I’ve often described the way depression can break up close relationships, but does the illness explain everything? How responsible are depressed partners for the human cost that others pay because of what they do when they’re ill?
One reader told me I’d confused her about this. First, I talked about depression taking over someone, as it had done to her husband. The angry stranger he became was the opposite of the man she had married. He became remote, blamed her for everything and left for a time.
Depression can do that. If it’s treated effectively and goes away, however, it might be possible for the old, familiar person to return and the couple to get close to each other again.
It seemed to her that I was putting all the blame on depression, as if the couple had been hurt by flying debris in a tornado and then could heal their wounds after the storm had passed.
Thinking about her partner’s leaving and coming back made more sense to her when explained as the impact of a destructive illness. It wasn’t really him acting in those terrible ways but an inner monster that was driving his behavior and twisting his thoughts. To some extent, that’s true, and I have often described it that way.
But I’ve also talked about the responsibility of recovering partners to acknowledge the damage they’ve caused. They were the ones who acted abusively, had affairs, left home without a word, then returned and apologized, then left again – or did other things just as destructive to their families.
When I talked about depressed partners in that way, she thought I couldn’t empathize with her returning husband. He was back, full of remorse and trying with her to restore the relationship. It sounded to her like I was blaming him, after all, rather than his depression.
I know it’s confusing, but this isn’t an either/or choice. Depression causes the changes in behavior, even personality, but depressed partners still need to own up to the damage and pain their actions have brought about. I believe that is an important part of recovery.
It’s such a complicated and sensitive thing to talk about – especially when answering a question from someone who is trying so hard right now to understand what happened.
Though I’ve written about this before, I doubt I’ve ever hit the right balance in describing the way I see it. And, of course, the way I see it only comes out of my experience and won’t necessarily match what others are going through.
Depressed partners can’t simply put the blame on their illness, assure their partners that all the hurtful behavior wasn’t aimed at them and expect that everything will get back to the way it used to be.
I know that doesn’t work because I used to think that way. After a long spell of sullen withdrawal, feeling like my wife was to blame, wanting to get away, I’d snap out of it and be responsive and loving again. I’d feel deeply remorseful but explain what had happened with words like these:
You have to understand that it wasn’t about you. It was all about depression and what was going on inside me.
That was sincere but didn’t help much. Both of us wanted to believe that I was back, and that we could pick up where we had left off. However, things weren’t really the same at all.
Before long, I’d get depressed again, then come out of it, offer the same explanation and feel the same remorse. My wife couldn’t accept that explanation after the first couple of episodes.
She’d tell me:
How can you say it wasn’t personal? You did this to me not to a shadow in your head. How am I supposed to trust you now? I never know who you’ll be from one day to the next.
Saying it was all depression wouldn’t cut it. I had to accept the reality that I had done deeply hurtful things to her. I had to own up to what I had done, get help and work with her to restore trust.
I also had to face her anger. That wasn’t easy for her to express, and it sure wasn’t easy for me to hear. With the help of a therapist, she could get it all out, and I could sit there and take it without trying to fight her off or get angry in return.
What I had done really sank in then. For the next day or two I felt a deep grief. My eyes were clouded with tears much of that time. That’s when I fully grasped the emotional impact on my wife and kids and could see in bright sunlight how much I had put at risk.
After that, I could never again rely on the idea that depression alone had done the harm. It did its work through me and my behavior. I had to learn how to live with the illness and limit the damage I might do to my family while under its influence.
Worrying about what the cause was, who or what is to blame, isn’t going to help much. What happened is done and can’t be undone. Yes, depression will change behavior in drastic ways, but treating it successfully doesn’t bring a relationship back to what it had been.
I put it this way in another post about broken relationships:
… the relationship you used to know may not return. It’s likely to be changed as a result of living with depression, especially if it recurs of if a single episode continues for several months, perhaps even years. It’s only natural to long for the return of the loving partner you used to know – your partner wants the same thing – but be prepared that it may not be so simple as that. You and your partner are more likely to face a gradual process of redefining how to live together.
It’s a great thing when a relationship can adapt to the impact of depression and survive. Many don’t, especially when the illness keeps coming back. There’s a lot anger, hurt and broken trust to deal with, and treating the illness of one person won’t do it for you.
That’s been my experience. Has it turned out differently for you?