Relationships can break down quickly under the impact of depression. While many depressed partners decide to leave for good, I think it’s more common for two people to stay together and try to tough it out. If that’s the situation you’re in, you need more than hope to make a go of it and eventually restore the relationship.
As my wife and I discovered, one of the first things you need to do is learn all over again how to communicate, how to be with each other. If we hadn’t done that, I doubt we could have kept going over the last 25 years.
There are methods that can help you start the process of healing the relationship, but they take a lot of practice and commitment on both sides. If you can stay with them, they’ll help you just as they helped us.
Keep in mind that they won’t solve every problem, and they won’t cure depression. But they can help keep your relationship going while the depressed partner is getting treatment for the illness.
Communicating Goes Beyond Words
A lot of the advice you hear about relating to a depressed partner is all about words. There are countless lists of the helpful things to say, and the things you should never say. The problem is that the words alone don’t express what you mean.
Communication comes from total presence of a person. When you and your partner are talking, you’re much more attuned to facial expressions, physical signs and, above all, the tone of voice than to the bare words. You’re in motion when you try to relate to each other, and you’re both responding to a dozen changes that all the senses are picking up.
In the midst of depression, all those signals you’ve gotten used to either disappear or take on different meanings that block each of you from getting through. The methods we’ve learned help us get behind those signals and better understand what we need from each other.
Everything depends on our working together. That’s the first step, but we couldn’t get started on our own.
Here’s how we got going and what we learned.
Get Help Together
You may be able to master new skills on your own, but you’ll come to a lot of rough patches. A skilled counselor or therapist can guide you through the early stages and give you exercises to practice. A good professional can also introduce you to techniques you might not otherwise hear about.
Make the Commitment
It’s important that you agree to work with each other over time. This is not something you can do in 20 minutes a day. You’re trying to learn skills so well that they become second nature. Eventually, you’ll both know when and how to use them without prompting. But that takes a major commitment and a lot of time and practice.
Find Out What the Triggers Are
One of the best starting points is to discuss what each of you feels and needs, and also to identify the triggering incidents that send you into a tailspin. Julie Fast describes a good method for doing this in Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder. Each of you lists on paper what you feel in the relationship. When you read these to each other, you’re both likely to discover a lot of misconceptions each of you has had about your partner.
Then you can each list the types of incidents that stir the deepest feelings of anger, hurt or injury. You can’t try to evaluate what your partner is identifying. The point is to be alert to the danger spots so that you can try to keep them from setting off a confrontation.
Stop the Rush to Judgment
The psychologist Carl Rogers believed that conflict began with our habit of making judgments. We hear an opinion or witness an action, make a quick assumption, pass judgment and react. We’ve worked for a long time with a method to interrupt the process the mind goes through to make the snap judgment. It seems instantaneous, but you can interrupt this sequence.
- First, you perceive something – hear a statement, see a facial expression, catch a glance from your partner. It’s a trigger that starts up the process.
- Next your mind identifies what that perception is and interprets it. You assume you know what it’s meant to communicate.
- Then comes an emotional response. If it’s a sensitive trigger in the context of depression, it’s likely to be negative. You feel angry, hurt, frustrated.
- You form a judgment. You’re being attacked for no reason. Your partner refuses to listen, is angry and is blaming you for something you didn’t do.
- Lastly, you fire back and you’re off to serious argument.
This all happens in a split second, even though your mind is doing something quite complicated. What you can learn to do, after a lot of practice, is to stop the process before making that final judgment and launching an attack. It sounds simple, but it’s hard to do: You have to check out your interpretation with your partner.
You say something like: “Here’s what I just saw, here’s how I’m interpreting it. Am I right? Is that what you meant?” You may find you’ve missed the mark completely – or you may find you were right. But even if you read the message correctly, now you have a chance to probe what’s wrong. It’s amazing how that pause and questioning can stop the escalation of feelings into a fight.
But remember: As we did, you may need to learn the method from a therapist. He guided us in practicing it. And we agreed to work on this every time we felt we were running into trouble. We’ve used this basic tool for a long time, but we can easily forget. Even when that happens, however, we both have the model as a reference point. There’s a good chance that one of us will realize what’s happening and try to take us back to where we went wrong.
Listen to the Other Side
Once you’ve been able to interrupt the rush to judgment, both of you can listen to one another’s concerns more easily. The hard part is to listen without trying to evaluate or judge. There’s a strong urge to interrupt, criticize, dismiss – all by making those quick judgments you’re trying to be conscious of. The best thing is to listen silently and concentrate on what your partner is saying. They’re describing how they see things, and that’s what you need to understand.
After that, it’s helpful to mirror back what you’ve heard to show that you really do hear what they’re saying. The feeling that you’re being heard and understood is a powerful one in any relationship. It’s an affirming and hopeful experience.
It’s easy to expect too much too soon from any method. You may try it for a while, but have trouble making the new techniques work. That happens with any kind of therapy and with the process of recovery as a whole. The onset of depression has changed everything, and you’re scrambling to make things better.
You need to be patient with yourself and your partner. Give yourselves plenty of time to internalize new ways of relating to each other.
Have you and your partner been able to work on relationship issues while treatment is underway? What are the key problems you’ve tried to work on? Which methods have been most effective?