Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

"If You Leave Me, I'll Kill Myself"

Raising the stakes.

Many love relationships—maybe most love relationships—come to an end at some point when the people involved have come to know each other better, or when one or both have changed. Sometimes those involved have come simply to understand themselves better and realize that what they thought initially was appealing in their partner appears now to be tiresome or worrisome. This disenchantment occurs so frequently, it is unremarkable. Most individuals who marry successfully have previously been in a number of unsuccessful relationships that have come to an end, usually with one person walking out the door—although looking on from outside, it is hard to tell who really is leaving whom. One person draws back a little, the other gets offended and strikes back. Either one may behave in an angry or punishing way. And, finally, as the couple react to each other’s ambivalence, the relationship sputters to an end. One person may have been the one to break it off finally, but both are likely to be responsible. Usually, no one is worse off. The next relationship seems to cure whatever bad feelings remain from the previous one.

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Most of the time, both people in such a failed relationship come to feel, all things considered, that probably they are better off apart. Not uncommonly, one person or the other may consider himself or herself the injured party but sooner or later comes to think that perhaps neither of them was really at fault. It was just not their time. However, occasionally one person wants desperately to continue the relationship when the other is determined to end it. And, every once in a while, that desperate person says, “If you leave me, I’ll kill myself.”

I think anyone hearing that from a lover will have more or less the same response: he or she will be appalled. If they ever loved each other, neither can be completely uninterested in the welfare of the other; and certainly no one would want to be responsible for the other person’s death. If the purpose of threatening suicide is to make someone hesitate to leave, it is a strategy likely to work temporarily. But I think the threat of suicide is just that—a threat—and it will elicit the same negative response as every other kind of threat. “I will kill myself, and it will be your fault, and you will feel guilty forever!” is what is implied. Anyone hearing that will be angry. Getting someone angry is not going to encourage a feeling of love or a wish to return to a committed relationship.

Besides, the suicidal person is painting an unattractive picture of himself/herself. We are all supposed to have some sense of our lives having value. If one person does not want us, surely we should know that someone else will. And our view of ourselves should not depend exclusively on the good opinion of any one person. Threatening suicide makes that individual pathetic. And what good is it to have a pretend lover who stays around without really wanting to? Also the threat of violence—violence against anyone, even oneself—is frightening and off-putting. If the couple does get together, will there be further threats later on about some other matter? And is this a person likely in the future to consider suicide as a consequence of some other frustration?

Some jilted lovers do, indeed, kill themselves. It is rare, but it does happen, so the threat has to be taken seriously.

I saw a woman after her second suicide attempt. She was distraught because her husband of 20 years was leaving her and her three children for another woman. The risk to her life seemed to me so real that I asked her husband to come to see me.

He told me that, of course, he did not want his wife, who was the mother of his children and with whom he had lived all that time, to kill herself; but his life was empty, and he was determined to leave. This new woman, whom he had met at work, loved him in a way his wife did not, and he felt he was entitled to be happy. (He mentioned in passing that this new woman was ugly. I was not surprised that a man could fall in love with an ugly woman, although I certainly was surprised that he would say so to me for no apparent reason.) As he spoke about his marriage, I realized he was not so much leaving his wife as leaving his entire extended family, all of whom viewed him as a professional failure. It is often true that someone who leaves a spouse is really leaving other people as well and is also leaving behind also an unpleasant view he has of himself. It is easy to get carried away in the adoration of some new person.

I told him that I thought his wife was in danger, and I suggested what I thought he should do.  Whatever the reason a jilted lover may consider suicide (or homicide, for that matter), that feeling is strongest at first and likely to recede quickly over time. I have never seen someone commit suicide over unrequited love six months after a breakup. I asked this husband to tell his wife that he was not entirely certain he was going to leave but that he thought it best for a while to live apart. Although he did not admit any such doubt to me, he thought such a remark was not entirely untrue. I thought she would then stay alive long enough to overcome her sense of humiliation and betrayal.

And that is the way things turned out. She went from missing him and mourning him to being vaguely annoyed when he came over to visit the kids. By the time they met in the judge’s chambers eight months later, she was anxious to be rid of him. (She was enraged, however, when she took one look at his ugly fiancé and realized he was leaving her for her! ) By the way, in the wake of the divorce, she decided to give up the boring work she had always done and start a singing career. When I saw her last, she was dating a Broadway director. Her story is one more example of how awful it is for so many to contemplate death when after a period of time—and perhaps with treatment—they will find good reason to want to live.

It is reasonable to ask why certain people voice a threat of suicide in a situation—the situation of being rejected by someone they love-- which, although admittedly painful to everyone, is common and does not lead others to despair. Why are these people so vulnerable? It is because—more than others—they are defined by that particular relationship. That is who they are. Without that particular partner whom they love, their lives are meaningless. They think that if only they could make it clear to that other person just how strongly they feel, he, or she, will necessarily come around. Because there is no other alternative. There is no other way of being except as a lover to that person. Stalkers express feelings that are similar.

But I am reminded more of the early Christian martyrs or of soldiers who confront death indefatigably. The image of themselves is so caught up with being a Christian—or a soldier—that death is preferable to a violation of that sense of self that would be required were they to give up their faith, or were they would run away from their comrades as a coward. And so they contemplate death.

So, how do I try to help the patients who come to me, some of whom find themselves in the role of the rejected lover and some of whom are the other person—the man or woman who is determined to leave?

This is the general advice I give to those who find themselves enmeshed in such a failed romance. I try to help those men and women—usually young men and women—who have been jilted and who may be suicidal, by helping them find those other parts of themselves that are worthwhile, whether or not a particular person loves them at that particular time. They were able to live before they met that person and, surely, they will find life worth living later on. No feeling or passion lasts forever. It is only a matter of time. But I cannot talk somebody out of feeling the way they do. So I try to talk them into spending time with their families and friends. If work is satisfying, we talk about work. There are things that are worth doing, and we talk about those things, including things worth doing in the future. There will be a future. Even though they cannot imagine a different loving relationship with someone else, I talk about that possibility. Deep down they know that there can be someone else someday. But they do not feel like waiting. So I try to persuade them. Perhaps my caring about what happens to them makes a difference.

I also see, from time to time, the man or woman who is determined to leave. I try to recommend to them a plan similar to the one I suggested to the man with the ugly fiancé.

I remember one such conversation:

Young man: I’m not going to sacrifice my life in order to keep somebody else alive.

Me:  Of course not. It wouldn’t work anyway. You can’t keep sacrificing and sacrificing forever. But if someone takes out a gun, you don’t just walk away. A threat of suicide is like a gun. If you don’t take the threat seriously, it is an incitement to use the gun. Or to actually commit suicide, even if someone was just thinking about it. You have to take your girlfriend seriously. Talk to her. Give her time to think about everything. Be nice to her. Maybe you can find time to see her every once in a while even if you are serious about someone else. Try to be a friend.

The thrust of life being as strong as it is, most disappointed lovers get over their failed affairs and find purpose in doing other things with other people. They move on to other satisfactions and other worries. And sometimes they tell me years later that they cannot understand what was so important about that other person that, without them, they considered suicide.

I recently heard, secondhand, of a woman who had remained with her husband for 20 years because he said that otherwise, he would kill himself. But I don’t believe she was telling the truth. His feelings of desperation and her feelings of responsibility would have faded long ago. I think she was making an excuse for an unwillingness to risk a change in her life, which is the usual reason unhappy marriages stay together. 

(c) Fredric Neuman  Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ or ask advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column/

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

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