Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: Does my depressed boyfriend deserve better?

"It has hardly anything to do with you whether the other person gets better or not."

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,

Last year, I finished a long relationship with a boyfriend who was ill. He never did what the doctor told him or tried to help himself, and eventually I called it a day. Recently, I fell in love with a lovely guy, but he’s depressed.

After a while, he became so dependent on me – I was buying all his food, and he kept popping over, needing help – that I couldn’t work or keep up with other friends. So I ended that, too. But now, I can’t sleep at night, missing him and worrying about him. I feel selfish and cruel, because he might have got better. Should I ask him back?

Yours sincerely,


Virginia says...

I’m sorry to go instantly into Professor Freud mode, but could it be that you had a parent or sibling who remained poorly for the whole of your childhood? It is this situation that usually prompts Lame Duck Syndrome – and you’re clearly suffering from it badly.

The theory goes that, because of circumstances beyond your control, you’ve learned how to be a carer all your life. The techniques have been instilled in you from an early age, and over the years, you’ve got better and better at it. You end up as a kindly, sympathetic person – but, because they remind you of childhood, love and home, you’re always drawn to people who either aren’t well or who have some kind  of handicap.

There’s a catch 22 to all this, though. Because if they refuse to help themselves or simply won’t get better, you’re left feeling, as you probably did as a child, inadequate and wanting. You’re desperate for them to recover, but they won’t or can’t and you feel it’s all your fault. All this takes you back to the familiar feelings of childhood.

On the other hand, if they do recover and suddenly become independent and happy, you start to feel rejected and useless. For you to feel loved, you need permanently to be on the brink of helping them get better. There must be occasional lights at the end of the tunnel, to keep you going, but basically they’ve got to remain dependent.

The flaw in this childish thinking is that it actually has hardly anything to do with you or your behaviour whether the other person gets better or not. Your first boyfriend, the one who refused to help himself or take any doctor’s advice, was clearly hell-bent on self-destruction and you were powerless to prevent it. The second one has turned out to be much the same. You were even buying his food! How could you have continued?

I think you’ve been very brave and self-preserving to have ended this last relationship. You realised that it would never work out, and you mustn’t go back on your decision. He’ll soon find someone else to latch onto, I promise. I’m afraid there are any number of people cursed by the Lame Duck Syndrome.

The person to help now is yourself. Why do you pick these hopeless cases? You’ll probably always find hopeless people a bit attractive, but do they all have be what seem to be professionial no-hopers?

Helping others is something you’re good at. Try to treat this as a gift. But when you’re in the middle of helping others, don’t forget about helping yourself at the same time. 

I’m sure that you’re only missing this  guy because of the person he reminds you of in your own past. I think that you should find a sympathetic counsellor with whom you can unpick these problems – because they will be able to help you not to feel so guilty when you give up, very sensibly, on a lost cause.

Readers say...

Don’t do it

Look after yourself first. You’ll be no good to anyone if you allow yourself to be overwhelmed. I used to be the same as you, but eventually realised I was doing nobody any good. There are times when you have to say no.

Sara Neill

by email

The fault is with you

The answer to your question about asking your former boyfriend back is a firm no. You should be asking a question of yourself: why you cannot sustain relationships and why you can give only short-term love and comfort to those who need it, when you profess to love them. Loving means giving and needing each other. Until you recognise this and see the fault as being within yourself, then far from feeling selfish and cruel for ending the relationship, it would be selfish and cruel to others for you to reignite this relationship or start another until you analyse yourself and learn what love is really about.

RL Davey

by email

Seek some therapy

You evidently seek, and appeal to, partners who are needy. Then they get too dependent, and you see that the relationship has become unbalanced and unsatisfactory. The question is, what has happened in your life to make you like this? I think you need to seek therapy to find out, before you tie yourself to a needy partner permanently. You deserve better. Good luck!

Alison Mace

by email

Spend some time on your own

I get the feeling that you are already aware that there is something about you that is attractive to – and attracted to – people who are overly dependent. This has stifled your happiness in each of these relationships. You say that you are missing your boyfriend – but you also say that you are worrying about him, so maybe what you really miss is the feeling of looking after him and being needed. If you think this is a pattern with you, why not spend some time on your own for a while to work out why you’re doing this and how you can have happier, more equal relationships.

Adele M

by email

Next week's dilemma

The other day, I took my 14-year-old goddaughter shopping. Afterwards, to amuse her, I showed her an old photo album, which included a photograph of her mother with her first husband – the marriage had only lasted a couple of months. But she seemed very upset and after I’d dropped her home, her mother  – my friend – rang, furious that I’d shown her the photo. She had never told her daughter that she had been married before being married to her dad. I feel terrible, but at the same time, isn’t it her fault for not being honest with her daughter?

Yours sincerely,


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