How Couples Stay Together

How Couples Stay TogetherMany couples manage to survive depression with the help of marital therapy, even though most relationship therapies aren’t designed to deal with the added problem of a mood disorder. I’ve been doing a little research and have found that most therapy and counseling for couples doesn’t have a good track record.

In fact, research links the use of traditional couples therapies more often to divorce than to preservation of marriages. When you add in depression, the odds of success seem even more remote.

New Approaches to Couples Therapy

Fortunately, the track record for couples therapy is improving, but not because it’s better designed to deal with depression specifically.

Apparently for the first time, new therapies have been developed based on research. That may not sound like news, but it seems that many of the older approaches were, to quote one therapist, simply made up. There was never any evidence to support them.

According to John Gottman, one of the leading researchers in this field and author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, most of the methods came from individual psychotherapy. They may have worked well in that setting but often didn’t transfer well to the interactions of two people.

Newer approaches have come out of long-term research on the actual behavior of hundreds of couples. They work better because they focus on well-established patterns that couples fall into.

I want to highlight a few of Gottman’s findings because they include some of the ideas that have made it possible for my wife and I to stay together in spite of the impact of depression.

Why Relationships Survive – and Fail

Whether depression has interrupted a relationship of not, there are certain problems and tasks that all couples have to deal with. They make dozens of choices each day about how to relate to each other in small ways, and they often have to deal with serious conflict. However, it’s not the crises that undermine partners.

Gottman’s research shows that relationships don’t fail because of affairs, personality clashes, lack of communication, lack of sex, shouting matches, or the other causes cited by most “experts.” Stable, healthy relationships can and do survive all these problems.

It’s the underlying tension and negativity in a relationship that leads to crisis, not the other way around. Gottman’s research brings out sharp distinctions between the types of behavior found in healthy relationships and the dysfunctional patterns troubled partners follow. Here are a few of his many examples.

  • Matching Styles of Handling Conflict

  • All couples fight. Sometimes they quarrel over immediate issues that can be resolved, but most of the time they are fighting about perpetual problems that have no solution. Those are usually rooted in deep-seated personality clashes.

    The difference is that couples in good relationships have come to accept these differences while those in troubled relationships have not.

    Partners who are not doing well interpret the differences as stubborn and hostile behavior. It feels like your partner will never understand you, will always ignore or frustrate your needs – unless they can become the type of person you want them to be. That’s also an accurate way to describe how a depressed partner thinks.

    Couples need to be able to discuss their feelings in a constructive way rather than freeze in fixed beliefs about each other. They can maintain a positive, even good-humored dialogue that lasts through the lifetime of the relationship.

  • Emotional Connection

  • Turning toward each other on an emotional level rather than away is basic to a healthy relationship. Depression highlights what Gottman calls the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse in blocking emotional connection. Defensiveness, contempt, criticism and stonewalling are the worst behaviors that escalate from disagreement into angry fighting.

    This goes beyond turning away from each other. It’s turning against each other. Staying together over the long haul depends on showing concern, warmth, responsiveness and affection. If one turns away or ignores these affectionate gestures, there’s little basis for sustaining connection.

    If the gestures of concern and affection seem to provoke irritability, then you’re likely heading into escalation of conflict. All the negatives of the interaction become emotionally more violent. The best intentioned words and actions are interpreted as attacks or demands. The pattern is all too familiar to me. I often did exactly that in the midst of depression.

  • Successful Repair

  • Even couples with well-matched styles of handling conflict mess things up, hurt each other and feel terrible. The point is that they have learned how to repair the damage. They can see that the argument was about a specific problem, not a universal clash, and they can talk through the feelings each one has had.

    This is exactly what is so hard when depression hits. Each incident is universalized. It feels like the end of the relationship. Either it’s all the partner’s fault or all yours. There is no in-between. The inability to resolve the problems adds to the pain that partners feel.

Gottman believes that the best way a therapist can help a couple is by guiding them through all the painful feelings of their disagreements. They need to process the feelings fully, learn to live with differences and find positive ways of working through them. They won’t get anywhere by trying only to be affectionate with each other or to avoid conflict or to divert angry feelings or to be positive and upbeat all the time – as many therapists counsel.

He emphasizes that a relationship needs to have a lot more positive than negative experiences to survive. But the way to create more positive interactions is by probing the negative ones.

