply hurting me, that it is aggravating my insomnia which consequently affects my time at work. They have neither reacted nor have they expressed any signs of remorse. I have tried to let them know that this cannot go on forever and that I have contemplated ending the relationship or at least moving out of the apartment for now. They are aware that I have started to look at some single apartments as I have been very open about all the steps I take.

How to Approach

At first, I thought they were simply trying to break up without being the active party and I have, on occasion expressed that, although I love them, this might be an option if we cannot improve things. I do, however, no longer believe this is the case. We get along well if we're not trying to be serious and they do make joint plans for the medium-term future. No life-changing decisions, obviously, but things like holidays or concerts. While not being able to give much of it back, they are also currently looking for a lot of affection from my side (I have a hard time with this though, because of constantly hurt feelings).

I tend to believe I might be happier if just walking away from this relationship and if their acts are deliberate this would probably be the only option for me. However, I truly care about them and I do not wish to aggravate a situation that is already difficult for them.

At the moment, I honestly think they cannot talk, rather than they do not want to talk and I believe there might be depression at the root of this.

Hence, my questions is: How to discuss future with disengaged and possibly depressed partner?


TL:DR

My significant other avoids any form of serious conversation about important topics for our future and currently leads a life of suppressing everything they do not want to think or talk about. This has been going on for months now. Hence, we're neither able to talk about any serious and important topics in our relationship nor about our communication issues.

What is a good way to discuss the future with my disengaged and possibly depressed partner?

  • Welcome inVader. As @Ælis mentioned, this is off-topic here because what you are asking of us is not something we are qualified to say out loud. This question has a lot of potential though, you could try to change your question to asking open-ended questions alluding to the underlying medical condition and try to draw an answer out. But that is not what you want to achieve because the other party might not be aware of the condition either. That makes this a diagnosis of a possible mental condition and this requires professionals, which we at IPS are not. I apologize. – Crazy Cucumber Feb 15 at 21:01
  • Hello @inVader, welcome to IPS! I really like this question. I've since edited it in an attempt to align it more with this site's goals. You can revise or remove the edits if you'd like. Hopefully this fits with your original goal :) – Anilla Feb 15 at 22:11
  • Has there been any discussion of possible treatment for depression or possibly other disorders? – David Thornley Feb 18 at 21:21
  • Is your significant living with addiction? Maybe substance abuse, video games, other things? What interests them on a daily basis ? – Manuki Feb 19 at 19:51
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You are in your "mid-thirties" (let's say 35) and she is in her "late twenties" (let's say 28). You've been together for just over 12 years, so basically you met when you were around 23 and she was 16. An age gap of 7 years is not really a big deal when you are 42 and 49, but when you met those years that you had experienced and she missed out on were formative.

You describe your partner as being disengaged, disinterested in work, unable and unwilling to discuss serious matters - rather like a stereotypical teenager. It can be that people who marry or move into a relationship like yours very young simply do not "grow up". If she went straight from her parent's home where she was looked after and all "adult" things like payment of bills etc were taken care of and into a relationship with you where your 7 additional years of adult life better qualified you to take care of the same matters, she likely never transitioned fully from child to adult. I note that you work to support the pair of you and she has no interest in working. I would guess that means you take care of all the bills too. Does she even know what adult life is really like?

This may be what has led to her being "depressed" because she has no goals or purpose in her life other than to exist in this relationship. She is not working towards anything and has no sense of achievement. People who stare into social media for hours are looking for a life, but as you have already figured out they are looking in the wrong place because real life is happening everywhere but inside that screen.

Some people say that depression cannot be "fixed", but some forms of depression do have a trigger and it is possible to turn things around. If you can make changes in your life together so that she is less reliant on you and has some purpose that brings a sense of achievement it may be that she comes out of this depression and starts to enjoy the life she has with you. The "breach of trust" you spoke about may have been because she thought there was something better than this life she has. If that remains the case then it could happen again.

