Sometimes the greatest stress in a marriage or partnership isn’t about poor communication or a loss of love and affection.
The hidden issue for many couples is depression.
This condition often plagues couples who come to therapy confused and distressed about changes in their relationship that they don’t understand. Neither one realizes that a mental health issue has developed behind the scenes.
When one partner is struggling with depression, the other frequently feels overwhelmed and hurt, and does not know what to do.
It is good to finally know what is troubling someone you love. But now you have a new challenge: How can you help yourself and your partnership through this incredibly tough time?
Why Depression Often Goes Undiagnosed
Depression can take hold without notice, often because it has no clear onset. About two-thirds of people with symptoms of depression never seek treatment, says the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA).
Depression has no single cause, but several factors can bring on symptoms. It can be situational – following an event that has turned life upside down for one or both partners. Sadness can turn to depression: grief over a personal loss, job loss, or the death of someone important to you may persist and become depression. It can also be an inherited biological condition. Or it may emerge after a long unresolved struggle with pain from the past.
Signs that One Partner May Have Depression
One partner may have lost interest in sex, become withdrawn, abrupt and irritable – and may even become downright mean. And the other does not know why this has happened. No one is thinking, “The problem is depression.” Of course the relationship now feels unpleasant and unrewarding to both partners; this often makes the depressed person feel even worse.
It may seem you’re caught in a downward spiral for no clear reason. For example, a wife begins to miss her husband’s presence, and miss the things he did to help around the house. She may begin to reach out, to pursue: “You never take me out anymore; you never help me with the kids.”
Because he’s already emotionally tapped out beyond his capacity, he may feel even worse and withdraw more, or attack and then withdraw: “Well, you just ask too much. You’re too unreasonable.” Or he may show righteous indignation: “Can’t you see how hard I work? How can you expect me to help with the kid’s activities too?!”
This usually leads to a deepening cycle of pursue/withdraw or attack/withdraw. And the marriage really begins to suffer.
Neither partner is seeing that there is a larger issue at work, which has nothing to do with their relationship skills. They may even have enjoyed much good will and good communication before this.
When one partner is depressed, that person is not emotionally available to the other partner. Alarm bells go off when one partner can’t see the inward struggle in their loved one’s withdrawal–fears of abandonment. “I’ve lost you! Where did you go?” The lonely partner may take it really personally, rather than understand what’s happened to their loved one.
How to Help Your Relationship When You Don’t Know What’s Wrong
The key to improving your life together is to learn to recognize what’s involved in your struggle. Couples therapy can be very helpful in identifying how depression or another condition is involved. A therapist can help you step back and recognize what has happened to your communication patterns. Along with couples work, individual therapy is likely needed to help the partner with depression find ways to treat it, understand themselves, and recover.
Helping a Marriage when One Partner is Depressed
Good self-care is so important when one partner is missing the support they used to have from their loved one. Unfortunately, this hardship is often one of the classic ways in which a lonely partner ends up straying out of a marriage. As one partner withdraws, the other gets emotionally desperate.
The lonely spouse may try to engage the depressed spouse for a good long time. Finally, in despair, the partner without depression may seek another life — a fuller social life, more dedication to the kids, or a new life with another partner. Know that these feelings can arise, and you can seek the support you need and still work on restoring the relationship.
Of course, having to face a mental health issue in your marriage is far from ideal. But while one struggles with the condition, the other can focus on good self-care and new ways to support the relationship, to help it feel less empty for both during this time.
Thoughts and Words to Help You Reconnect
Work on having the smaller good moments every day. Talk about what you want to focus on between you. For example, you can make the conversation about hearing how both of you are doing that day.
It can be nurturing to say, “I’m really missing you today. Is it okay if we sit on the couch together? Could you give me a hug?”
It may help also for the person with depression to say what they truthfully can: “I’m sorry it’s like this; I want to be there for you too.” The focus can be about finding whatever emotional connection is possible while the partner is working to cope with depression.
Seven Good Self-Care Tips for Partners of Those with Depression:
Depression does not have to take over your life or relationship. You can support yourself in living more fully by:
- Meditating each day
- Exercising regularly
- Allowing joy and happiness into your life
- Having a goal for the partner to recover
- Working on connecting in ways to help you see each other’s feelings and needs
- Recognizing this does not have to be your life forever
- Building your own support system (your own therapy; time with family and friends)
Most importantly, give yourself credit for getting clear about the problem. The strain has happened in your relationship because of a larger issue beyond anyone’s control. Work at keeping communication going between you, and recognizing each person’s needs.
There is Hope
Though it can pose huge challenges, know that you can feel good and nurture a loving relationship, even when facing depression. It is treatable; More than 80% of people who seek treatment for depression are successful in recovery, says Mental Health America. Learning to talk through about what is happening for you both in healthy ways not only helps you feel close; it can help with recovery from depression, too.
This is hard work, but you don’t have to struggle alone. A skilled therapist can provide much needed knowledge and support for one or both of you, to help you truly feel good again about being together.