Q: “I think I’m depressed, but the doctor I consulted said it’s an adjustment disorder. I’m dating a guy who does not intend to go to college, while I expect to become a college graduate. Could my depression really be a reaction to my uncertainty about this relationship? Can this educational level gap cause problems between us later? How can I tell if this is becoming a problem?” –Kim
A: Kim, even if you are not aware of it consciously, uncertainty about the future of your relationship could indeed cause you to experience a depressed mood. The gap between yours and your boyfriend’s formal education may or may not cause problems in your relationship. First of all, attending college provides us with formal education, but there are other ways to become educated, sophisticated, and aware.
So the issue may not be whether he attends college, but rather whether he grows and develops in some way so that you will continue to view him as a resourceful person worthy of your respect. Making a relationship last is a very difficult challenge. (About two-thirds of all present-day marriages end in divorce). If your relationship is to last, it is very important that there be mutual respect. This does not mean that either of you has to be a perfect human being. But it does mean that you have to have at least some of the same values, goals, and perceptions of the world. And, it probably means that you have to regard one other as being resourceful enough so that you add to one another’s ability to make it in the world . . . . . that you are stronger as a team than by yourselves. You have asked how you can tell if the gap in your formal education is becoming a problem. If it does become a problem, here are two ways you can detect it:
1) If you feel he is falling behind you in sophistication, you could lose respect and admiration for him. Be aware of your own feelings and behavior. If you find yourself feeling impatient with him, becoming irritable with him, or telling him how you think he should improve himself, then a problem exists. You may be able to get past these feelings by reminding yourself of the strengths and abilities that he does possess. But if he is truly falling behind you in sophistication and resourcefulness because his efforts do not match yours, then adjustments must be made for you to be happy.
2) It is possible that he may feel good about your educational plans, and that he may not feel at all threatened by them. However, if he does feel threatened and insecure, the most common way for him to display those feelings would be to treat you with less respect. If you find yourself feeling criticized, belittled, or “put down,” especially in the company of others, then a problem exists. Remember: the existence of a problem does not necessarily mean that the relationship is hopeless. If you can enlist your partner’s cooperation in exploring your feelings and his, and working through the issues, especially with the help of a trained psychotherapist, then you may find that the mutual respect and admiration can be renewed and the relationship can survive. If not, then you can at least end the relationship with some understanding of what happened, and not with total bewilderment. Either way, working on the issue will help your depressed mood.
Michael R. Slavit, Ph.D., ABPP, is Board Certified in Cognitive Behavioral Psychology. This column is not intended to be a substitute for help from a qualified professional.