How Setting Boundaries Helped Me Heal

snow shadows

My getting depressed after a cancer operation almost ended our marriage. It was the blow that forced my wife to remind me of the boundaries I couldn’t afford to ignore.

I had been in high spirits for the operation and right through the recovery period. My wife and I had been especially close during that time. I had healed, emotionally and physically, with her support and love. We had been really together then.

But it wasn’t long before depression quietly returned and stripped the feelings right out of me. All of a sudden, everything was wrong, quietly but definitely wrong.

Losing the Feelings of Connection

I couldn’t feel the connection with her. I couldn’t feel much of anything. I blamed the relationship. It wasn’t fulfilling. I needed something different – more, or so I thought. And I said so, coolly, with no thought of emotional impact. That was devastating for her to hear, but I was oblivious. I guess you can’t have empathy when you’re emotionally numb.

That’s when I learned that you don’t have to be angry and aggressive to abuse trust and violate boundaries. The numbness version of depression is just as bad as the despairing or angry versions.

When I look back on that time, I realize how important feelings are in evaluating experience. They give meaning to everything I do. Is this moment safe or threatening, am I loved or rejected, am I successful or failing, am I well or ill, am I lost or am I home?

Feelings are the guides and interpreters of what I live through. If they disappear, I know something’s wrong because I have the memories of what it was like to feel love and connection. But they’re gone now. Why?

Making Loved Ones Invisible

The answer in depression is often to blame someone. I alternated between blaming myself and blaming my wife – or someone else, depending on what seemed wrong in my life.

Talking in a matter-of-fact way about what was wrong with the relationship pushed my wife past her limit. We had been through a lot together, especially after this bout with cancer, and to realize that I had disappeared again into depression was too much.

She had to set a limit to save herself from any more broken hopes and rejection. She told me she had given up, that I either had to get treatment or it was all over.

Even in my state, I could hear what she was saying, and I could see what I had been doing. I had pulled her inside my depression and made her disappear. I didn’t need to be angry or desperate or suicidal to push her past her limit.

I only had to make her invisible as the person she was. While unfeeling and withdrawn. I had turned her into one of the phantoms of my inner landscape. I was trying to make her part of my own emptiness, the part of me that was never enough, that never felt worthy of anything good.

I had disguised her in my own shame and passed the judgment on her that I applied to myself.

Boundaries as Reminders

When she told me she had reached her limit, she wasn’t setting a boundary so much as reminding me of one that had always been there. It’s the boundary of respect for the wholeness of another person. It’s one of those lines that structures living and makes connection between two people possible.

I had crossed the boundary by denying who she was.

Calling attention to the boundary is a reminder that I’m over here and that you’re over there. Crossing the space between us can’t be like an invasion or a kidnapping. It has to be a free meeting when we’re open and ready to receive each other’s love and trust.

Her setting the boundary reminded me that I had lost the sense of connection. She was speaking to the whole of me that included depression, not just the part that has shut down and tried to make her invisible.

Depression Ignores Boundaries

When I’m depressed, I hate boundaries. I hate being accountable to anyone. I make my own rules. Sure, they drive my life down hill, but they protect me from anyone else’s judgment or evaluation.

I’m already telling myself that I can’t do anything right. I feel shame about being alive, and the last thing I can stand is to hear someone else tell me I’ve actually disappointed them, that I’ve failed to give them what they need from me.

Then it’s out there, proof that my depressive judgment has been right all along. No matter that I’ve undermined myself by delay, by shutting my mind down, by perfecting the forms of self-sabotage. The world and I have come to agreement that I’m all wrong.

The judgment feels so final and absolute because I can’t separate myself from what I do. If I let my wife down, I am a rotten person. If I fail to deliver on a commitment at work, I am inadequate. There are no mistakes and fixable errors, no atonement or forgiveness, only the finality of shame.

The Wake-Up Call

But somehow I heard my wife’s ultimatum in a different way. Part of me squirmed in condemnation, but part of me also perked up. There was a way out of where I was, a set of things I could do to get better. I knew I could do them because I had done them before.

