Many women write here of the baffling strangers their depressed husbands or partners have become. Most often, they describe one of two versions of the unrecognizable men they’ve been trying to live with.
One turns on his partner, blames her for the pain he feels, acts abusively and then leaves, convinced that getting away from her will solve his problems. The other type retreats into silence and isolating misery, feels so bleak and wrong that he can’t stay around anyone, says he needs to sort things through on his own and wants to spare her the pain of living with him. He leaves too, often to sink further into depression.
Of course, there are many variations of these stories, but, in general, the men either blame their partners or they blame themselves. Some cut off every kind of communication. Others want to stay in touch, just a little. None of them get serious about trying to get better. They might sample medication or therapy in a perfunctory way but quickly give them up as useless.
I’ve written a lot about this behavior before (here and here are two examples) and don’t want to focus in this post on the men who leave. Instead, I want to ask a question about what happens to the women in these stories. I hope you can give me some more insight.
Why is the door always open for his return?
I am so often asked: “What can I do? Is there any hope that he’ll return? The estrangement, the loss is often so sudden that shock is the first response. How can this happen? Where is that great person I fell in love with? He must still be there, and I must be able to help him get well – and come back.”
Sometimes, there’s a numbness, sometimes a roar of intense feelings. Of course, that’s true for anyone whose partner walks out. There’s a mash-up of hurt, humiliation, love, anger, confusion. And running through it all at times is an acid of self-doubt. “Could I have done something more? Is this partly my fault? Was I sympathetic enough, loving enough, good enough?”
It’s hard to accept that the person now missing from your life is too wrapped up in his own depression to respond. He doesn’t see you as a person, only a reflection of what he believes about himself. I always respond that you, the abandoned partner, can’t do anything to change him. He has to decide on his own to seek help and work hard to get better. You can’t do that for him.
And I also urge that the woman take care of herself, seek counseling, try to heal. The missing man is beyond her reach, but she can try to heal her own wounds.
One of the many insidious things about depression is that it draws in the people who live within its influence, as Michael Yapko has discussed in his recent book, Depression Is Contagious. Partners of depressed men have already lived with the illness for some time before the break occurs. They need help to deal with that impact. After the worst happens, they continue trying to make a difference and encounter one frustration after another. They take hard punches to the soul and feel their own health and emotional balance slipping away.
But the door remains open for his return.
Strangely enough, depression itself offers hope that the nightmare can end. It’s the illness that’s to blame. He’s suffering, she understands what he’s going through, she keeps offering her support – often by voicemail since he won’t speak to her – or sometimes through a friend or relative of his because he’s blocked every means of direct communication she might try.
My rational mind doesn’t get this and has to ask, Why? Why is the door always held open? Why does the love and support seem so unconditional? Why is there no cost to the man’s behavior despite the pain and havoc he has directly caused? It’s hard for the message to sink in that the depressed partner needs to wake up to the damage he’s done. If he knows he can always come back, he has one less reason to face reality.
Emotionally, I understand quite well, partly because I’ve been there myself. It happened to me in my 20s when a woman suddenly left. Depression had nothing to do with it, but I couldn’t accept the reality of the loss and kept trying to bring her back. I was a wreck for months and couldn’t stop thinking about her for years. I knew this was crazy, but I just couldn’t stop.
And that’s what I hear over and over again. “I know this is hurting me, but I just can’t bring myself to end the relationship completely.” Some get therapy, some – like their missing partners – feel they can’t yet handle talking in depth about the turmoil and hurt.
I know that my cool-headed questions don’t mean much. Long ago, I learned that it’s useless to cite reasons to explain away a painful emotion (not that I can always follow that advice). Recently, I read in Joseph LeDoux’s, The Emotional Brain, that neuroscience is finding a basis in the brain for a common dimension of experience. Studies are charting the intricacies of the pulsing connections through thousands of neurons that we wind up calling thoughts and emotions. Science is once again confirming experience.
One of his comments goes directly to the imbalance between thinking and feeling:
There is but one mechanism of consciousness and it can be occupied by mundane facts or highly charged emotions. Emotions easily bump mundane events out of awareness, but nonemotional events (like thoughts) do not so easily displace emotions from the mental spotlight – wishing that anxiety or depression would go away is usually not enough.
Thoughts can’t do much in the presence of powerful emotions. They’re like blades of tall grass trying not to bend in a hurricane. I suppose if I were one of those green blades, I’d be telling myself why it’s unreasonable to whip around in the wind. This doesn’t make sense. I ought to be able to stand upright as I usually do. There’s no point to this tossing and churning – it’s only a hurricane. I should be able to handle it!
So my rational side gets exasperated when emotion continues to drive someone, but emotionally I’m all sympathy and “understand” completely what’s happening. … And yet, I keep circling back to same question.