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is one of the most effective of the new therapies based on research like Gottman’s. In an upcoming post, I’ll explore why I think EFT may be especially helpful when depression is a major problem in a relationship.

In the meantime, let me know if you have used this approach and what your experience has been. I’ve already heard from a couple of readers who have done well with it. Has any form of couples therapy worked for you?

20 Responses to “How Couples Stay Together”

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  1. My wife and I went through counseling shortly after we had our 1st child. I believe your not really “married” until you have children. We had a lot of rough years and almost broke up, but we stayed committed to each other and stayed together and now we have been together for almost 32 years.

  2. John says:

    I’ve suffered badly from depression, and so has my wife. Communication is key, as is working through our problems, as the above poster noted. http://www.ibeatmysocialanxiety.com

  3. Cindy says:

    Hi, I had been dating my boyfriend for a year, when he became depressed.
    All of a sudden, he was telling me that he was untrustworthy, he was going to hurt me, and that he was a terrible person. He has dealt with depression in the past, and he knew that he was slipping into a phase. However, these words were entirely inconsistent with who he is as a person. He’ is incredibly smart, kind and loyal. Within a month, he withdrew and eventually stopped talking to me. After a few weeks of minimal communication, he ended the relationship. He said he was having trouble getting out of bed in the mornings and that he’s worried about hurting me.

    After separating for 3 months, he asked if we could be together again. He acknowledged that the breakup was a result of his depression and that he was experiencing a lot of confusion about his own thoughts and feelings. We decided to get back together, and for the first month it was really great! And then this past weekend, he completely panicked again – saying he’s going to hurt me and that he’s untrustworthy. He said we needed to break up. He also shared that his depression has gotten worse and that he’s experiencing a total lack of feeling and emotion. The next day we spoke and he said he had no idea why he said what he said, and that he’s so confused by his actions.

    But I have no idea what is happening or how to support him. I’m also confused about the status of our relationship and what it means to have a partner who is depressed. Any guidance would be incredibly helpful

    • Ruth says:

      http://www.storiedmind.com/relationship/how-couples-stay-together/#respond

      Hi Cindy.
      I suffer from bipolar ii and I know that it can be pretty hard on my husband and our 11 yr-old son.
      I suppose many of us concerned about our partners living with our depression/illness would recommend for our partners:

      1) strongly encourage the partner with the illness to seek help, and to be persistent in finding a good therapist with whom they have a good rapport (sometimes the latter can take a while).
      A good relationship really depends on that person taking responsibility for themselves. This is especially hard if they have no insight. But letting them know what you are observing of their behaviour and the effect it’s having on their functioning can be important.

      2) where/if you can, remind them of why you fell in love with them, and be clear that you know that’s who they really are – not what the illness makes them think they are, or how they are when unwell.

      3) where possible and where appropriate, let them know that it’s having an effect on you and the best thing they can do for both of you is seek professional help, and ask for help from you and others when needed.

      3) if possible, encourage them to write down in a journal (say) their qualities and attributes (positive things about themselves) when they are well, and what they have learned about their general thinking (negative) and behaviour when unwell. This can be a really valuable resource that you can encourage them to refer to when unwell (or you notice they are unwell). There’s nothing like you own healthy authority as a sufferer. I have learned that if I act towards my partner out of my own fear of how bad I am as a person (when unwell) the result is mostly misery for us both.

      4) I probably should have put this first – your own self-care is paramount. Very likely you will need to seek the help of your own therapist to help you stay well yourself (partners can slide into depression themselves from living under such stress).

      5) Be clear in your own mind where your healthy boundaries lie and even, what your bottom line is. Protecting yourself as a person is very important – I recommend Harriet Lerner’s “The Dance of Intimacy” as one excellent resource in this regard.

      6) A sufferer’s fears about hurting you say physically might need to be considered seriously – I would suggest you ‘check it out’ with a professional, just to be clear about your safety.

      7) It is not ‘bad’ to have to pull out of a relationship isfit is destructive to you, even if you are reluctant to “bail out” on someone who’s suffering. Again- a relationship can only be viable in the long term if the ill partner seeks help and takes responsibility themselves (though that can include asking you for help in managing their illness – eg I may have to ask my husband to come home early from work sometimes, or ask a friend or family to look after our son that day/afternoon).