I took the setting of a boundary not as an ending but as a tap on my heart, a touch that called out to something still alive that wasn’t caught in depression.

Sometimes, the boundaries that help shape the connection between two people have to be redrawn. They need to stand out in brighter colors, and the costs of erasing or ignoring them have to be made clear.

This isn’t a threat so much as a wake-up call. Look where you’re standing. Look at where you are. Look at where I am. Look at what you’re doing. And look at the way you can change.

If you’ve been depressed, have you been helped by the setting of personal boundaries or reminders by loved ones of ways in which your behavior was damaging to them? Or if you’ve lived with a depressed person, has it been helpful to talk with them about how their illness is affecting you?

17 Responses to “How Setting Boundaries Helped Me Heal”

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  1. anonymous says:

    Learning to set boundaries will be really important for me at work and with my family. I always needed people to be close around, to share my every thought with, and I still need that but I need to know what I actually think and feel more specifically, and to do that I need to know how I feel about work ethics and values and what I need and dont need… I am always scared I am breaking rules or doing something wrong and will get punished. This has actually happened to me, and I wasnt allowed to explain. I have done significant violations without knowing I was, just as I used to be a very bad driver, and I guess i am just trying to find a happy medium.

    Depression and anxiety cause me a lot of problems, I dont thimk with my higher reasoning but with my emotions sometimes. Then I have to calm down to get my brain back.

    Thank you so much for your writing. Writing and reading about these things helps me to gain better cognitive control over wild emotions.

  2. Liz says:

    This helped me a great deal. My story briefly: I am dating a man who is my very best friend in the world. When happy, or even just OK, we talk for hours about politics, history, etc., laugh, enjoy a great sex life, and enjoy bowling, cooking, traveling among other things. But when the depression hits – it hits very very hard. I feel, that I am the lightening rod for all of it. He has a bad day at the office, I know the blow back is coming – you didn’t do this, or you didn’t do that, or you did this wrong. We have a fight that is relatively small, and it will last for days of his pouting, making himself more angry, and drinking. Any bump in the road when he’s depressed, is Mt. Everest in his eyes. His depression magnifies all that is bad (or even good into something bad), and for several years, I lived alone with him (in a new state with very little support), his only refuge and eventually punching bag.

    I also told him recently I had my limit. I told him we needed a reset and that I wanted to move back to my home area (Chicago area) and that I wanted him in time, to come with me. In his better moments, he agreed. We wrote up a contract and agreed on things each of us would do as well as a timeline. Now, his depressive episode hit for the first time since being a part two weeks ago and he seems to be falling a part. He is lashing out, accusing me of leaving him to find someone else, etc. He is trying to goad me into fights. Its been very hard to stay strong but here so far away- I have the space to be strong. I can tell him I love him and to call me when he is respectful, but I don’t have to live his darkness 24 hours a day. I feel very guilty but I also feel like this reset is our best and last chance.

    He and I are very close. I miss him terribly. Everyone around me (my family) only sees how horrible he’s acting and encourages me to just forget it. But I can’t because I know he didn’t ask for this, I know its not him but I also know I need to protect me too. Its so hard when the good times with the one you love are so good and true, but then you get the darkness and its hard to remember the former. Thank you to anyone who reads this. I appreciate any feedback.

    • Sammy says:

      Liz,

      This really hit close to home for me. I am with my best friend as well, and both of us have struggled with depression, but I regularly attend counseling and have improved significantly. Lately, however, his negativity and depression hit us both very hard. When I finally became overwhelmed and asked him if we could have more positive conversations because I didn’t want to promote any more negativity, he became withdrawn and not very responsive. It has been very hard for both of us because we miss each other, but he just finds it too hard to hold back his negativity when he talks to me because I used to be his only outlet.

      Thankfully, he has decided to start counseling, but the strain on our relationship is evident and I constantly wonder if I made the right decision. It makes me question the validity of our friendship and whether his love was contingent on me being that outlet for his depression. I feel like I let him down, and at the same time, he feels like he has become a burden. It is a tough situation, but like you said, I just couldn’t be his punching bag. I hope we can talk about some boundaries like you did, and find a place where we can be there for each other without becoming too dependent.

