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?