There is no question that depression can be a beast — both for the person who is suffering from it and for spouses and partners. Depression can rock even the healthiest of relationships. It's like a sieve that filters the information a person processes. The negatives infiltrate the person's mind, and the positives are weeded out. Depressed people view themselves, their relationships, and the world in through a lens that is bleak, discouraging, and hopeless.
Living with a depressed spouse can be quite trying. Here are some specific ways that depression might be affecting your relationship:
- Your spouse views marital interactions through a negative lens. For example, if there is a disagreement, your spouse might jump to the conclusion that the marriage will end in divorce, or that you were being hurtful on purpose.
- Your spouse does not feel like engaging in enjoyable activities that you used to look forward to doing as a couple, such as going out to dinner, seeing friends, or going on walks.
- Your spouse no longer feels like having sex.
- Your spouse has difficulty following through with his or her responsibilities in running the household, such as doing chores, paying the bills, or driving the children to and from activities.
- Your spouse frequently vents his or her frustrations or excessively seeks reassurance about small matters.
- Your spouse engages in unhealthy behaviors that are concerning to you to escape the despair, such as drinking, using drugs, gambling, or overspending.
- You might feel as if you are "walking on eggshells"; concerned that you might say or do the wrong thing, which will just make your spouse's depression worse.
What often follows is marital conflict and a sense of disconnect. You may begin to feel resentful, perceiving that you must take on the lion's share of the household responsibilities, and become frustrated that depression is occupying so much space in the marriage. You may begin to feel lonely, missing the company of your partner and wanting things in your relationship to go back to the way they used to be. You may even start to view the future through the same sort of bleak, hopeless lens, wondering if things will ever change.
Fortunately, there are many ways to support your spouse through depression, which have the potential to decrease the strength and duration of his or her episode. Research shows that social support, defined as the provision of care to another, can buffer against depression. Social support comes in many forms, such as nurturance, companionship, and the provision of practical advice. The following are ways to put yourself in the best position to provide social support for your depressed spouse while, at the same time, taking care of yourself.
First, be very mindful of the fact that depression usually skews the manner in which people view themselves, their relationships, and the world. It's easy to become angry when you perceive that your spouse is unfairly accusing you of something, that he or she is rejecting you, or that he or she is generally being negative. Anger, however, will close you off from your spouse, decreasing the social support that you're able to provide to him or her and creating a sense of distance. When your spouse says something that seems off-putting or negative, try not to personalize it (even if it is directed at you). Attribute it to the depression.
Second, it's easy be lured by your spouse's hopelessness about the future when you continually hear how bad things are. Don't buy into his or her hopelessness. Imagine the moments of your life as being on a pendulum. Even if the pendulum is off to the far right or left, it will swing back. Depression and negative life circumstances usually do not last indefinitely. There are effective treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy, which have been demonstrated in countless research studies to lessen the severity of depressive symptoms and provide strategies to prevent relapse.
On the other hand, also refrain from being Pollyanna-ish. Although there is power in positive thinking, it needs to be compelling and believable to the person who is struggling with depression. Excessive optimism can be just as inaccurate and unhelpful as excessive pessimism, and it can inadvertently invalidate the depressed person's subjective experience. Strive for balance in the manner in which you are helping your spouse to view his or her situation.
Finally, refrain from making statements like "Buck up," "Just do it," and "Get over it." If your spouse could buck up, just do it, or get over it, he or she would have likely done so already. Instead, ask your spouse what type of support would be the most helpful to receive. If you have a suggestion for things your spouse could be doing differently, ask permission to share it rather than giving unsolicited advice.
There is no question that this is a difficult time for both you and your spouse. You can weather this storm with compassion and centeredness. And ultimately, your relationship may even strengthen because of it.
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