      You made such a great point that while I know he didn’t ask for this, I need to protect myself too. It is definitely hard to remember the good points at such dark times. I hope you both can find a way to make it work. Best of luck.

  3. Glo says:

    Hi there,

    I’m currently walking through this myself and your posts and the comments here have been very insightful. My story is long so I won’t get into. A short version is that my husband was unfaithful to me last year. His depression started when I insisted and refused to change my mind that he have no contact with the other woman. He swore that it was all over and the he loved me and wanted to work through things. But his sudden depression has been difficult to deal with. As you can imagine, I’m a in a spot where I need emotional connection and to see him attempting to set things right. But in the state he’s in now, he can barely do life how much more make amends to a hurting wife.

    My difficulty with the boundaries is that every time I attempt to set a boundary in order to protect myself, he sees it as me trying to control and manipulate him. That makes him shut me out and isolate himself further. We’re both in a terrible awful spot. Anyway. I just wanted to say thanks for your insights. They’ve been very eye opening and it’s good to know that others have experienced the same types of thing.

  4. Laura says:

    Wow. So nice to hear I’m not alone with a spouse with depression, trying not to let it become everything. There’s some things they have to be willing. He’s on meds, but still “tunes it all out”.

  5. Tania says:

    I think I may have left it too late before setting my “boundaries” with my husband. He has been depressed for so long and it has been a complete uphill battle getting him to admit it and to seek help. If eel like I have pushed shit up hill every step of the way. He went to counseling for a while and said it didn’t work for him.

    We almost split up this last time and he finally agreed to take some medication. however I feel we have so much further to go. He needs to develop support networks and other coping mechanisms and I just don’t see that he has the will to do this at the moment.

    I feel bad that he has taken a step in the right direction, but I am so burnt out that I just can’t “go back there” emotionally and anything even remotely negative that he says and I am at stage five frustration. Its like I have nothing left to give.

    I feel like a carer more than a spouse. How can I set healthy boundaries so that his stuff is his stuff and my stuff is my stuff. I have heard of the concept of loving detachment. Im here for you but Im not taking on your stuff. I just don’t know how to do it without detaching from him all together.

    I keep stepping into “rescue” mode because I just can’t stand hearing him say how he has tried everything and nothing works or his whole world is dark. I try to psych him out of it, offer solutions (tried and tested solutions) but then he is angry and resentful because he feels emasculated. so then I just feel burnt out, stuck and angry and resentful beyond measure.

    How can I set boundaries about being supportive but not taking his stuff on, especially when his mood affects our family as a whole? Have you heard of loving detachment? Im so sick of being blamed for his emotional state.

    • Fed up says:

      hi I feel your pain. My husband of 22 years started with depression nearly a year ago. He changed from a caring loving sensitive man to the complete opposite . He has used me away said nasty things to me questioned our marriage slept with a girl and I mean a girl 22 years younger than him at work. He has stolen from work. He has pushed his family away even doesn’t want to do anything with the grandkids. I have moved out 3 times and he hasn’t been bothered he has been cruel to the point of being evil towards me.after 8 months of sheer hell he eventually broke and was diagnosed with depression he had told all family and friends it was a marital problem. He is now on antidepressants but still shows no remorse for what he has done and how his actions have impacted on our relationship or his family. His own family ie parents and brother and sister have been no help his parents just don’t want to admit that their son has depression and just make excuses for his behaviour. His brother and sister have not even picked a phone up or called to make sure he is ok. My family have been there for me as have my friends. He is better with me now but not the man I married if he goes back to being nasty again and blaming I intend to set the boundaries as I can’t live with this illness anymore as it has affected me so bad I lost 3 stone in weight had 3 months off work and couldn’t stop crying. He has confused me so much that at one point I believed that it was me that had the problem. This is the worst illness ever I want to support my husband and be there for him but he makes it so hard as he has pushed me so far away.like yourself I am now thinking how much longer do I give him to get back to the person I once knew or do I walk away and start my life again without him. As it is early days for me I will give him some more time to get the treatment working that he is taking but I can’t take anymore hurt from him I’m 52 and need to be happy in my life instead of miserable and a carer to someone who shows no remorse or love towards me. I hope your relationship gets back on track I feel your pain this website has been an inspiration to me and stopped me from thinking I was going mad and that he was ill. People don’t understand and just think that you are going through marital problems but you know in your heart that if you have had a good relationship and nothing has gone wrong between you that that’s not the case