Why is that door always open?
What do you think about it? And what do you feel?
Image: Some Rights Reserved by BrittneyBush
I have chosen at this time to leave the door open. My boyfriend is not his depression and I’m aware that he can’t see past his own problems and issues at this point and time. Yes I feel worthless, unloved and angry that I was just hit with a Jekyll and Hyde. I also have the rational thought at times to not take it personal. Still hurts and sucks. I just do what I must, leave voicemails saying the basics love you, miss you and I hear to listen if you need to talk. I don’t have to hide my love cause he can’t feel it completely and I’m seeking my own help through therapy and learning some coping skills. I know the cause of his depression and while I can’t help him, I can support him and leave that door open….til I no longer can. At this moment I’m not going to validate his self loathing and feelings of being unloved cause he very much is. Good luck to everyone of us going through this. I always have hope.
Hi All, Absolutely the door closed (and is not open) after he left (for the second time). He was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and (a little, or a bit of he said—to this day I don’t know whether he was lying—he lied a lot—or ashamed of( Borderline Personality Disorder Over the years of our 15 year relationship (13 year marriage) he was physically abusive, mean, and had emotional affairs. It’s the mixed fruit that got me in trouble. I wanted to stay married so whenever there was any improvement I latched onto that. The tiniest remark or anything could set him off. I held my phone when he was in a mood to fight so I could call 911. He became a recovered alcoholic and then used language of 12 steps against me. He said cruel things routinely. Picked fights so he could be alone to text or email his crushes. It sounds as if many /most of you were with kind, lovely people. But my ex was miserable in himself (his words) and mean and almost collected women to make himself feel better .After a serious accident when I out of necessity focused on my life and healing he then said he had always been unhappy, he didn’t want to take care of me the rest of his life, and he left. I feel i took care of him for years (helped his career, bailed him out financially, emotionally supported etc so that remark is now laughable.) I saw messages that revealed his secret life and that he was “100 percent okay with the outcome” after he left. I knew God had done for me what I could not do for myself and that God was opening better doors. I remember the sense of shock in the empty house healed the first time I came home from a walk and felt that same house also free and empty of the tyranny and heaviness of his moods. I read an article 7 things to know after a partner leaves. First. It’s over. If he wanted to stay he wouldn’t have left. Two he isn’t right for me. As in NO after years of endlessly supporting him through his crises, standing by him with compassion through thick and thin, lots of thin, NO I don’t want someone who walks out. Filing for divorce brought me peace. My house is peaceful. My dogs, cat and I feel the peace. I miss none of the meanness. I sincerely pray he finds peace, healing and happiness but due to the meanness not only is my door closed I have blocked him. I pray you all find peace and your loved ones do as well.
the door remains open, for if this is an illness asI believe depression to be, I would not close the door on my husband if he was going through cancer or any other illness. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health. Vows I made to him, and to myself.. i would not give up on my partner.
John – if your wife hadn’t left the door open for you, where would you be now?
Hello to everyone !
This has been such a support .
In November my bf of 1 1/2 years needed a “pause” due to depression. Looking back I should have seen it coming .
His ex was unfaithful a minimum of 5 times. The last one a year long . He stayed through it all. Very low self esteem. She’s an alcoholic, borderline personality… a mess.
Since we were together she tried to kill herself. Been to rehab . Never takes the kids ( he has full custody)
She was drunk or just made an excuse.
He has all the responsibility. Since covid the burden on him has been extreme. Between that, the ex, work, I see now how depressed he was. The fatigue. Lack of sex drive .
But he was always happy with me. He was perfect . So sweet . So caring. I couldn’t believe i had been blessed with such a great man. I knew he was my happily ever after .
At some point his depression(now I know) I viewed as him pulling away. He changed. Got quiet. Negative .
Fatigued. Irritable with his kids.
He spoke more negatively about himself . Started saying he does nothing for me. I deserve better. I’m settling for him. He thought I was leaving him because my guards went up when he changed.
He said I was his only happiness and he felt worthless like he did in his marriage.
I was so confused. In October he wanted to marry me. Looking at rings . Houses .
I still am lost. When he asked for space I tried but he was so cold. He was another man. After any talk I was devastated by the lack of love.
He says he still loves me. But he doesn’t love himself. He has to fix himself and focus on his kids. Said he wants to be the man I fell in love with .
I’m beyond broken. He’s the love of my life. He couldn’t go a day without talking to me and since December it’s been me pathetically reaching out , maybe with a response, maybe not.
I would be down for days.
So a few weeks ago I went no contact . He said he doesn’t want to move on.
He has been on meds and in therapy since October . I guess his issues go back to his childhood . And he’s a mans man and doesn’t do support . He has to do this o his own.
Do I have hope?