Relationships in Conflict: Depression’s Role

Depression is a natural enemy of close relationships. It helps build tension and conflict as a once-loving partner either withdraws into emotional isolation or turns angry and blaming. I suppose that’s inevitable since the loving support of a long-term relationship doesn’t fit the depressed view of an undeserving and damaged self. Nor does it fit the phase of depression that blames the partner for causing the inner pain.

Either way, depressed people push their partners off to a distance they can handle, and the partners search for explanations. A helpful one is to think of depression as a force that splits a person in two and starts an inner struggle between the healthy and depressed personalities. Then depression becomes the cause of conflict, the culprit that breaks apart the relationship.

My wife and I came to think in these terms and took comfort in imagining depression as the evil twin I needed to kick out of my life. That view gave us something to hope for. With each new treatment, there was another chance to get rid of the intruder and bring back the real me permanently. That’s how we’d end the tension and restore what we could of a damaged relationship.

But there were problems with that approach. It took a lot of our energy away from dealing with the tension and conflict we lived with every day. It was true that I had to focus on ending depression – my wife couldn’t do that for me. And while I was working hard on doing that, she had to take care of herself. But we also needed to try every day to repair the weakened bond between us.

Reconnecting with each other was just as crucial to recovery as the work I was doing on my own. Too often our effort to talk about it, though, came down to venting frustration, sometimes only confirming the worst. The one solution we kept coming back to began with progress in my treatment. And that was too long in coming.

In an earlier period, we had worked with therapists as a couple and had learned specific skills to get to the root of issues we fought over. We still tried to use them, but they no longer seemed adequate. They were too rational and didn’t recognize the power of emotions to overwhelm them.

We needed ways to deal with the specific distortions that depression brought to the relationship. The first step was to recognize what they were.

Depressed Ways of Thinking & Feeling

Here are a few that have been the strongest and most damaging to our relationship.

  • The Center of the World: First is the self-absorption that possessed me. Everything revolved around the pain I felt and the obsessive thinking that went with it. Whether I was in a phase of feeling worthless and causing all the unhappiness in my family – or blaming everything on them, the world revolved around me. My wife and every person I knew became players in my drama, projections of my depression, and I couldn’t see them for who they were.
  • Proof of Worthlessness: Wherever I looked, I found evidence to prove my own worthlessness. Anything that on its face supported the belief I had about what was happening I embraced immediately. Anything that contradicted it – especially if my wife or a close friend tried to be supportive and offer hope for the future – I’d attack and reject.
  • The Future is Fixed: All my thinking insisted that change was not possible. I would always be rotten – or I’d always be miserable. It will always be hopeless, and there will never be any remedy – except for an extreme one. That could mean suicide or complete escape into a new life where everything would be perfect.
  • Self-Defeat: With that conviction, I found myself fulfilling the prophecy of endless failure, disappointment and depression. I couldn’t possibly succeed – it just wasn’t meant to be. If others told me I had been successful, I knew that they simply couldn’t see through my false facade. They were completely wrong and not to be listened to.
  • Absolutes Rule: Everything I did was wrong. Everyone judged me. I could never be better. Hope was impossible. Treatments couldn’t work. I always failed. And on and on. My world of depression was full of absolutes. Everything was either good or bad. There were no complications.

A relationship of love, trust and sharing disappeared in this perpetual storm of negativity. I couldn’t see my wife for the person she was. I couldn’t even see myself.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy refers to these as “cognitive errors” and assumes that such habits of thinking produce the negative feelings of depression. By changing those habits, thinking, feeling and behavior can become more positive. You can start to see the world again in all its complexity and assess experience in a realistic manner.

That method has been of some help, but like so many others it assumes that rationality will prevail. The guiding assumption that thinking rules emotion doesn’t jibe with my experience. And I’m hardly the only one questioning this approach. Writers like Joseph LeDoux, in The Emotional Brain, and Antonio Damasio in The Feeling of What Happens, have written extensively about the intertwining of emotion and reason that gives rise to ideas and awareness.

Have you found ways to work with your partner to keep your relationship going while you’re also trying to deal with depression? What has worked for you?