  6. K says:

    Surely setting boundaries will give a surviving line to your sanity and maybe a trigger for the depressed to actually start doing things.
    My companion suffering from depression, is taking treatment, recently suffering from a major episode which has lead her to the abyss of isolation.
    This left me into my own personal isolation, with pain, unexplained questions (even though you always know it is not you that created this episode) loosing power and joy of things you once enjoyed. And how can you enjoy when you actually have realized that most things were enjoyable because of the feeling of sharing those special moments with a special person.
    Nevertheless, I have thought many times of setting boundaries, only to realize that I don’t know how to set them, you always hear that depressed people do not like being criticized or having tasks assigned, how exactly do you communicate your boundaries? I believe probably through sympathizing and trying to find gentle and easy words in order for the other side to interpret them as they should.
    I managed a few times to do so, only to find out that the other side tried, little, and then retreated back to isolation. Many times I have the feeling that although there is therapy in the middle the other side does not work hard, just works hard to run away instead of confront the problems.
    Relation getting serious, isolation, not total though, she isolates herself from the relationship yet never from her friends. That kills me more, she always finds it easy when she contacts me and tells that she was hanging yesterday with one of her friends, and I always feel abandoned and neglected as I am something that crosses her mind time to time.
    I gave space, with the request that she would try to think what she would want, I know its hard even harder (and probably not even working) during the episode, yet this never happened, all my communication attempts fail, the communication is only one way, typical, how are you, trying to give signs of joy (from her side) yet never intimating or at least spreading a ray of hope.
    I am near my limits, since I have issues concentrating at my work, issues with things that once brought joy into my life and I am slowly re ordering them, I still though want to give a chance to this relation, although looking down the road I see steep hill rising full of obstacles.
    It would be nice to hear your advice regarding the ways one can set boundaries, and more specific the words one could use (I know this would differ from person to person, but there should be some kind of acceptable guideline).

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, K –

      I can’t give specific advice, since, as you say, things differ so much in each case. But as a rule, I would start with looking closely at the things she does that hurt you the most. One starting point is to discuss these fully and honestly with her but at a time when both of you are able to listen to each other sympathetically. Sometimes, you can work out an agreement, say a verbal signal you can give her, or she can give you, if either of you is doing one of those things that is especially difficult to handle. I think it takes more, however, than her not doing something hurtful. The only way she will really get better is to stop evading the full impact of depression and make recovery the central priority in her life. In my case, that was the commitment my wife demanded of me, and I knew that the consequence of not doing it would be losing her. You need clarity about what is required and clarity about the consequence of ignoring it. You might also consider couples counseling, hopefully with someone who is familiar with the effects of depression on a relationship. If it works, that can be a powerful way of helping the two of you reconnect emotionally, even while she is working in treatment. Whether or not that is possible, it might be helpful for you to sort through your experience with a counselor or therapist on your own. I think most therapists these days excel at helping people deal with key problems and decision points in their lives, quite apart from any connection to a diagnosable illness.

      My best to you —

      John

  7. I think that it is absolutely vital that loved ones set boundaries in this way. When I have been in the throes of depression, I couldn’t tell when I’ve gone too far, because everything was in too much of a haze. Knowing that my husband would tell me when I’d crossed a line (or even better, when I approaching one) gave me the freedom to work through whatever I had to deal with in safety, knowing that he wouldn’t let me push him too far. Of course I didn’t want to hear the boundary setting at the time — as you say, depression is a place of shame without hope of forgiveness or correction — but the small still part of me that is outside of the depression recognized the truth and allowed me to respond appropriately.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Joanna –

      You’ve put that so well – your experience has been close to mine, especially when you talk about the small still part of you outside depression that recognized the truth. Our marriage wouldn’t have survived if I hadn’t had that glimmer of insight. It helps to be blessed with a great partner.

