When Someone You Love Is Unhappy

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A patient of mine has a mentally ill brother who’s depressed and anxious, as well as manipulative and stubborn. He often refuses to take medication that’s helped him in the past and as a result often ends up lying at home in his bed, unwashed and unkempt, for days at a time. When my patient discovers him in this state, she tries various things: taking him to the ER (which she’s learned leads nowhere), contacting his therapist (which sometimes helps, sometimes not), and even walking away, both figuratively and literally. She struggles with how much she may be enabling his behavior and with how unhappy his unhappiness is making her. She vents to me on occasion, and I try to walk a fine line between encouraging her not to give up on him and supporting her decision to protect herself emotionally. Recently, he had a particularly bad episode and it got me wondering: how can we best manage the unhappiness of people we love?

Love leads to many things good and bad but perhaps one of the most challenging is the way it links our happiness to the happiness of others. This connection largely explains why we often become frustrated or angry with the ones we love: in loving them, we frequently come to feel they’re actually a part of us, and if they behave in a way we don’t like, we feel an urge to put a stop to their behavior as if it were our own; their behavior may wound us and directly injure our own happiness, and our attempts to change it may be motivated out of a desire to make ourselves happy; and finally, we may genuinely respect the lives of those we love as distinctly separate from ours but feel frustrated or angry that they’re acting in a way we think will harm their happiness.


First and foremost, we must realize that everyone is ultimately responsible for their own happiness and simultaneously that everyone exerts a powerful influence on the happiness of those around them. A study by a former colleague of mine, Nicholas Christakis, suggests that we influence the happiness of people close to us physically as well as the happiness of people close to us personally up to three degrees of separation (meaning not just the friends of our friends but their friends as well). How might this influence come about? Not by the advice we give or the action we take to try to make others happier but simply by being happy ourselves. Emotions, it turns out, are as contagious as infectious diseases (possibly as a result of the mirror neuron system). Some of us seem to be more contagious than others and some of us especially susceptible to being “infected” by others, but most of us have had firsthand experience in bringing others up or down with our moods and in being brought up or down by the moods of others.

The most effective way to help others become happier, then, very well may be by focusing on becoming happy ourselves. This may strike some as selfish, but we can easily imagine flowing readily from our own happiness a heightened ability to encourage, support, and inspire. One strategy we shouldn’t adopt, no matter how tempting it may be, is to give our unhappy loved ones what they ask for automatically without carefully considering the consequences. What unhappy people want is so often not what they need that this knee-jerk approach must in the end be considered unwise at best. We may feel compelled to give them what they want by our own sense of urgency to pry them out of whatever unhappy box they’re in. But this urge often rises from our discomfort, not theirs, and causes us to suspend our good judgment in favor of what seems expedient.

To counteract this impulse, remember that suffering is necessary for growth (I’m not pointing this out to rationalize suffering, but rather to suggest our focus should be on using it as a catalyst). If we can resist the impulse to treat suffering like a fire that must be extinguished immediately, we can consider with a clear mind how to best respond to the unhappiness of the ones we love. But if instead we give in to our impulse to take over responsibility for someone else’s suffering, we may find ourselves cheating them out of an important growth experience. True happiness comes from strength. If we solve every problem for the ones we love, how will they ever learn to solve problems themselves?


Often, however, the people we love behave as if they don’t want to feel better. They want to wallow, or are so debilitated by their suffering they can’t even get out of bed—like my patient’s brother. Sometimes the unhappiness of the ones we love is like a black hole, threatening to pull us into darkness ourselves. How can we orbit around such a strong negative force without being crushed by it?

It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle our mood from a loved one’s mood without swinging too far in the other direction, becoming disinterested and emotionally cut off as a means of self-preservation. Living with an unhappy person is, in many ways, like living with someone who’s ill:  the illness is theirs, but the experience belongs to the caregiver as well. Thinking of a loved one’s unhappiness as an illness brings to mind the following points that may apply:

  1. Maintain appropriate boundaries. Remind yourself constantly that your loved one’s unhappiness is not your own. You may become unhappy in response to their unhappiness, but your unhappiness then becomes your responsibility. You will be tempted to resolve your unhappiness by trying to resolve their unhappiness (also in a time frame that suits you), but that way leads only to frustration and resentment. Treat the two as separate things that require separate solutions.
  2. Allow your loved one space to be unhappy. People often become unhappy for good reasons, i.e., as a result of a blow or a loss of some kind. After a while, most people most of the time (though, it’s important to note, not all the time) find their level of happiness returning to its baseline. Be patient. You often don’t need to do anything at all but tolerate their dip in mood. If you’re dealing with someone who dips frequently or regularly, learn to recognize the signs. Dialogue with them when they’re in a good place to ask how you can best support them when they’re in a bad place. Then try out whatever they suggest. It may work—or it may not. If it doesn’t—if they don’t know themselves how they should be supported—try other things until you hit on what works best.
  3. Give yourself space from them. When people are unhappy, being around them is difficult. In giving them space, you give yourself space as well. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking they need you around all the time to handle their unhappy feelings.
  4. Defend your own happiness fiercely. Misery may think it loves company, but in the long term it doesn’t. It’s more than just all right to remain happy while someone you love is miserable: it’s imperative.
  5. Suggest professional help. When things seem not be returning to normal, sometimes consulting a professional brings new clarity to the problem.
  6. Detach with love. Sometimes people are simply toxic by nature, a fact that often dawns on others around them only after time.  Sometimes people refuse to take steps to make themselves feel better. As a result, sometimes you have to love them from a distance. This can be an intensely difficult decision, but sometimes it’s the right one. Give yourself permission to entertain the thought and consider it seriously if consider it seriously you should.