      Self-care is the overall essential for you. You may well need to seek help when your husband is unwell on behalf of both of you. Pamper yourself and recognise the validity of your own needs and desires. I can tell you, my guilt about my partner is assuaged by knowing that he is doing what he needs to do to keep well and fulfilled. In my case, that includes me looking after our son when he goes to his monthly church discussion group, or making arrangements for our son and managing on my own so he can go to an occasional retreat day or weekend.

      My sympathies and I hope that you find this helpful. Good luck! 🙂

  4. SweenDog67 says:

    The reason we are depressed is that we do not live in harmony with our host the planet earth. LOOK at the world around you. Look at every other animal and don’t go spitting out how much smarter we are because I have answers for that… We are not the only animals to use tools or talk. Animals also show emotion.
    From birth we are indoctrinated to live in accordance WITH MAN. Not the planet which made his life possible to begin with. This is BAD and WILL BE are doom. It is easily visible to any that take the time to look. BUT, you do have to look because MAN HIDES TRUTH.
    If we lived in and for our planet FIRST we would not even know what depression was. What happens when you take an animal out of nature and try to make them live like humans. They either die or become dependent. Dependent means ADDICTED TO MAN. Now we have become addicted to MAN also. I see only 1 road out. I can lead the way but that is it.
    Since I have accepted this fact my depression stays in check. The more I work to cure my addiction to MAN the happier I become. I grow a garden.
    Pharmaceuticals are the WORST. All of todays top prescription meds are addictive which means you are a slave. Opiates, Adderall and all of the STIMULANT based meds that are enjoying a super rise in popularity. We are the most medicated nation in the world. Melatonin, Serotonin reuptake inhibitors???? The Prozac Family of meds that have an on box suicide warning.
    WHAT THE FUCK! Seriously,——– think about it——. Take a pill that ONLY numbs your mind by slowing your thinking process or removing it completely. I took these meds. I have researched these meds. THEY ARE NOT GOOD and THEY ARE ADDICTIVE.
    Instead of withdrawal the nice guys at big pharmaceutical companies with the blessing of the AMA have stopped WITHDRAWL by renaming it. Sudden Stoppage Syndrome, Sudden Stoppage Syndrome, Sudden Stoppage Syndrome, Sudden Stoppage Syndrome, Sudden Stoppage Syndrome, Sudden Stoppage Syndrome, Sudden Stoppage Syndrome. I kid you NOT. Go ahead look it up….
    My head is starting to hurt. I have a hard time keeping track of my thoughts. I may get depressed but I no longer allow it to master me. I will keep posting here and if there is anyone who can consolidate what I have learned and make it easier for me to explain please contact me. Tablets upon tablets full of my ideas, even my computer is loaded with ideas that are sure fire common sense fixes for a world that appears destined for ruin.

  5. Nick says:

    For me, its all about commitment and love. As long as you love a person, you will have enough energy to devote to her.

  6. Chris says:

    I have been married just over two years, but we never lived together as we were suppose to do the wedding after a year from when we got married so she still lives with parents, 2 months into being married I had an argument with her dad, was very small but lasted a long time where her dad wanted her to end the marriage so she was stuck in the middle and her dad just wouldn’t listen, after two years of being married like this where her father wouldn’t listen and she couldn’t leave her family home becoz her father said we will be dead for you if you move to his house, after two years she had a miscarriage and didn’t tell no 1 only me, after a month of the miscarriage she went on a holiday wit her mother and come bk saying I Dnt want this marriage, I went on holiday and something just hit me and felt like the spark in our marriage has gone, she’s and she flared up with achne spots on her face due to the miscarriage and her hormones were all over the place.
    After few months of still spending time together, we enjoy each others company and now her dad is ok with everything but she’s still unsure of moving in with me and carrying on with this marriage, she says something’s holding my back and tht spark is not there as much but I’m still in love with you, not as much but still in love with you, she is Deffinely depressed but will she come out of this depression and realise how much I mean to her and tht she wants to me with? I Dnt no what to do??