      Thanks for writing —

      John

  8. John,
    When I had my emotional crash 36 years ago, not only did I realize I had been depressed my whole life, but also I was emotionally empty, emotionless. I was initially unprepared for the beginning of feeling emotion. I had never learned to deal with it. Truly feeling for the first time was like a tidal wave. I was drowning. Beside psychoanalysis (a lot of it on my own) and medicaton, I had to learn behavior management, like the basics of dealing with grief and anger and self control. Fortunately, my wife (my best friend) put up with me. It was a struggle. Ten years ago, after prostate cancer surgery. I experienced a different kind of flood. I began to write creatively. The flow of memories and stories and insight was almost overwhelming, but writing was helpful because I could express myself without getting lost in the emotion. I think it also helped my wife, who was my initial editor before finding a publisher, to better understand what we had both gone through and what we had learned and what we had gained.

  9. Renee says:

    Hi John,

    I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I can understand the feeling of – well – not feeling, and also of feeling rejected by a depressed partner. It’s been difficult to communicate with my partner about the depressive behaviour that we both exhibit sometimes.

    Recently I was feeling pretty hopeless about the relationship, but now things are looking up. Some intimacy has returned and I’ve been able to start setting some boundaries in a way that he understood and agreed to.

    The interesting thing about this whole process is that, no matter whether / when depression is present, I think that everyone in every relationship has to go through some process of setting boundaries. It can take a long time to learn how to do this in a way that is acceptable and empowering for both parties in any relationship. I guess that learning how to live with and love each other is a challenge for most couples!

    Thanks for taking the time to share your personal details. It makes me feel more confident and empowered about my current relationship.

    All the best,
    Renee

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Renee –

      I’m glad to hear you are finding ways to stay together and manage the depression. As you say, I’m sure all couples have to deal with boundaries. I guess it’s basic to moving from the early excitement of feeling perfectly attuned to each other, with no barriers to intimacy, to accepting the greater complexity of two people responding to all the changes each of us experiences and, hopefully, grows with.

      Thanks for commenting.

      John

  10. Liz says:

    Hi John — this post was particulary insightful for me. Being the partner of an amazing man who lives with chronic DP, I have been through many of the ups/downs that your readers write about when dealing with their depressed partners (as you know, I have responded to many of your relationship posts). However, my experience was slightly different from many of your readers…my partner has never been angry or aggressive with me. His withdrawal came from emotional abandonment as you state so eloquently — the “numbness version of depression”. He withdrew in such a way that I knew that he was lost. I could see it in his eyes. His mind shut down and so did our relationship. It was a loss for me that was deep and heart-wrenching. He claimed not to love me, he claimed I could do better, he claimed this was for the best. That was a few years ago when his DP was at its worst. Fortunately, we have moved through that phase with alot of open discussion, patience and love. We are in an amazing place now and have been for quite a few years but I will never forget that time. Can it happen again? Yes and that is the fear of what I live with every day. But, we don’t dwell on it. He has been amazing in keeping up with his meds and therapy. We live each day being grateful for what we have and he knows that I never judge him and will always be there for him. Sometimes, I do need to step away and give myself a mental and spiritual check to make sure I haven’t loss myself in this relationship as that can easily happen. Depression steals the soul of the sufferer and steals the promise of a future full of love…I don’t ever want my us to be in the place again. If I see any sign of DP coming back, we talk about it. He’s aware and open to tryng to handle it not only for him but for us…That’s all I can ask.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Liz –

      Thanks so much for this beautiful, eloquent description of how the two of you are sustaining a loving relationship in spite of depression. It’s the realism and balance of your experience that I find especially hopeful.

      My best to you both —

      John

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    How Setting Boundaries Helped Me Heal My getting depressed after the cancer operation almost did us in…



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