My patient found herself thinking about detaching from her brother frequently, and in fact would do so for long stretches of time. But then she’d learn he’d locked himself in his house for days and couldn’t stop herself from being drawn back into his life. After this last episode, however, she found herself more focused on maintaining a safe emotional distance. She still cared, she confided to me, but had come to a new understanding about her limitations. She knew some part of her brother still wanted to be happy, but it seemed covered up by a part that reveled in misery. She would keep tabs on him, she decided, and intervene when he seemed in real danger, but she refused to continue suffering on account of his suffering. Which for her meant allowing him to suffer alone.

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  • All I can say is what a truly helpful and wise reminder your essay is for me this week. Thank you so much, Alex.

  • Thank you. It’s nice to see you arrive at such a final conclusion—it lifted a pain off my chest, whether you believe me or not. I’ve been struggling time and again to ask a friend of mine to end his marriage, reasoning that I know that he is not only unhappy, but that it is eating him apart inside-out.

    After a well-deserved thinking week to myself, I told him my resolution in not allowing him to affect my life any longer, being that his wallowing is his fault entirely, and if he were truly doubtful of where the relationship is ending up, then he would enact solutions as opposed to finding reasons to stay where he is.

    He’s still currently married and miserable, and I do sometimes feel like I should extend to him the advice he used to turn to me for, but for some reason maintaining the safe distance you suggest in your article does help. I need to focus on my life, too, and no matter how important a part of me he is, I cannot affect such a decision in his life, nor do I deserve to have that ability. Thank you again for this piece; it resonated very well with everything that has been going on with me.

  • Alex,
    There is a bit of the discrepancy here between two concepts…the brother is not being able to use his free will to be happy or unhappy; he is mentally ill. He is not in conditions of regulating himself because something is going on in his brain. Having said that, isolating yourself as not to be contaminated by his unhappiness is a very individualistic proposition…our happiness dwells in the connection with others; and if having a clinically depressed brother becomes a challenge, so be it. Goes together with so many prices we pay in order to be connected in a network of people that sometimes can be happy, can love us back and sometimes simply can’t.

    Of course, I support the clinical and emotional separation between two persons: my brother’s unhappiness in not my unhappiness, and I need to manage my moods in order to find peace and joy in my own life even when my brother is locked in in his house submerged in his world. Being happy and at peace in my own life doesn’t prevent me from feeling compassion for my brother’s mental illness, and from doing whatever is possible to improve his situation if possible. Only when I know that everything has been considered and tried to better his mental condition, I can be at peace knowing that I did my best.

    Perhaps your proposal of taking distance can be applied to some friend whose depression is opening such a wedge that I’d prefer to isolate myself from negativity. I don’t have such a luxury when is my own sibling who is suffering.

    What happens to us as a society if we don’t consider mental illness as genuine suffering that needs compassion? And treatment? At least, up to the moment when we can understand that a person “reveling in misery” is not only doing a wrong choice, is a person terribly sick!

    Please, don’t keep inviting us to detach and focus only on our own happiness! Is this the example we want our own children to learn from us?

    Nora: You raise excellent points. And I think, on reflection, I could have chosen a better example to make my main point, perhaps one involving someone not so clearly mentally ill. I agree that the decision my patient made to create more distance was an intensely personal one, one that she may not have made were the person involved her spouse or child, for example. But my main point mirrors the one you make in your comment, I think: that our happiness does largely dwell in our connection to others—and that sometimes those connections become toxic. I didn’t mean to appear to advocate detaching and focusing only on our own happiness. I believe our own happiness is best secured by focusing on the happiness of others. But I also believe sometimes our emotional connections to others who suffer can be a liability to our own happiness and that it’s often quite challenging to work for the happiness of others and care for our own at the same time. A complex topic that requires great sensitivity and compassion—both for the people intimately connected to us who suffer and for ourselves.


  • Thank you! I had a friend who just seemed to be dark and angry all the time. She would get resentful that I was happy or that her children enjoyed my company more than hers. She would ask, “When is it going to get better? When will I feel good?” and I used to say inside, “When you decide it will.”

    But it wasn’t until I actually said that aloud that I actually saw a change in my own life because I then realized I was being pulled down too. I used to say to her, “What will we talk about when we are healthy and emotionally well?” I knew her sadness (I had recovered from mine) was our only bond. I read the chapter on compassion in a book in The Diamond Heart series by AH Almaas and it freed me. The gist was that compassion means also to leave the sufferer to her own devices because to stay and stand by meant I was enabling her sadness, giving it legitimacy and thus breeding codependency and also denying her the path to recovery. I didn’t realize I was in the way.

