This is a new version of an early post about how my wife and I were able to keep our relationship together despite the impact of depression. It discusses a therapeutic approach to emotional awareness that draws on the ideas about acceptance I’m now exploring.
More than 20 years ago I stopped believing my own fantasies of finding happiness by leaving my marriage. I could see that those dreams were only substitutes for taking a hard look at who I was. Depression made that difficult task even harder by convincing me there was no one worth knowing inside this mind and soul.
I had a dream at that time full of images of shame. It was crowded with people speaking in my own depressed voice all the messages I kept sending to myself. I sat shrinking in the corner of a big room, and each of them came in turn, looking twice their normal size, to tell me what a mess I was.
The gloom of that dream woke me up – not just from sleep but into a new awareness. I could see how my psyche was devilishly busy turning my own thoughts into hammer blows to drive me deeper underground. Something snapped, and I was suddenly alert with purpose to fight back against that force. I knew it was trying to kill me.
It was the same powerful feeling that woke me up from depression during an earlier bout with cancer. I wasn’t going to let that darkness prevent me from rediscovering who I really was and rebuilding a close relationship with my wife.
But exactly what do you do to regain this closeness with your partner?
In my case, I started a process of working through the layers that were hiding whatever core remained after years of depression. Some of this I did on my own, much more by working with a therapist, often together with my wife. Most important of all were long, close talks with her, usually in the midst of an excitedly sleepless night when we could finally get through to each other.
In those moments, we could at last find words to capture honestly what we were feeling. After a number of crises and years of effort, we made a breakthrough and had the experience of falling in love all over again. That gave us hope for dealing with the inevitable lapses and recurrent bouts of depression, and we needed that hope.
I often pulled away under the pressure of illness, but we learned something from each of the painful times. We were gradually able to strengthen the skills needed to separate depression from the ordinary problems any two people have in living together.
One method for developing those skills is described by the therapists Jett Psaris and Marlena Lyons in Undefended Love. These practitioners go more deeply than most therapists in exploring what the search for intimacy is all about. They emphasize that engaging in this work takes a deep commitment to look into the emotional struggles and pain at the core of what we want from a partner and from life itself.
Their method proceeds by a questioning that draws out layers of desire and frustration, starting with the most immediate problems couples fight about. The therapists identify the barriers between the partners as they get stuck on these issues, then refocus each partner on how those barriers reflect defenses built into their own personalities. Working on the origin of those defenses, they bring out the frustration, hurt and unmet needs experienced very early in life that helped build those methods of concealing or controlling what was felt to be missing or wrong. Each personality, in their use of the term, becomes a defensive structure build to conceal a “cracked identity.”
Like many therapists, they recognize that couples often reach an accommodation at this level of a personality-centered relationship. Partners establish a basic agreement about how they view each other, strike a fair balance between them, rebuild trust and find mutual acceptance.
Unlike most therapists, however, they move beyond that to ask deeper questions aimed at taking down the defenses to get at fundamental needs of each partner. The goal is to help them achieve an inner peace and sense of wholeness while preserving the give and take with their partners. This is what I have found to be the crucial step, to stop feeling on some level that I can’t be fully me within the relationship. That’s a powerful inner message during depression. I often repeated this to myself during difficult times in spite of the fact that I never felt like a whole person outside the relationship either. But there isn’t much sense to depressive thinking.
Cracking into defenses like these is a scary business. They’ve built themselves up over a lifetime to limit how close you get to your loved ones. Psaris and Lyons refer to this phase as entering the “black hole” where life can look bewildering and frightening at first.
If you can get through to the other side of that black hole, two people can achieve a sense of peace about who they are that enables them to experience each other with compassion. I think of compassion as short-hand for seeing someone as they are, not as the person you want them to be.
Without the blinders and fixed reactions of a defensive personality, each can respond with spontaneity more directly to daily life and to one another. The need to reach deals and accommodations is gone because each feels an inner security that enables them to be open to whatever may come.
That’s an ideal to work toward, and it may sound too good to be true. These writers recognize that you can’t get there by a one-time victory but only by a life commitment. Undefended intimacy takes hard and frightening work that too many people will refuse to do. If the commitment is there, I know that a renewed closeness can be reached.
If you and your partner have been able to stick it out through depression, what has helped you stay together? Is there a particular type of therapy you’ve used? What made the difference in helping you separate the depression from the usual ups and downs?