Hello, friends! In this Q&A episode, I offer my advice on two very different listener questions. The first looks at divorcing someone who is depressed and whether this is okay, while the second tackles going back to college later in life and dealing with imposter syndrome and feelings of doubt.
My spouse says I am the source of their depression. Without giving much details, they have had undiagnosed mental issues and suicide attempt before they met me. Their current job is stressful, on the edge of can be fired at any moment. Tried to find new jobs but pay and availability is not there. We have been dating/married for almost 20 years, spouse cheated during first year of marriage while I was pregnant, we worked through that, but our relationship has not been good. My question is would divorce be better for them or make the depression worse?
Wow what a tough spot you’re in. Sorry to hear about this. I think there are layers to this issue and I’m obviously not going to get the complexity and history of your relationship here through this limited information, but I’ll do my best.
First off – I obviously think and understand that mental illness is real. At the same time, I don’t think that it affords someone the right to be cruel. Saying that your spouse is the source of your depression is not a cool thing to do. At the best, it’s a wounded, defensive response in a fight you are having. At worst, it’s emotionally manipulative. That’s actually something that I want you to be cognizant of. When someone has mental health issues, it’s easy to attribute everything to them. Depression does not cause someone to be manipulative, controlling, or abusive. If you experience things like feeling hot and cold responses from them, like you’re walking on eggshells all the time, or that they try to control your behavior by using their emotional state as a weapon – you may want to talk to somebody to determine whether there may be an abusive dynamic playing out. Again, please take this with a grain of salt. There’s nothing definitive in what you said, but I just caught a few little whiffs of something more going on here.
It’s obvious that life has been hitting hard lately with job issues, the state of the world etc. But it sounds like this is more of a longstanding pattern. You mentioned that they cheated while you were pregnant during the first year of marriage and your relationship has really not been good since then. I think at this point, the decision about whether you should stay together should be about you. I know that you love this person and to be honest, you have probably fallen into a pretty co-dependent dynamic together, so the prospect of leaving probably feels so scary. But you can’t protect them by sacrificing yourself. That’s just going to play into an unhealthy dynamic and cause you harm as well.
If they were to struggle because you decided that you cannot be with them anymore, that is not your fault. While families and loved ones certainly play a role in our mental health, YOU are not RESPONSIBLE for their mental health. You are your own human too. You can feel compassion and have boundaries at the same time.
Now when it comes to whether divorce is the best solution, that depends. Have you tried individual and couples therapy yet? If not, this might be a very important step to try prior to pulling the plug on the relationship. That is if you want to. When I say individual therapy, I don’t only mean for him. If you don’t have someone to talk to about this, you really should think about getting someone. Having an outside sounding board can help you recognize if this is something that you actually want to fix. But yes, it might be time to do something about this. It can be tough to pose therapy as an ultimatum and it really doesn’t have to be that. The way you can phrase it is that this is an unhealthy dynamic and it’s not safe for either of you. You don’t want to leave them, but SOMETHING needs to happen in order to move in a positive direction.
If you find that leaving is the safest and most desired thing for you, you are allowed to pursue that. That does not mean that you are being a bad spouse or a bad ally to people with mental illness. But you need some support. Professional, friends and family, trusted advisors. You need more feedback about this from people that you can speak to freely and from people that know more of the full story.
Hi Duff, About two years ago I was let go from what I thought was my dream job, and I was feeling really lost. Shortly after, my husband was offered to relocate for a new job, so we moved halfway across the country. We both felt this would be a great option to get a fresh start. Since moving here, I have had a really hard time finding something within my skill set that isn’t extremely stressful. I ultimately decided that I needed to redirect my focus and go back to school for something I’m passionate about. I’m 30 years old, and to start from scratch in an undergraduate is overwhelming. I’m definitely feeling imposter syndrome- I feel incredibly ignorant compared to others in my class due to having been out of school for so long. It’s really hard to see all my friends succeeding in their careers while I’m struggling with my first year back to school. Was this a mistake?
Wow! I think this is so cool of you. It takes a ton of courage to do something like this. It’s a big commitment to go back to school and pursue a degree and I’m sure there’s a voice in your head that told you to just put up with the stressful work environment or settle for something that wasn’t fulfilling just so that you don’t rock the boat. I’m glad that you didn’t.
Now, I don’t want you to think that you aren’t allowed to question whether this is the right path for you. You absolutely are. BUT you don’t need to be questioning for the wrong reasons. When I was in undergrad and graduate school, I had peers that were significantly older than me. From people in your age range all the way to a grandmother that was pursuing her PhD. I always think it’s super cool to see. You are absolutely going to be a bit different than most of the undergrads that you find yourself around, but that’s not a bad thing. You may have been out of school for quite a while, but you have gained a lot of other skills through living your life during that time. Those are equally valuable. You can remember how to cram and focus for long periods of time during lectures and stuff like that. But as someone who has had a little more life experience, you probably have a better idea of how to manage your time, what boundaries look like, how to think critically, and other things, I’m sure.
Feeling imposter syndrome is normal and expected. It’s super common to feel like you don’t belong, that people are going to figure out that you don’t belong there, or that you are in over your head. EVEN IF you are in over your head, the institution is there to help you succeed. You can talk to your professors or department heads if you have concerns.
Now to your concern about seeing your friends succeed in their careers while you struggle in school – I hear that. That’s hard. Taking any self-judgments out of it, it would simply be nice to not have to struggle right now, right? It would be nice to have a cushy job that you enjoy and can experience success in. You need to keep in mind that you have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes for those people, though. I can imagine there may be some people that look at what you are doing and feel jealous because they feel stuck on their current path and would like to have the courage or ability to leave it behind and go back to school.
This is an investment in yourself. If you aren’t in love with school, then it’s also a bit of a sacrifice. You are honoring yourself by pursuing something difficult rather than settling. That’s badass. Give yourself a chance. If you find that you legitimately do not enjoy your undergraduate program or it is simply too stressful for you to welcome into your life at this point, then by all means speak with your advisors about changing course. But give yourself the chance to find success. It seems to me like you are a harsh critic of yourself and you may need a little more time to adjust and see that you aren’t a hopeless case. Just because you are struggling does not mean that it was a mistake. Even if you end up leaving the program or not taking full advantage of the degree, it’s still not a waste. You are taking a chance and an opportunity. A lot of people feel stuck and paralyzed. You are actively working to make a better life for yourself and that’s something that you can take pride in, even if it doesn’t feel like it comes naturally to you.
Last thing: random fun fact. At my undergrad university, there was a monetary award to the student or students with the highest cumulative GPA in the graduating class and I almost got it. The woman that beat me (and others) out was in her 40s, I believe. I was like hell yeah – you deserve that.
Actually other last thing – I am just remembering how much pressure I put on myself to perform in college and how “do or die” it felt. I felt like I had to get PERFECT grades and be totally over-involved. This was partially true given the competitive nature of psych PhD programs, but one of the great things about having a bit more life experience is that you can hopefully have a more balanced perspective about things.
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