    I don’t see this person anymore and I hear she is still in that hole, still asking the same “when” questions. I pray for her. People get used to the roles they play. Part of me thinks she likes the attention the misery gives her. But I try not to judge. Thank you.

  • Molly,

    I have a similar friend. Her despair grows, and speaking with her became a study in endurance and misery. Since learning to take the lead, I only deal in positive suggestions, which I think makes me anathema to her since she seems invested in cultivating her hard done by stance. Anyway, the convos are brief, and down to a couple of times per year—manageable.

    I am very interested in mirror neurons (and had missed Alex’s previous post.) How intricately affected we are by our surroundings! I am also interested in the use of this concept for healing (injury) using a symmetrical bodily paradigm and using one’s own self-perception. Perhaps you could discuss this in a future post?

  • As someone who is currently experiencing chronic illness along with the imbalances of depression, reading this article broke my heart. I was hoping to read about ideas on how to extend conscious compassion to those walking in similar shoes. I can only assume you haven’t personally experienced depression, or the imbalances that go along with it. Of course that is a good thing, yet it also makes me question why you wrote about it.

    Isn’t distancing ourselves and putting up walls a pretty natural thing that we already instinctively do? And haven’t we known for decades now about the dysfunctions of codependency? I think there is a pretty distinct difference between someone who is clinically depressed, as your first example, and someone who is “unhappy.” While I am sorry your friend has been in a tough spot, I assure you, her brother has it worse. Beyond worse.

    As for me, I am unable to shower frequently due to extreme hair loss and skin conditions, and my confidence is shot enough without thinking my dear friends are judging me over it! And I don’t go out very often anymore because the fatigue of ME is crushing. I can barely keep up with the basics let alone attempt to live the life I once led. I am in CBT and regularly practice meditation and mindfulness, yet I still wake up each day not seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. I can’t bear to drag friends into my story and all I ever hope for is they might provide inspiration—maybe then I can regain confidence and figure out how to live a productive life in an impaired condition. Yet I find very few are comfortable holding that space for me—your suggestions are already quite embedded in our current consciousness.

    Please, extending compassion can’t be rhetoric. Aren’t there any new ideas we could introduce or explore on this?

    Sara: My sincerest apologies for any offense my post may have produced. As I wrote to a previous commenter, my choice of example could have been better. I have been depressed myself as well as been the supporter of many depressed people (and unhappy people who weren’t depressed). I do agree there’s a gulf between them, and that, as you say, my suggestions are embedded in our current consciousness. But my experience is that people who care enough to fling themselves into the fray of supporting unhappy people do struggle to manage how unhappy the unhappiness of people they love makes them. As I’ve written numerous articles here on depression and compassion, I wanted to address the feelings of those who support those who are depressed and recognize how much that support can wring from them. I’m not advocating walking away—but neither am I judging it. This is really is a complex issue and I wanted to open up a dialogue about it. Again, my apologies for making your reading experience a less than pleasant one.


  • I think I can say with absolute certainty that people who state—in the variety of ways it is said—that “we choose to be happy or not happy” have never experienced clinical depression or bipolar disorder. They have not the foggiest notion of what it feels like to be clinically depressed.

    In fact now that I see my words in front of me, I am wondering if the “choosing to feel sad” line is not a variation on the theme of “snap out of it!”

    We all know these days now how unhelpful it is to say snap out of it. We still suspect, I suspect—and it is said in half a dozen different ways in all the words above—that the sufferer is choosing her/his emotional state.

    David: I could not agree more. If you’re referencing the line in my post where I say “we must realize that everyone is ultimately responsible for their own happiness” (and forgive me if you weren’t), understand that in writing that I didn’t mean to imply I thought anyone suffering from depression is choosing to feel sad or should be able to just snap out of it. I know from firsthand experience myself and from treating patients with depression that such a belief is false and that such an exhortation is useless. But being able to decide with our conscious minds how we feel (which none of us can do) is quite different from being ultimately responsible for it. We ultimately do have the power to help ourselves feel better by a variety of other indirect means (even though part of being depressed means not caring to try)—even if we often need the help of others to do it. I’m not advocating that anyone turn their backs on people who are depressed or unhappy—just that anyone who makes the effort to support unhappy and/or depressed people will often have their happiness profoundly affected by the experience and that being aware of that fact can only be a good thing.


  • Thanks Alex! I made the decision a some time ago to spend more time on my happiness instead of focusing on helping others sustain happiness. It has caused some relationships to go astray but I’m in the better for my decision and healthier people have entered my life since then. It’s important to defend your happiness fiercely because there will be people who try to get in the way of your own journey.


    Michelle: I’m glad you’ve found a way to focus on your own happiness, but please note I don’t think our own happiness and the happiness of others is a zero-sum game. As I remarked in response to another comment on this post, I do think an effective way to strengthen our own happiness is by focusing on helping others to become happier. The point I was trying to make here is that in choosing to fight for the happiness of others who suffer, our own happiness may become vulnerable. I think I failed to make the point well that the goal is to strengthen our own life-condition and happiness enough that we can be with those who suffer rather than run from them—but that the decision to run is personal and sometimes, as you imply, appropriate.


  • Great read! Thank you.

