Waking Up a Depressed Partner

dawn sky

I remember years ago talking with a friend about his recent divorce and remarriage and mentioning the stressful time my wife and I had been having at that time. He bluntly suggested: Well, why don’t you leave? I told him I wouldn’t do that since I thought the problems were as much on my side as hers.

He looked at me quizzically and said: “Really?” – as if that were a curious idea.

Plainly, he had never thought about questioning himself in that way. Leaving had been his answer, even though he was running into some of the same problems in his new marriage that had soured him on his first.

Self-Awareness in a Troubled Relationship

What does it take to get a dissatisfied partner, especially a man, to look at his own contribution to a troubled relationship? It’s hard in the midst of anger and frustration to turn the spotlight on yourself, but I can’t imagine how a relationship can be preserved, especially when depression is involved, if self-awareness doesn’t kick in.

Terry Real, who wrote I Don’t Want to Talk About It about depression in men, has developed a form of therapy with couples that helps partners change their behavior through self-awareness and what he calls relational mindfulness. He details the approach in How Can I Get Through to You?

His description of the state of mind depressed partners can work themselves into captures quite well the way my friend looked at his relationships. I knew what he was going through because I had long shared that same state of mind.

Learning Self-Protection Too Well

It consists of the ingrained set of reactions and defenses learned in childhood to guard your true self against humiliation and emotional abuse. As Real sees it, many men internalize two things as they are growing up.

One is shame and humiliation about expressing their emotional needs. The other is a false sense of empowerment that, as adults, they too will be able to treat people close to them with the same insensitivity that they experienced.

He believes that these two behaviors are flip sides of the same phenomenon. You either exaggerate your worthlessness in shame or exaggerate your power in grandiosity.

In my relationship, I tended to alternate between these two modes. I could feel tremendously entitled to have all my needs met and be completely insensitive to my partner. Or I could disappear in shame, feeling that my needs didn’t count for anything.

In both cases, I was not available as a mature partner but only as a reactive one still caught up in protective survival modes I had learned as a child. They were also the experiences that had contributed to the development of depression.

Change of Consciousness about the Relationship

Most couples who seek therapy tend to have developed a level of tension and anger that leads both to act out with each other. They have locked up their emotional needs and trigger each other’s hostility most of the time.

Their behavior is guided by a state of mind and feeling that Real calls “first consciousness.” It’s the knee-jerk reaction of anger that drives the need to be right, to control, to feel entitled to do what you want, to retaliate and to withdraw.

Depressed partners are usually lost in self-absorption, with little ability to think beyond the immediate pain. Whether they retreat into a sense of hopelessness and shame or lash out in anger, they’ve lost the sense that the relationship can help them. Their partners are shut out or attacked and often lose their bearings as well and become trapped in destructive confrontations.

The goal in Real’s approach is to get the partners to move away from a knee-jerk, linear way of reacting narrowly to the immediate situation.

Relational Mindfulness

What he calls “second consciousness” is an awareness of the relationship as the larger setting and a sensitivity to the needs of your partner as well as your own.

It leads to behavior that has to do with reaching out, trying to repair, being compassionate, cherishing your partner and focusing on what helps you both in the relationship.

Relational mindfulness helps you look to the larger fulfillment that comes through the connection to your partner rather than the immediate need to vent or get even. It means stopping when threatened by the visceral onset of knee-jerk reactions, cooling off and switching to a different awareness.

Real believes that most men, who learn to cover their vulnerability and shame with an insensitive, often aggressive front, need to come face to face with the full consequences of their behavior before they can stop themselves. I think that’s especially true in depression.

Confronting and Loving the Depressed Partner

He believes that most therapy with men is based on the mistaken assumption that you can’t deal with the hard issues until you’ve first established a trusting, emotional bond.

Real believes that you have to confront the worst aspects of the man’s behavior up front and remind him of the value of the relationship as a whole that he is undermining by acting destructively.

It’s important to try to separate the decent guy beneath the hard surface from the blaming and insensitive behavior he’s showing. Real talks about holding the “perpetrator” accountable but also loving him.

If you only show the loving support, you can’t deal with the destructive behavior. If you only hold him accountable and condemn what he’s doing, he’ll feel shamed without any sense of empowerment on how to connect with his better half.

When I was in a prolonged depression and undermining my relationship, it was important to get this dual message from my partner. It’s not an easy one to give or receive since it depends on a combination of love, accountability and enough shock to break through the defensive exterior of blame and withdrawal.

A good therapist might well be in the best position to deliver the message in a way it can be heard. As an independent observer, a therapist can help you see more clearly the pain and distress of your partner while helping you break the focus on immediate triggers and look at what the relationship really means to you.

A depressed partner needs treatment for the illness itself, but it is also important to deal with the effect of depressive behavior within a relationship as soon as possible. As I found, reaching a new awareness with your partner can also be a big step forward in treating the underlying depression.

Have you found a way to move from knee-jerk retaliation to what Real calls relational mindfulness? Have you tried to deal with depression before working on the relationship? Has that worked?

This is a post from the archives.