Love, Self

Is It Depression Or Abuse? The Difference Between Feeling Bad And ACTING Badly

Photo: Photo by Tanja Heffner on Unsplash
depression or abuse

Domestic violence and partner abuse have been in the news often lately, particularly around sports and celebrity figures. One of the issues many people may wonder about is the part depression may play in abuse.

First of all, let’s get it clear: there is no excuse for any kind of abuse — emotional, physical, sexual, or financial. There are many possible reasons, however, that people may act abusively.

It is important here to make the distinction that abuse is a behavior, and depression is a mental state. They are two separate things — it’s not either/or. So while someone may wonder, "Is it depression or abuse?" that's actually a false choice.

A person may be both depressed and abusive.

But just because you’re depressed doesn’t mean that you will be abusive, and just because you’re abusive doesn’t mean you’re depressed.

Related: 5 Struggles Every Couple Faces When One Partner Gets Sick

There are a variety of mental states and illnesses that contribute to people acting abusively, including personality disorders such as narcissism, bipolar disorder, as well as PTSD, hyperactivity, substance disorder and others. Depression does not seem to be one of them. In a recent CBN article, Laura Petherbridge listed twelve traits of abusers, including many relevant traits like being jealous, manipulative and hypersensitive, but depression is not mentioned.

Moreover, abuse is a controlling, aggressive behavior; depression is more often a withdrawn, passive state. A characteristic of depression —  more often displayed by men —  is extreme irritability and misplaced anger, which may take the form of abuse.

Depression, however, is not an excuse for any kind of abuse. A person may be depressed about their financial situation and try to control his or her partner’s spending as a result, but the depression doesn’t cause the abuse. Interestingly, the person more likely to feel depressed is the victim of the abuse, not the abuser.

Some depressions have externalizing symptoms which are acted out, while some have internalizing symptoms acted toward the self. That people are asking questions, however, is a good sign that they are looking for answers and not just accepting a dysfunctional relationship.

Here are some of the warning signs of a toxic relationship in both the victim and the abuser. A complete list can be found in the Harvard Health Help Guide.

As a victim, you may:

  • be fearful of your partner
  • be wondering if you’re wrong or crazy
  • feel helpless
  • be overly anxious to please your partner
  • feel like you have to report all your whereabouts
  • feel increasingly depressed and anxious
  • have low self-esteem

An abuser will show signs of:

  • being jealous and controlling
  • denial and rationalizing of abusive behavior
  • humiliating and intimidating their partner
  • criticizing and blaming
  • temper explosions
  • turning on charm or guilt as manipulation

It is also important to know the signs of depression, a mental disturbance that lasts at least two weeks and is distinct from just "being unhappy" for a time:

  • hopelessness
  • loss of interest in pleasurable activities
  • lack of concentration
  • sleep and appetite changes
  • fatigue
  • hopelessness
  • loss of interest in pleasurable activities
  • lack of concentration
  • anxiety
  • suicidal thoughts

Related: 21 Signs You're In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship

If you notice any of these signs in your relationship, it is important to address them as soon as possible. First of all, make sure that you can talk about the issues safely without the threat of violence. So set some boundaries for safety and for “hitting below the belt” with your words.

If those boundaries are violated, stop the conversation for the moment and set up another time to talk. Without the proper context, you may make matters worse with your speaking. You can do more harm than good by berating each other in the name of “communicating.”

Instead, create a structure and agreement for a positive way of relating. Here are some suggestions:

  • Get clear about your commitment to yourselves as a couple and to cooperate to reach a mutual goal.
  • Agree to truly listen to each other, repeating back what the other has said.
  • Speak respectfully and stick to the subject without bringing up the “kitchen sink.”
  • Take responsibility for your own behavior without blaming your partner.
  • Express forgiveness.
  • Express acknowledgment by noticing and appreciating something positive your partner has said or done.
  • Celebrate your accomplishments.

There are some deep and complex reasons for abuse that must be addressed with professional help. Severe depression must also be addressed professionally. If you need help or support in addressing these issues with your partner, please reach out and do not try to do it on your own. Because everyone deserves to feel safe in their relationships. 

If you have more questions about abuse or depression in your relationship and how to create positive solutions, you may contact Drs. Phyllis Koch-Sheras and Peter Sheras by phone (434) 971-4701 or check out their website and their two recent books, Lifelong Love—4 Steps to Creating and Maintaining an Extraordinary Relationship and Couple Power Therapy—Building Commitment, Cooperation, Communication, and Community.

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