  • I found your posts by (a very happy!) accident (or are there no such things as accidents?) and am slowly reading through earlier ones. You are a wise, thoughtful and articulate young man and have given me and others much to ponder on. This time your post exactly describes my own situation and could not have come at a better time. My brother is everything you describe, depressed, anxious, manipulative and stubborn. But he is also mentally ill and has a personality disorder. He does not want to be the way he is, with all the misery it brings him and others. Nora makes some valid points which you helpfully pick up on. For me, compassion must come first. Compassion for the sufferer AND for ourselves. I think if we can keep our hearts full of love then we are better able to see clearly the need for everything you suggest, but that is easier said than done. Over-involvement or abandonment…both behaviors have been the answers others in my family have tried, at great personal cost even though what they had to endure growing up makes the second response completely understandable and probably necessary for their own well-being. I escaped a lot of that but now geographical proximity and personal temperament leave me struggling to keep to a middle way in my dealings with my toxic unhappy brother. He is being particularly challenging and demanding at the moment, risking dismantling all the professional support put in place to help him. Your words are a timely reminder not to be sucked in or to run away, It is possible to hold true to my values about supporting him without losing my own right to happiness. Thank you.

    Anna: The phrase you used, “the middle way,” seems particularly appropriate. Best of luck to you.


  • Hello again—Sara from above. I just wanted to add a couple more thoughts to the conversation. I do acknowledge the spectrum of this dilemma is huge, if not infinite. I am mid-40’s and have experienced many sides of this now. From dealing with family members and intimate partners who all unconsciously dwell in and spread their toxic darkness (likely from untreated depression), to close friends who seem to feed off their toxic drama for drama’s sake since even when their current difficulties resolve, they find new ones, to having to explore my own boundaries with those situations, to most recently having to personally experience the imbalances of depression along with physical illness.

    The common denominator to me has been, in every situation, none of the resources I can find provide anything truly effective for relief. The formula is the same old help+give+support (or be a drain) until someone reaches a breaking point then backs away. When you consider the belief that everyone comes in your life for a reason (depression, sadness, or toxic aside) it might someday open up new ways to think about things. I needed these others (as they were) just as much as they needed me—for love, support, growth, pain, experience, whatever it may be. And if/when, at the end of the day, I take the moral high ground of “ultimately putting MY happiness first,” it feels to undermine the purpose behind the experience.

    I just wonder if or when we’ll move beyond the “individual survival” mentality and explore insights like, how do we really come together and truly support, survive, heal, thrive? Remember, we are all here together and when one of us goes down, whether we are in direct contact with them or not, it brings us all down. I mean, to extrapolate, we already know paradigms have to change because every ecosystem on our planet is in jeopardy or failing. Yes?

    I hope this made sense. This is likely the wrong forum for these thoughts and it may be we aren’t spiritually evolved enough yet to know. It just stirred stuff up for me. (Which is a good thing really so I have to thank you for that!)

    Sara: It makes very good sense. I don’t think deciding to put “your happiness first” means backing away from others who are unhappy, if that’s how you took my meaning. I think sometimes it does. I think the fastest way to become happy and maintain it is to focus on helping to relieve the suffering of others. But when we do that, we often don’t realize how that suffering may affect us and, if allowed to “infect” us fully, bring our own happiness crashing down, thereby preventing us from being able to help others with theirs. It’s truly a fine line to walk, but one we must each learn to walk if we want to build the society you (and I) hope for. Thanks for the comment.


  • Wow, great article. One thing for sure, there is no easy answer. I think we should pray about it and turn it over to the God of our understanding because we are not in control and acceptance of this is the truth. For me I find great comfort in The Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

  • When my daughter’s problems started affecting me in a big way, a therapist recommended that I adopt a stance of “curiosity” when speaking with her. This created a small amount of distance but kept me engaged in conversation. I learned more about how she thought and uncovered some ways to be supportive that had not occurred to me. I still find this helpful.

    Ann Rose: What a useful idea!


  • What an fascinating topic. Over recent years, I have found myself grappling with several people who, for reasons of personality, illness or circumstance, drained me—emotionally, personally, financially. I gave them all I could, but each time a tipping point arrived where I felt “done,” where the sense of it moved me from feeling compassionate, loving and helping to feeling ripped off and taken advantage of. When I had to let go for my own survival. When I realized that what I was doing was ineffective in bringing about change, and served only to perpetuate a bad situation, while things were far more apt to change without me. A key distinction is the other person’s deliberate intransigence and manipulation, i.e. responsibility—which is lacking where the person is truly physically or mentally ill or addicted. But the notion of “loving from a distance” is very soothing to me, thank you. I miss these people terribly and wish things were different.

  • As the spouse of a person with bipolar illness, I can say that distancing is not the same as tossing that person away or giving up on caring for them. It is a survival skill that we tend to lose when it comes to people who are very close to us. It takes many caretakers years (and often therapy) to learn that it is not only all right to take care of themselves, it is VITAL. If you are so drained you cannot take care of yourself, you certainly won’t have anything to give to others either. Even if a person is clinically ill, they sometimes make the choice to not seek the professional help they need or choose to not enact the necessary steps to help themselves get better. In that situation, you should not allow yourself to be dragged further into their mire. Sometimes self-preservation is necessary no matter how much you love the other person.

