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

Bad mental health is not an excuse to be an unhealthy partner.

Depressed woman ArtistGNDphotography | Canva 

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, 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 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. There are a variety of mental states and illnesses that contribute to people acting abusively, including personality disorders such as narcissism, and bipolar disorder, as well as PTSD, hyperactivity, substance disorder, and others. Depression does not seem to be one of them. 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Moreover, abuse is a controlling, aggressive behavior; depression is more often a withdrawn, passive state.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. 

RELATED: If He Engages In These 12 Behaviors, You're Being Emotionally Abused

Is it depression or abuse? The difference between feeling bad and acting badly:

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

RELATED: 6 Harsh Reasons Why Smart People Stay In Toxic Relationships

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: How People With Depression Tend To Speak Differently


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 behavior without blaming your partner.
  • Express forgiveness.
  • Express acknowledgment by noticing and appreciating something positive your partner has said or done.
  • Celebrate your accomplishments.

Some deep and complex reasons for abuse 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 think you may be experiencing depression or anxiety as a result of ongoing emotional abuse, you are not alone.

Domestic abuse can happen to anyone and is not a reflection of who you are or anything you've done wrong.

If you feel as though you may be in danger, there is support available 24/7/365 through the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-7233. If you’re unable to speak safely, text LOVEIS to 1-866-331-9474.


RELATED: 7 Signs You're Being Quietly Abused (And Don't Even Know It)

Drs. Peter Sheras and Phyllis Koch-Sheras are clinical psychologists and founders of Couples Coaching Couples, a national non-profit organization committed to the creation and maintenance of profoundly fulfilling relationships.