    • Bswa says:

      Hi chris, how is it going? I think counselling would have been good for’her, did she commit to it, and to you?
      Take care

  7. Jud says:

    I hope I’m not too late for a reply.
    I met this girl alist 5 months ago. We started going out 4 months ago. Things were awesome until that 4th month. She told me that she loved me about a month in and I responded the same. In that 4th month she told me she has been battling depression her entire life. Not a great upbringing and other personal traumas aided to her depression. When she told me my heart sank but I already knew, before I knew she had depression, that she is the one. She still is to me. I put myself all in. Early in the 4th month she wanted to not be together. After several texts and talks we decide to stay together. I was happy of course, but the entire time she felt unworthy of my love because she couldn’t love herself and wondered why I was so optimistic that we are going to work. I couldn’t give her a straight answer. It was a feeling I had and it is just who I am. And the end of this 4th month we decided to take a break so she can get better. She goes to therapy once a week and has friend’s that can help but says that me being with her right now is hurting her too much because she wants to but can’t show me love even though she has it for me. Is it normal for her to push her partner away further than her friends? I am not optimistic anymore. I know she is it. I just want to help ND being on the sidelines is rough. I can’t pretend to know what she is going through but I’ve had stints of depression for months at a time though not clinical. She doesn’t want to take meds because she says they make her feel worse and I’m not sure if therapy is enough especially when everyone agrees, except for me, that she needs to be alone right now.

  8. mjt says:

    How do you know when to give up? When is it finally the end after so many years of trying to fight the beast? When does it win and the relationship is over?

    • Kay says:

      I knew it was the end when he told me he was leaving for the 3rd time in 5 years — and my initial feeling was relief! I was not sad or upset that he was leaving and the very next day I started the process of dismantling our marriage and financial life together. I had been contemplating ending the marriage for some time — had been seeing a therapist to try to get help with the process — but I could not pull the trigger. I don’t think he intended for it to be the end because he still wanted to be “friends” — but I no longer wanted to be friends with someone who repeatedly treated me so poorly. I have friends — and I don’t put up with any of them treating me poorly — so why should I do so with him!

    • Lynnie says:

      I too ask this question but for now the answer is never even though I too am being treated so badly (my partner of 16 yrs has just been diagnosed with depression ) he has not spoken to me for 6 weeks starting smoking and other stuff which he knows I dislike now seems to get on with his day to day routine work such like I ask myself daily is it me ?
      My home were I sleep is no longing a loving home as it once was just a place to rest my weary head now.
      I wish I had answers for you but for now I take it day by day I look at this amazing positive role model I had in my life and think why has he been replaced by an elephant in my closet it is such a shame I cant close the door and start living for me I guess you will know when the time has come unfortunately the more I read up on this illness the harder it is to decide you have to ask yourself are you in it for the long haul I like to think I am then I ask myself will I get my loving partner back or the person I have before me now in my case I think I could not cope with what I have now uncaring,hurtful,partner I am in the same position early days for me though the day will come when I will ask this question in the meantime do not forget about you take care .

      • bummedwife says:

        I would be deeply relieved if my depressed husband left me. If he left me for a 21 year old hot chick I’d give my most generous, heartfelt blessing. I secretly wish he would leave so I don’t have to hurt his family (who are wonderful) and my family, who have been very understanding and supportive of me and him in our effort to keep it together. And I feel I must give him a chance, as he is in treatment (albeit with very little success so far), never developed an alcohol or drug problem or had an affair, and underneath it all is a warm, smart, and good person. However, I’ve seen less and less of that person over the years. Depression turns him into a dysfunctional, angry/morose, dependent, self-hating, self-absorbed monster who’s there much more often than the other guy. We did not have kids because he became irrationally anxious at the thought of it (after promising to have kids before we married). I just let the old biological clock run out just to ease his mind, a very sad decision to have to make. I strain to keep my career and friendships alive. I long for a better, more whole life than I have, because after 10 years of trying to be patient, supportive, and loving in the face of it all, I crave a real partner. Instead there’s chronic tension and pain, the feeling that everything’s swirling down the drain, to which I have to respond by being strong, saying hopeful and encouraging things that I no longer truly believe, and accepting that in effect I have no partner. No one around to listen to me and support me and have fun with, but rather a person who lobs problem after problem, real and imagined, at me to solve, in varying states of despair and hysteria. I have a patient, not a husband, but unfortunately I am not a shrink, just a human being. Oh, and he threatens suicide if I ever were to leave him, which really puts a scary spin on it. I’m so sad and tired. Hope young people who sound so eager to repair broken relationships with a depressed partner read more posts from longtime partners. You had a 3 month relationship with a depressed person and he/she left you? Thank your lucky stars.