  • Thank you for an excellent thought-provoking post and the following discussion. In trying to support my sister through her anxiety and depression, various members of my family (mom, sibs) have each had to come to different places on your caregiver’s continuum. While none of us has felt the need to “detach with love,” I call readers attention to a recent book The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok. In the memoir, the author describes how she and her sister had to separate from their mentally ill mother by changing their names and setting up a post office box through which they communicated with her for 17 years before reuniting shortly before their mom’s death. This detachment happened only after their many attempts to get her professional help and utilizing other approaches on your list. Before reading this book, it would have been easy to judge them harshly, but in this profoundly moving and compassionate story, I understand how they came to this decision.

  • Thanks for a very interesting topic. My father-in-law is 93 and in good physical health for his age but is unsteady in gait, uses a walker, and is no longer allowed to drive. I see him as clinically depressed. We see and visit hi frequently, more than weekly, and occasionally take him out for a meal; he really doesn’t want to do much. He is in assisted living, but it is a very nice place and he has his own two room apartment, his own bathroom, and a private entrance from the outside, so that it does not seem institutional at all. He is free to come and go as he pleases, and is at zero level of care, meaning he needs no help with anything—I go weekly and set up his meds and he is compliant in taking them. There are many activities offered at the ALF, but he chooses to not participate in any. He sits in a chair in his room in the dark, refuses to open his blinds or turn on any lights. I have made sure he understands that he is not paying extra for electricity, so that is not why he keeps it dark. He does not watch TV, listen to radio or music, or read anything. I go over and he is sitting in the dark; if I turn the light on and explain that he should keep it on for at least his safety, if nothing else, (he falls a lot) when I go back just a few hours later, the light is off. I ask him why, he says he was watching TV and it makes it easier to watch, although the TV is never on any time that we go over. I told his doctor this, in his presence, a few days ago and he vehemently denied it and got angry with me. I am at the end of my rope in knowing how to deal with him, and have actually already started distancing myself emotionally, for my own sanity, but feel that I have anger towards him. I just don’t know what to do.

    Gerri: A very difficult situation. He does sound depressed and if so he needs treatment. Knowing that, of course, doesn’t prevent his suffering (and the behavior you describe that stems from it) from having a profoundly negative impact on you. Understanding that his suffering likely represents a disease may give some perspective and make it easier to manage your anger. (After all, you wouldn’t get mad at a heart patient for complaining of chest pain, would you?) It’s just in the nature of the disease. Still, we too are human and have reactions we can’t control. I think the ideal would be to find a way to protect yourself without abandoning him, in your heart or in practice.


  • Hi, Alex,

    Found your article very interesting and thought provoking. So far the discussions seemed to revolve around mentally ill/depressed people and how to develop compassion for them as well as oneself. But what if the clinically depressed person is also prone to anger, abuse and violence? I also read that you practice Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism which advocates developing compassion and even praying for the happiness of the person who does wrong to you. Perhaps that’s still doable from a distance and maybe when you encounter such situations once in while. But how do you develop the spirit to forgive someone when you’re at the receiving end of a mentally ill angry person daily? I know of a friend who’s father is schizophrenic and prone to bouts of anger and violence. Since he refuses to get professional help anymore because he hallucinates that he’s perfectly all right now, it’s imperative for her family to stick with him to ensure that somehow he keeps getting the right medication since he refuses to visit a doctor. Theirs is a situation where they can neither leave him nor get away from his anger and abuse every day. To add to that, they undergo a lot of social isolation due to the father’s behavior with friends and relatives. Over the years I have seen a lot anguish and helpless anger built into them as they feel completely trapped. Its like they can’t hate him or be angry with him because they knows he’s mentally ill and not in control of his mind but at the same time find it difficult to forgive him for his actions. How can one learn to forgive and be compassionate in such a situation everyday?

    NS: It’s extremely difficult to maintain compassion for someone who abuses you and from whom you don’t feel you can escape, even if their abuse comes from mental illness. My answer isn’t an easy one, but it’s this: the happiest life imaginable, I believe, comes from one in which compassion overflows. That is, becoming compassionate doesn’t just benefit others toward whom we feel compassion—it benefits us most of all. The first step in developing our compassion begins with changing the way we view situations such as you describe. Rather than see them as obstacles to our happiness, we must view them as opportunities for training. How do we enlarge our feelings of compassion? By immersing ourselves in difficult situations in which our own suffering impels us to develop it. Especially when we feel trapped and unable to change our situation, as the family you describe must (feeling, as you say, unable to leave him), we’re forced to try to change ourselves. This is a great benefit disguised as a great obstacle. In what other circumstance would we suffer enough pain of our own to feel impelled to make substantive changes in our own lives? Certainly, if we exclude the enlargement of our compassion as a way out of our suffering, we’re at risk for falling into despair over the kind of circumstance you describe. But I would argue it’s just such a circumstance that provides the conditions necessary for us to become more compassionate, and thus happier. The next step, of course, is finding and pursuing a method that actually can take the raw material of such a circumstance and forge enlarged compassion out of it.


