Living with depressed partners can mean living without the feelings of love that are at the heart of every relationship. What is it about depression that could turn intimate companions into cold and blaming strangers?
Readers ask about this over and over as their partners start blaming them for their own unhappiness and want out of the relationship. How could the person they most loved and trusted suddenly turn on them?
After years of affection and intimacy, how could they suddenly declare that they don’t feel love, even worse, that they have never loved their partners at all?
One answer I’ve often given in the posts at Storied Mind is about the fantasy of escape. Depressed partners may refuse to face the inner pain that’s wrecking their lives. Rather than seek treatment, they want to blame the existing relationship as the cause of their collapse. They may come to believe that they will feel better if they can leave and find happiness elsewhere.
That answer comes out of my experience and seems to match what happens in many relationships once depression comes into them – though certainly not in all cases. The specific effects of depression will differ in every relationship, but this is the problem I hear about most often and the one I lived with.
What exactly is the inner pain that can’t be faced and dealt with? Reciting the usual list of depression symptoms and the effects they can have on everyday life only gets you so far. General lists don’t capture the experience.
Talking about “inner pain” suggests despair or other unbearable hurt that demands an explanation and must be escaped as quickly as possible. Since depression is a condition that can vary from day to day, that active side of pain can be the driving motive. But there is another dimension of depression that can lead to the idea of escape as the answer.
It’s the one that causes depressed partners to say they’re no longer in love and have never loved their partners. It’s called anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure or interest in anything.
For me, it was a kind of deadness. Rather than an excess of painful emotion, it was the lack of pain, the lack of feeling, that was the undercurrent of all the surface turmoil. I felt no satisfaction in life.
I believed that the relationship was holding me back, that it had become hollow, empty of the intensity I longed for. I was sure that I could only find happiness and passion with someone else. It was the fantasy of the perfectly passionate mate that was a constant lure.
I recently re-read a chapter in Peter Kramer’s insightful book, Should You Leave?, that captured this exactly.
As one of the dwindling number of psychiatrists who still practice psychotherapy, Kramer often works with clients who are dissatisfied with their relationships. They want to know if leaving is the best thing to do.
When he encounters someone who is convinced that the marriage is dead, he says that he always suspects depression or another mood disorder.
He can sense that the person before him could well have an undiagnosed depression that has emptied him of all feeling. Anhedonia is the cause of the desire to leave to find a new, more intense life. The depressed partner’s relationship feels loveless because he can hardly feel at all.
The problem is that the unaware depressive has such a high threshold of feeling that it takes extreme arousal to evoke excitement and passion. He can erupt with anger and rage because these are more violent emotions that stir him as little else does.
Kramer says that these clients often believe that they’re perfectly capable of feeling. After all, they can go out and have fun with friends. They can feel passionate with others who likely have no constraining relationships or might be seeking the same kind of escape.
But they feel good precisely because these experiences offer exceptionally high levels of stimulation. They may also turn to addictive habits like recreational drugs, drinking, gambling or pornography for the same reason.
Fantasies of escaping into a life full of new intensity seem like the perfect answer to their inner emptiness.
No single explanation covers the diversity and unique facts of every relationship threatened by depression. This one fits much of my experience and also fits many of the stories people write about on the blog and in emails.
Does it make sense in terms of your own experience? Have you lived through such a crisis or been close to someone who has?
(This is an edited version of a Storied Mind NewsLetter from 2011.)