        • Bswa says:

          My dad threatened to kill himself many time when depressed, even when my mom wanted to leave him at the beginning of’her relationship. That is not a way to build a relationship where it only goes one way. If the depressed partner isn’t willing to be a good partner and do all he can to be that better person then why should we stick around and accept mental blackmail? Do what is good for you, in my side I can tell you one thing they are responsible for themselves and their actions are not your fault, you have the right to live fully and go for it, life is short. And I can tell you, in my case, I always knew it was only words, my dad would never have hurt himself. But threatening someone to hurt yourself (most days for no reason) is weak, selfish and mean. Live!

        • HeavyheartGF says:

          I just wanted to let you know that this post has hit a chord with me like nothing else I’ve come across looking for help. I want to thank you for writing this. I’ve been with a wonderful man for a year and a half – he really was dream come true- but lately he’s become a complete stranger. Out of the blue he told me he he’d been pretending to be someone he isn’t, he didn’t want to follow through on any of the plans we made (I was about to quit my career to start a business with him), he didn’t want the future we’d talked about and he wanted me out of his life. A week later he changed his mind, told me he’d been depressed since he was a teenager and had been pretending otherwise since we’d met. I offered my unwavering support, read up as much as I could about how I could help, gave him anything and everything he needed to get better, helped find him a therapist. Things started getting better- I felt closer to him than ever, I gave him all the love and support I could muster.
          Less than a month later we were awake up early one morning, happy, getting ready for a day out, and suddenly he became very withdrawn. I asked him if he was feeling alright, and he said he’d made a mistake taking me back. He said he loved me but he felt confused, didn’t know what he wanted and needed to be on his own. Long story short, he helped me pack my things in his house that morning and watched me leave in pieces.
          I had to call in sick at my job for the next two days, I was a complete mess. We kept in touch but every time we spoke I’d just have a complete meltdown, I couldn’t eat or sleep. Eventually we met up, had a wonderful time, a week later I was staying at his house at weekends again and the incident was not even discussed.
          It’s been three weeks, and he’s changed once more. I’m sat around waiting for the axe to drop a third time.
          I’m writing this here because I came back several times over the course of event specifically to re-read this post. I want to tel you how sorry I am that you have been through this, and for such a terribly long time. My heart bleeds for you, truly. You have helped me to see that what I am going through now is just a taste of my life to come if I continue to try to make things work with this man. Everything you describe resonates so well- feeling as though things are swirling down the drain, pain and tension have become my life in the last few months. Thank you for helping me to see the future. Some battles just aren’t worth fighting.

          I am thinking about you and I hope with all my heart you find peace very soon. With Love.

  9. Ricardo says:

    Hey John,

    I have worked with couples in addictions clinics and I noticed that during couple’s therapy most couples have unresolved negative emotions. In other words, most people who are in conflictive relations are emotionally immature, don’t know how to cope with their emotions or confront them. I agree with your article saying that they must work their emotions. I would like to add that if each person works their own way emotional immaturity, or unresolved negative emotions there is a much higher chance of getting better.

    All the best,

    Ricardo

    • lightawake says:

      As a person with depression, I would agree with that completely. My thoughts are that we attract the kind of people who are compatible with us – and that includes emotional maturity. I think my relationship with my partner was actually more stressful than the depression itself – I didn’t know that you could actually reach points where you felt that a solution was completely impossible. However, we are both people who believe in spiritual growth, and stumblingly looked at our own emotional reactions (such as defensiveness, upset, anger) as indications of emotional blocks within us (rather than look to an external ’cause’). When we gained insight into our reactive emotional responses, we could change them a lot easier, and felt better within ourselves individually as a result – the relationship would benefit as an offshoot.

  10. Evan says:

    Thanks, I like the sound of Gottman’s stuff.

    I don’t think that a couple staying together is necessarily a measure of success.

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  1. Storied Mind says:

    How Couples Stay Together

    How Couples Stay Together Many couples manage to survive depression with the help of marital therapy



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