Remember that you can't force anyone to stay with you. We cannot control anyone but ourselves and have no right to try and do otherwise. All anyone can do to maintain a relationship is to be the best person we can be and hope that the other person will recognise that and stay. Don't bring her faults to her as this will only push her away further.

"What is a good way to discuss the future with my disengaged and possibly depressed partner?"

I suggest you begin by talking about your goals. Ask her honestly where she sees herself in 5 years, 10 years, whatever. Do they have aspirations? Do they want to be something, such as have a particular career, or do they aspire to achieve something such as own their own home? Then talk to them about what they would have to do (or what you would have to do together) to achieve that. You mentioned moving to a bigger apartment - that will cost money, so will that be something that you both have to work to realise? If so, encourage and support her to do what is necessary to achieve that. She should feel more satisfaction in what she is doing if it is with some purpose, and if you are doing it together it could bring you closer together.

There is that real possibility that she doesn't want to be in this relationship and is looking for a way out. It would be better for you to identify that now than later. If you get married and get a place together and then she leaves, with or without someone else, then you will have to break up all your things and divorce - not pleasant. And I am speaking from experience, because I also got married at age 28 to a 19-year-old who cheated on me twice and spent most of the 7 years we were married drifting in and out of low-paid jobs that they had no real interest in doing; so far from judging you I am telling you what I learned the hard way. If you have the conversation about where they see themselves in the future you may get the hint that they want out, in which case don't be afraid to steer the conversation that way. Ask them if they see themselves in this relationship in 5 years, or if they want to achieve the things they aspire to with you.

Facing up to problems in a relationship is better than trying to avoid them. If we fail to root out problems in a relationship then we tend to carry those unresolved issues over to our next relationship. Again, just to quote from my personal experience - I took time to analyse what went wrong in my previous relationship. I had some professional counselling and I spent a few years on my own before getting into anything new. I am now in a new relationship with someone who is also about 7 years younger than me but this time it is unnoticeable because we were both in our 30s when we met. She had lived on her own for 15 years and had worked to support herself all that time so she was a fully rounded and independent person. Things are so much better this time around. By contrast, my ex, who never dealt with the problems we had, went straight into a new relationship with someone exactly like her. Since they've been together he has had at least 7 different jobs that I know of, she has had at least 5 and they live in her mother's house. Basically, they still do not know what they want to be when they grow up.

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Disclaimer: this should probably be a comment, as I'm not really giving an answer, but more to give a a different perspective. This is my first ever contribution here, I know it is riddled with assumptions and opinions. I appreciate any help in improving it, filtering it from emotion and landing it in the right place.

From their perspective

Putting myself in your partner's shoes, they probably feel like their world is slowly falling apart. Education and career are not working out, which paint very uncertain and dark prospects for the future. They are probably hurting, seeing no solution and seem to cope by fleeing and finding distractions.

Love yourself first before you love someone else. Instead of loving, they are probably re probably despising themselves right now, feeling guilty for having dropped this and failing to pick up the broken pieces. On top of that, they see that it is hurting their life partner in their happiness, confidence in the relationship, and career. To the point that they are prepared to end the relationship. This adds to the pain, but is an unavoidable consequence of the circumstances.

What can you do

Of course it is your right to say that this is not working for you and take action accordingly. However, as their life partner, you are probably one of the few people who actually can help, either personally, or to help the person understand that they need to seek professional help.

This would start by letting go of what impact is having on you, and focus purely on the impact on them. Instead of confronting them on the consequences and negative results, try to connect with them to get to the source of the problem. To get them to open up will be very hard to do, and the approach will differ greatly on the person and the details of the situation, but the first step is to "loosen the chains" that keep them down:

  • Show that you deeply care about them and want them to be happy
  • Without proposing any type of solution, try to understand how they feel, and what the cause of that is
  • Let them know, that whatever happened and whatever they do, you will love them unconditionally, and that they can freely share their pain and concerns with you.
  • Give them the affection they are seeking from you.