  • Hi Alex,

    I came across your very interesting blog by chance. I am a market researcher and one of the topics my company measures is employee engagement (which we link to customer advocacy or loyalty). I feel that notions of employee commitment and motivation are related to (but are distinct from) engagement and that further exploring and understanding the concepts requires a solid grounding in psychology if not psychoanalysis.

    As I explored this topic, I also wondered about the connection between engagement or motivation and happiness which lead me to the work of Dan Gilbert of Harvard as well as Robert Holden (who produced a series on the subject of happiness for the BBC). Their thinking (and I hope I’m doing it justice here) is that happiness is largely intrinsic, i.e. we can “will” to be happy even in the most adverse circumstances or traumatic events. In fact Professor Gilbert talks about synthetic happiness, arguing that we have a psychological immune system that can be activated to make us feel happy in the face of adverse external events. He even goes as far as to say that synthetic happiness is just as real as the state of happiness which results (at a moment in time) from reaching our goals, objectives etc.

    Reading through your fascinating blog, I became very interested in your more psychoanalytic perspective and wondered what your view is on intrinsic versus extrinsic factors which determine happiness. More specifically, do you find overlap between your ideas and those of Gilbert or Holden? Your remark “we ultimately do have the power to help ourselves feel better…” leads me to think that there is some agreement with the ideas of Dr Gilbert. I would be very interested to hear your views on this.

    Nicos: I very much agree with Dan Gilbert, whose work I know well. I’d go even as far as to say adversity is necessary for increasing one’s happiness. I have a book proposal in submission to publishers now that links many of the principles of the Buddhism I practice with modern-day psychological research that demonstrates resilience is something that can be learned. Commitment is clearly a key part of building a resilient self. Very interesting stuff.


  • One of the difficulties of dealing with someone who is unhappy is living with the decisions they might make in an effort to climb out of that unhappiness.

    While I was deployed to the Middle East, my husband of 17 years decided that I was the cause of his unhappiness and decided to leave. We essentially had a “change of command” on the front porch as he turned over the keys and the kids to me. He had been unhappy for a while and I had told him that his unhappiness was an inside job, something he needed to work on. What I didn’t expect is for him to leave.

    It has been difficult and I am trying to want the life I now have instead of the life I thought I had. I am getting better at it, but it’s still a slog. Your observation that suffering is necessary for true growth is the thing that resonates with me. Unfortunately, God feels very far from me. However, as my chaplain has pointed out, he has not left me bereft as multiple angels in human form kept me safe and walked this path with me.

    They tell me I am strong and this will make me a better clinician. I wonder what it will be like next year at this time?

  • Even now, 11 years after leaving my “significant other,” this entry is exceedingly difficult for me. I write it in the belief that it may help others in deciding what to do given their own situation. Although my committed relationship was with another man, it was in almost every way no different than the joys, benefits and upsets of a typical heterosexual marriage. We lived openly in a community that treated us no differently from any other married couple. For 17 years we were mostly very happy, shared many of the same interests, built a successful business together, had talents that varied so as to give each of us our own “domain” and were able in many ways to give back to the community at large. It was the life I had dreamed I had wanted.

    Underlying this outwardly seeming gilded life was my mate’s chronic depression that no matter the counselor, no matter the doctor, no matter the different and varied medication loomed larger with each passing year.

    I viewed his issues as an illness just like heart disease or lung cancer. You don’t leave a loved one when they get ill. But his mental depression I was completely ill-equipped to deal with and it led to me going into my own therapy for 3-4 years, sometimes twice weekly. As his depression grew deeper and lasted for longer periods of time it alternated between complete and silent withdrawals to periods of lashing out and severe mental cruelty almost always directed at me, although he lashed out at other as well. Friends fell away, relatives were horrified, employees became distraught and I felt helpless, having experienced the kind of depression that was related to specific life problems (sudden loss of a family member, dealing with hate directed at me by a community because of who I was) and was relatively short term in nature (though all-consuming at that time). I lacked the right tools, not for him but for myself.

    Still as long as my ex was willing to try new therapies, I felt not only compelled to stay but hopeful maybe there was a way out of this hell, a perfect storm of irrational anger and the need to take on all of the other person’s responsibilities as well as my own. As I did this, my own health began to deteriorate from the stress. I developed bleeding ulcers, sleep apnea, severe and chronic flu symptoms—I was physically beginning to fall apart. And my personality, which by my own and others account is generally optimistic and sunny, became sullen, defensive and sometimes angry. Without any love coming in, I was growing bitter.

    My ex even committed himself to an institution and under went shock therapy. This was not my idea; I was horrified, but three doctors, in joint consultation saw it as a way to go.

    There was some relief but no cure and so when my therapist informed me that he could be this way forever or he could be this way for a very long time and then outgrow it, I decided that I just was not equipped to give the rest of my life over to living in these circumstances. It was time for me to gain some space, to divide our assets and not abandon but to live apart. It took me 4 years to reach that conclusion. And even then it took a stranger, someone who happen to come into my life in a business transaction, to help me cross the bridge to a new life, a life alone, a life I had no idea about (I had been with him since I was 25, I left when I was 46). And even after leaving it took 2 lawyers and 3 years to sort out our assets.

