It’s the worst scenario of life with depressed partners. They leave, shutting out a lot of love and support because of the illness. If you’ve been abandoned in this way, the first thing you’re likely to try is to get in touch. You need to say you still care and want to help in any way you can. They may refuse all contact or send an answer full of anger and blame. Or they might say the opposite. They still love you but need to stay away to deal with the problem and protect you from its impact. Or the messages can switch from one extreme to the other. What they say makes no sense, and you can’t figure out what to do.
I hear so much about this from readers here and at Health Central. They say things like this: (I’m putting together composite remarks here based on several letters and comments. These are not direct quotes.)
I sent a note and said somewhere that I hoped she could think of some happier times – it was just a small thing when I was really saying I wanted to help. She came back with a text about how I couldn’t possibly understand and how dare I tell her what to do. I tried to talk to her on the phone, but she just shouted to leave her alone and hung up on me. What can I do now?
I told him to remember that I still believed in him and felt a lot of love for him, but he answered right away with a huge outburst, blaming me for everything.
At first he said he was so sorry and that he was the one with the problem, not me. I really believed him and talked about a lot of things he could do to get better. But his only answer was to go through all the problems he said I had caused. He claimed I had forced him out of the house and how could I live with myself.
This is all no-win. If I try to talk to him at all, he shuts me up by saying I have no idea what it’s like for him. But if I stop trying to get in touch, he accuses me of not loving him at all and that all I can think about is myself. Is there any hope? I’m getting really desperate.
I’ve written a couple of posts at Recover Life from Depression (here and here) about trying to find hope in this extreme situation. I hope you’ll read them. They represent a somewhat different take from the many earlier posts I’ve done here, such as Why Depressed Men Leave series.
I’d like to add here a few additional ideas about why it’s so hard to communicate after a break has occurred.
If you’ve been left, the initial impulse, almost inevitably, is to try to hold onto whatever remains of the relationship, to find out why and how this could have happened. Staying in touch is the first thing you need to do, and the messages usually offer love and whatever help might be needed for your partner to get through the crisis. You might also make specific suggestions about starting therapy or taking medication.
The intention behind the words is loving, but the way the messages are interpreted can be completely different from what you intended. There are a lot of reasons for this.
First, they are depressed. The illness has drastically changed their thinking and behavior. They might have fantasies that leaving for a new life is the answer and that all the problems have been caused by the “old” relationship. Others just pull into themselves and can’t handle discussing their turmoil with anyone.
They probably aren’t doing much to get treatment. For them, leaving itself is the primary way they’re dealing with depression. Whatever they might say about you openly, the underlying message is the same. I’m doing this without you.
So when they hear from you, anything you say is going to be fitted into a depressed mindset. They’re going to search your words and offers of help for proof that they’ve done the right thing by leaving.
You, on the other hand, may spot depression as the real cause for their going. That gives you reason to hope that, as soon as the illness is gone, they’ll be themselves again and return to the relationship. You’ll find once more the loving partner you know is hidden by depression. So the solution is to bring the partner back to health as quickly as possible. You can offer all the love and support they’ll need and also can suggest the types of help they can get.
Those messages of helping, though, inevitably convey the underlying message: I want you back. In such a life crisis, it’s impossible to offer help in a disinterested way, and the urgency of your need gets the partner’s attention. They interpret what you say as all about you, not about them. Letting you in to help them can seem like stepping right back into the problem they’ve just tried to get away from.
The two of you are talking from completely different mindsets and needs. Small wonder that nothing is making sense. To make it worse, a person whose thinking and feelings are dominated by depression is going through an ordeal that could flip him around. One day everything feels great and seems to justify leaving, while the next can be filled with anguish and doubt. You’ll go through your ups and downs too, baffled, loving, angry, hurt. The messages from both of you are going to convey these shifting emotions.
There’s no easy way to deal with this. Keeping in mind the impact of depression on your partner is probably most important. That is behind the sudden changes in outlook and behavior, but getting rid of depression can’t be rushed. It is up to the partner to get help and to get serious about following through with treatment. No one else can take the lead. The process of recovery and healing is usually slow, and each person does it at their own pace.
Sometimes the messages do get through, communication works and your partner invites you in to help. But if your efforts keep backfiring, perhaps it’s best to step back for a while. No suggestion works well in every context, though, and it may well turn out that the relationship will never recover from this shock.
No matter what happens, finding your own support and taking care of yourself are probably the most effective actions you can take.
What has your experience been like in trying to communicate with a depressed partner? Have you been through a crisis like this?