This will take time, and a trust probably needs to re-grow between the two of you, before you can start looking at any way forward. You might want to start with the "worst case" scenario where they do not pursue and education or career and will be fully dependent on you. Accepting that that might be the situation for a while, relieving any type of pressure, might make it easier to take new initiatives to improve from that situation one small step at the time. It is important that these steps are initiated by them, but that you fully support those, without adding pressure or chasing when things take longer than you like.

Again, experienced InterPeronal'ers, please help me in improving this answer, or maybe give a new one conveying a similar message of taking it from their perspective and giving them the understanding, time and support to recover from this.

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    Welcome to IPS! Since you are new, here is a link to your faq about writing good answers. Your answer is a good start but could you add some concrete examples for what you are suggesting? Especially for the "Show that..." and the "Let them know, that whatever happened and whatever they do, you will love them unconditionally"? Also, could you tell us if you use these technics before, what you did and how it worked out? We have a rule about "back up" and your answer seems to be lacking of it right now. – Ælis Feb 18 at 11:46
  • Thanks for the advice, I'll revisit this answer in the weekend. – Ruben Feb 20 at 16:03
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(I am not a mental health professional and this is not medical advice)

Talking about serious and important things has always been difficult with them from the beginning but things are at a whole new level recently. This includes distancing them from close friends who really care about them (because they might raise some uncomfortable questions/topics such as their studying or business progress) and spending a lot more time with loose acquaintances with whom they only speak jovially.

From your observations, it seems like to your partner is retreating more inward and avoiding having to confront something in their life. It's possible they already well aware of the problem such as the lack of a stable career or not finishing their master's degree. Meeting up with friends and loved one may inevitably open up this source of shame, because of their knowledge of your partner's history. In finding new friends, your partner is able to start with a clean slate and avoid their past history. This is their way of coping.

I can imagine what your partner is going through. My wife is also older than me and our age gap is similar to what you describe between you and your partner. We met while she was working full-time and I was still an intern at the same company. She already had her masters degree while I was still finishing my bachelors degree. The educational disparity was a source of insecurity for me. She used to lecture me about how to be a better student and how do more with my life. Needless to say, this was the source of many disagreements. It could have been me projecting, but a lot of our disagreements felt like "I have masters degree and you don't, so therefore I'm smarter than you and you need to do things my way." We've resolved our differences many years later, but your situation with your partner reminded me of my situation with my wife.

At first, I thought they were simply trying to break up without being the active party and I have, on occasion expressed that, although I love them, this might be an option if we cannot improve things. I do, however, no longer believe this is the case. We get along well if we're not trying to be serious and they do make joint plans for the medium-term future.

It's important for you to realize what you want out of the relationship and that change in your partner may be permanent and not temporary. I think your partner may be depressed, but likely situational rather than an underlying medical condition. If the root cause of your partner's actions is because they couldn't finish their graduate degree, they may not feel you are the best person to comfort them. I personally would be patient and give them space. Good luck.

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It sounds like you have mostly focused your communication efforts on what you're concerned about - progression of the relationship.

Have you tried to ask about what happened with their master's degree effort, while reassuring them that you were asking because you cared about them, and would not judge them poorly because of what they reported?

I have a number of thoughts of what could be wrong here in this regard, but whether any of those are accurate or not doesn't matter, what matters is that your partner may be hurting here in a manner that they are currently not feeling comfortable sharing with you, and that may need to be addressed before any long term things could be contemplated. It is probable that the issue here is one that they feel may be one that you would feel especially judgemental towards them, or possibly it's just one that they are feeling especially judgemental towards themselves about.

If they are not willing to talk with you about it, they may be willing to talk with an independent third party. While I think you might need to be brought in the loop on this ultimately for things to progress in the manner you want, discussions with someone else like that could help them to work out how to talk with you about it.