    It is now 11 years later, and we still communicate and there have been times that I have been pulled back in to help him get through a crisis. I am still single. He still sometimes lashes out in anger but rarely and when he does he always asks to be forgiven shortly thereafter and I always do. I know where it comes from and though I don’t fully understand it still, I no longer take it as my fault or my responsibility.

    He recognizes (though certainly not at first) why I had to create some distance, and he has told me he thinks I did the right thing for myself. I won’t call this a story where everyone lived happily ever after but both of us have been the better for it and I am certainly far happier most days than I ever was during the last 4-5 years together. And I like him once again and truly care about him but I don’t feel obligated, trapped or abused anymore.

    Steven: A heartrending story. It sounds as if you were able to make a difficult but wise decision to detach with love. A good example, I think, of a difficult choice made from compassion, both for your partner and yourself, that illustrates how often our choices aren’t between good and bad but between bad and less bad. Thank you for sharing your story.


  • The unhappy person in my life is my mother. She is so miserable all the time and whenever she is in a bad mood, she comes up with a reason why it is my fault. She doesn’t actually come out and say that it’s my fault, but she reacts to me like I am the cause of her misery. My sister died a few years ago, and I really don’t think this is the real cause of it because she was just as unstable and miserable as she is now. I guess it could be from the accumulation of dead people in her life over the last four years; there were about six family members who died. But still, I lost those people too. She acts like she hates my dad, and she hates to leave her house, and she just wants to sleep all day long. The only thing I can think to do is spend more time with her, but I allow her mood to affect my mood. I need to know how I can spend time with her without letting her mood affect me. But there are random times when she is really extremely happy, or she is pretending to be really happy. Those only last for an hour at the most. She is really annoying and it is getting really old. I don’t dare talk to her about it because she is one of those people who will respond with something like, “Who are you to talk to me about this? Just leave me alone and never talk to me again.” Then she will get really mad and start throwing things at me. I hate it. I guess I really just want to know if I am the only one who feels like their mother hates them and blames them and how they deal with it. She is an emotional roller coaster and just thinking about her makes my stomach hurt. She refuses to get professional help at that.

    Harriet: I’m so sorry to hear about the trouble you’re having with your mom. It’s absolutely (unfortunately) not at all uncommon. Always treacherous to make a second-hand diagnosis across the Internet, but your mom sounds clinically depressed. The only advice I can think to give you is to approach her during one of her better moods with a heart that’s genuinely concerned only for her happiness—you must find a way to feel and communicate that—and suggest that she sounds clinically depressed and that she should mention it to her doctor. There really is good help for her—and therefore for you.


  • Hi Alex…I have posted to some of your articles before but this one really knocked me sideways. I have read your follow-up statements but from someone who professes to have been a depressive and a healer of people suffering from depressive illness I am shocked through to the bone. There is not enough room here for me to reiterate how a depressed person feels on a day-to-day basis, on a week-to-week or even a year-to-year basis. You seem to have shifted the blame to the person themselves onto their lack of wanting to “shake it off,” give themselves a boot up the ass and to stop being so selfish and manipulative etc….not good coming from someone who I was about to buy a book off!

    Fi: I regret that you had such a negative reaction to my post. I certainly wasn’t suggesting a depressed person is to blame for their depression, nor that they can simply decide to stop being depressed. The problem with depression, of course, is that often a lack of desire to help oneself when depressed is very much a part of the disease itself. Depressed people deserve nothing but compassion and professional help. But relationships are complicated. Those living with chronically depressed people can easily be sucked into a depression themselves. At what point does it cease to be selfish and become an act of self-preservation to walk away from someone you love who isn’t getting better? I think this remains a difficult line to define. To make the painful decision to distance oneself from a loved one who is depressed in no way—in my mind at least—casts any judgment on the person being left.


  • Now I feel I am really lost. If depression is a disease with physical and mental effects and it drains on the well-being of those around the depressed person, what is the difference (in the context of your response to “Fi” above) between it (depression) and, say, cancer? Or another intractable or similar disease? If the patient can’t help him/herself, how can the difference be so great between how we view cancer versus how you propose we view depression? I’m totally lost now.

    Simply replace “depression” (or varieties of it) with “cancer”: “Those living with chronically depressed people can easily be sucked into a depression themselves. At what point does it cease to be selfish and become an act of self-preservation to walk away from someone you love who isn’t getting better?”

    I have to agree with Fi. The patient is starting to sound blamed.

    Molly: I suspect for many the key issue in supporting someone with depression compared to cancer isn’t what (or who) caused it but what attempts are being made or not to deal with it. Though depression itself may make it more difficult to do anything about depression, only in extreme cases is it prohibitive (often necessitating hospitalization). The ideal, of course, would be for us all to be strong enough to handle the challenge of being in the intimate space of unhappy loved ones, whatever the cause. And, as I think the bulk of my post suggests, every effort should be made to build that strength. But the point I was trying to make was that being around unhappy people, especially unhappy people we love, is terribly hard, and that the unhappy person isn’t the only one who suffers. Caregivers in general have a tendency to sacrifice themselves for others. I was hoping merely to point out that it’s all right for people to consider their own well-being when intimately tied to someone who’s unhappy, not that unhappy people are to blame for their unhappiness (on the other hand, lack of blame for causing one’s unhappiness doesn’t imply lack of responsibility for initiating efforts to overcome it). The alternative position, I suppose, is that it’s not all right to distance oneself from someone whose pain is so overwhelming that it threatens to engulf us, but that’s a position I find difficult to support. This is hard stuff. I didn’t mean to suggest I’m in sole possession of the right answers. I was just hoping to frame a discussion about a challenging but all-to-real real problem.