Note that I am also not a mental health professional. I'm not trying to steer you towards any particular sort of independent third party because not only is there not a lot of information to judge about that presented, I think it's something that should be worked out between you and your partner; if a third party was needed it would be pretty vital it be someone your partner could open up to about this issue or it would probably not lead to progress.

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My personal experience : My partner lost his job almost two years ago, and shortly before that lost his savings. He became distant towards me, I had no idea what he was doing, how his job search was going, he wouldn't talk to me about anything. After almost a year of this, I was almost at my breaking point. I loved him, and I knew that he loved me, but I was miserable all the time. I also felt bad, because I knew he was hurting too and wasn't acting that way to hurt me. It didn't change the fact that I was unhappy all the time, and that our relationship was at the root of this. I knew that if things didn't start to change, even a little bit, I would leave, I would have to.

I managed to convince him to go to couples therapy, our therapist suggested to him to go to solo therapy since he seemed to be depressed. This has helped a lot and we're now back to building a future together.


If they're at a point where they lock themselves in the bathroom to avoid talking to you, I don't know what more you can do. You seem to have done and tried a lot alone, and it hasn't worked. So I'd strongly advise to go to couples therapy. You should get the help you need there in order to have a meaningful conversation about your future with your partner.

Since you're at the point where you're ready to walk away, you should also tell your partner that. Not to give them an ultimatum, but more of a wake up call, to let them know that you're hurting in this relationship and it has come to a point where it has become too much for you. They'll know what is at stake here and make an informed decision on whether or not they wish to make an effort to talk to you and mend things.

I'd say something like the following :

I need to talk to you about something. I love you, and wish to spend my life with you, but I can't go on like this anymore. I want us to be able to talk and build a future together, but it has been impossible the last two years. I don't know what to do anymore, so I want us to go to couples counseling. I've made an appointment on x date x hour. If you still want to build a life together and try to save our relationship, I hope you'll come with me. If you don't, I don't think I'll be able to stay in this relationship.

  • First of all I really like the answer and your approach. You mentioned not giving an ultimatum to them but then in your example you put the ultimatum along the lines of "come to the therapy with me or I very likely will break up." Maybe the example can be softened a bit to remove the ultimatum? Or maybe I am interpreting it differently? – Nico Feb 20 at 10:46
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    Because I don't see this as giving them an ultimatum, but as being honest about the situation. It's not "I want you to do this, and if you don't I'll break up with you" but "I'm hurting, we are hurting, and I don't think I can take this much longer. I love you, but if some things don't change soon, I don't know how I can continue on this path". If the delivery is too soft, they might not understand the severity of the situation. They might refuse to go to therapy for themselves, but if they know their couple is at stake, they'll make the effort. – MlleMei Feb 20 at 10:59
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You've tried for several months to get her to open up about what's going on to no avail, your relationship and your mental health are deteriorating as a result, sounds like its time to seek professional help. You should try to bring up the topic of couples counseling, this may be a setting which can finally draw out some clarity. If this is not an option for your partner it may still be of help to talk to a counselor yourself (there's nothing wrong with a little chat) to help deal with the neglected feelings you're having in the meantime while you decide how to proceed with your relationship.

Hey [partner], so I'm not sure you've noticed but the way things have been going has really been hurting me, we've talked about me moving out and I'd like to avoid that if possible. Do you think we could try getting some third party help? I was looking at couples counseling to see if that could help

  • Hey, could you add some advice as to how to bring the topic couples counseling so that there SO will be open to the discussion? Right now, your answer doesn't have much interpersonal advice. – Ælis Feb 16 at 16:51
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    @Ælis I don't include much interpersonal advice because it sounds like the OP's partner has shutdown attempts to talk about it already for several months, leaving little room for an interpersonal solution to work. I don't have personal experience with couples counseling but will add my thoughts – BKlassen Feb 16 at 17:01
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    This sounds like a good start but could you also add why you preconize this way of phrasing things? Why talk about how the OP feel (hurting)? Why phrasing the suggestion for couples counseling this way? – Ælis Feb 16 at 17:11

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