  • Hi Alex,

    Thanks for reply. This is a very hard matter to look at from any point of view; even the professionals disagree on mental health issues and how best to work with them. There are many different reasons for depression and how it affects different people but some of the specialists deal with each case in the same way. Medication can help but it can also turn the patient into an emotionally void person and sometimes that is harder to understand that the actual symptoms of depression. There is a lot to learn a lot to try to understand and most of all a lot of help needed by those suffering from something so horrendously destructive.


  • My husband went through years of constant unhappiness. He cried a lot and acted sullen and very cold. Therapy is starting to help. However, I haven’t had friends in from out of town in a long time because he’s so unpredictable. It’s very stressful for me when he’s going through a crying jag/sullen episode. He’s very dramatic. My friends have asked whether he’s just manipulating and controlling me. They ask why I allow someone to do this to me. My answer is that in helping him I help all of us. I wouldn’t even dream of leaving and having my child be with him alone on weekend visitation—no way. How do we ever know when it’s manipulation or real? His doc told me to read about this disorder—borderline personality disorder—I think he has it.

  • I have a friend who I exercise with an hour a day, 4 days a week. We have been meeting up for the past 5 years. She is an unhappy person both in her personal and professional life. She uses our exercise sessions as a release valve (her words), which means she unleashes her complaints and unhappiness on me which makes me feel depressed and angry at her—I used to suggest ways to solve her problems but now I just listen to her and don’t express any opinions. After 5 years of this I am considering not seeing her anymore. I feel bad that I’m “dumping” her but I just can’t deal with her negativity anymore. Should I confront her about this (and possibly make her more unhappy) or just drift away from her?

    colagirl: Perhaps consider a third alternative: what it sounds like your friend values is your willingness to listen without trying to solve her problems. Despite my desire to solve the problems of my patients, often I can’t. To combat my consequent desire to be rid of them, I tell myself I’m providing great value by simply listening to them—nd they tell me the same thing. When simply listening becomes my goal—not trying to solve their problems or turn them away from their own negativity—I find I’m able to reach that goal easily, and more importantly derive tremendous satisfaction from achieving it.


  • Hi Alex,

    I have a brother who chooses to be unhappy and constantly thinks he is the unluckiest person on earth. He blames me for all his failures. He is angry with me when he is unhappy with his life. He keeps thinking that I have to be responsible for his unhappiness since I am the older sister (our parents passed away when we were really young). This has been going on for over 15 years. He is almost 30 years old, still single and quite immature. The last time I communicated with him, I asked him what we could do to help him. He said there was nothing that we could do and he just wanted to be unhappy. I found it was hilarious he prefered to be unhappy. For the past 15 years he bombarded me with bad and unhappy news and he ignored me when things went well with his life. I decided that he just wanted my attention and enjoyed seeing me upset for his unhappiness. I made a decision to detach. I pray for him that he would have a wake up call one day and be happy with his life. However I chose not to communicate with him any more. It might sound selfish but I have become a happier person myself which also positively improves my marriage life. I heard from other relatives that he has been telling other relatives how stressful and unhappy his life is. I agree with your opinion about some people are just simply toxic by nature. You can really change them but you can change the way you deal with them. Unfortunately if the toxic is your loved one, it is hard indeed. We need to stay strong and you are right… I guess in my case, my brother needs to wake up and learn to be responsible for his own happiness.

    Thanks for your post Alex. It is very encouraging.

  • I applaud this article. I think you make it quite clear that there is a difference between distancing yourself emotionally and abandoning a loved one. I suffer from clinical depression, and have two loved ones with similar illnesses. Both have worse support systems than I do. I try my best to help, support and be the best friend I possibly can. However, both of these people, although medicated and in therapy, continue not to follow the advice of their therapists. You can also have a poor attitude in addition to suffering from mental illness. They are the most negative people I have ever known, and I am very negative myself; but I have been trying to see things in a more positive light. Both people are warm and supportive of me as well. The problem is that one person’s negativity and anger has been extremely draining. I was dumb enough (for years) to try to fix him, and have swan-dived right into that metaphorical black hole. I know realize that I cannot allow myself to get so emotionally charged by his misery. He refuses to take different medicine that has been suggested. I know his misery has affected me profoundly for many years, and it was my fault for not knowing how to disengage from it.

  • A good article that I refer to support me when I am supporting my sick and consequently unhappy partner. I understand why she is unhappy. . . she’s sick. . . I cannot make her better. . . I cannot make her happy. I must manage the situation and this helps. Thanks.

  • Thanks for this article. My partner who I love dearly is struggling with some very difficult issues and is extremely unhappy. I’ve been making the mistake of attaching my own happiness to his and am therefore not helping him as this puts pressure on him to be happy for me. The hardest thing is to give myself permission to be happy, but this article has helped me see that it might actually help him if I can do that.

    Carol: I’m so glad you found the post helpful.