Men and women have the same need and longing to connect with each other, but they also have different ways of reacting to stress that can drive them apart. That makes reconnecting depressed partners difficult. Psychotherapist Patricia Love believes that these instinctive coping strategies can trigger the fear and shame that isolate partners from each other. Depression makes the disconnection that much worse.
These coping strategies can come up in relationships as a typically male sensitivity to shame and a typically female sensitivity to fear.
It’s always touchy to talk about gender differences, but Love and her colleagues approach this with the idea that differing male and female patterns are coping strategies, not fixed genetic traits. They recognize that individual men and women can exhibit behaviors across a broad spectrum.
There are no stereotypes that limit the roles of men and women, nor is there is a difference in their desire or need for feeling and relationships. But different styles of reacting to stress often lead to behaviors that create problems.
Fight-or-Flight or Tend-and-Befriend?
The differences that researchers have found relate to the ways in which humans have evolved to respond to threats and danger. For decades, scientists described the classic stress response of fight or flight as the basis for a lonely world of constant struggle for survival. It wasn’t until the 1990s that a group of social psychologists led by Shelley E. Taylor realized that all these observations had been based on human and animal studies that used mostly male subjects.
When they broadened research to include women in studies of stress, they identified another coping mechanism that was collaborative rather than competitive. Taylor summarized this research in her classic book, The Tending Instinct.
This alternative coping strategy is known as “tend and befriend.” In times of distress, women take care of those close to them while seeking the support of others for protection of the group. It’s a highly social way of dealing with danger that depends on bonds of trust and connection. Researchers found that this pattern, like the fight or flight response, was rooted in neurobiology as well as behavior.
Patricia Love and other psychotherapists have found that these distinctively male and female reactions to stress can contribute to the problems of couples, especially in the presence of depression. Here is a nutshell version of what can happen.
The Fear-Shame Dynamic
For men, the important thing is to demonstrate their ability to remove a danger or solve a problem through action and reasoning. Words and feelings can get in the way and don’t get the job done. The almost instinctive response is to do something on their own, without seeking help. If their ability to handle a situation is called into question, men tend to feel shame.
Rather than take action on their own, women often need to feel connected to others to feel safe. Isolation triggers fear. Expressing their worries to their partners is a way of reassuring themselves that the connection for support is there. Talking and expressing feelings are part of the process of connecting and handling stress.
Hearing about his partner’s worries, however, can also trigger a man’s vulnerability to shame. Instead of understanding a woman’s concerns as the need for connection, he can hear them as criticism that he has failed to do his job of providing and protecting. Her distress comes across to him as an accusation that it’s his fault.
Instead of reaching out to connect, he reacts defensively and angrily pushes his partner away. She is left alone with her fear, which is now intensified by the withdrawal of her primary source of support.
Each keeps triggering the main vulnerability of the other. The man looks for the respect and praise he needs to feel he’s fulfilled his male role but gets only a response he experiences as shaming. As he pulls away in anger, the woman feels more alone and fearful than ever.
How Depression Makes It Worse
Depression adds the perfect storm of isolation and emotional withdrawal. Many men see depression itself as a source of shame, a weakness and sign of their inability to perform. In the majority of cases, they refuse to get treatment or even to acknowledge it. That leaves the woman alone and excluded from the relationship during the crisis of illness.
When a man hears from his wife that he is depressed, that may sound to him like “you are a failure.” Anger is the typical response rather than feeling supported by his partner’s attentiveness. It’s very hard to get around the initial reaction that he’s hearing her words of concern as a criticism.
In depression, the man whom the woman looks to for reassurance and support can become himself the greatest threat to safety. This realization triggers an especially deep fear and vulnerability. She has to live in a constant state of alertness and easily gets angry. The stress level is high and can’t be relieved by the comfort of connection.
Connection Comes Before Communication
According to Pat Love and recent research, the fear-shame dynamic is an instantaneous reaction that begins well outside of our awareness through a process of emotional attunement. This is the reading of nonverbal signals in body language, facial expression and tone of voice. These communicate much faster than words. This nonverbal language comprised our primary method of evaluating and communicating the safety of situations, long before language and reasoning become so prominent in human development.
Because it is tied into neuro-circuitry, the dynamic of reactions is almost impossible to deflect simply by talking. Fear and shame keep you from hearing each other no matter how much mirroring and active listening you try to do.
It’s a lack of connection rather than a lack of communication that is the problem. Reconnecting on a non-verbal level is as important as finding the right words to get back together. This perception is behind the title of the book Love wrote with Steven Stosny, How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It.
Their strategies for improving relationships include plenty of talking, but the words are secondary in importance to the level of interest and concern partners show each other through touch, looks and facial expressions.
Retraining to Reconnect
Love emphasizes that men and women are equally in need of love and intimacy and equally capable of experiencing it. Her approach is to train couples to be sensitive to their differing vulnerabilities and to practice ways of connecting without triggering fear or shame.
For example, she urges women to understand that for men relationship during a time of stress may not feel like a place of safety. Instead, it may seem more like a testing ground for their ability to perform and protect. If they feel they will face judgment about how well they’re doing their jobs as men, they might well try to avoid relationship when dealing with hard problems.
Men don’t realize that a woman’s fear of isolation and deprivation can be triggered by leaving her out of the important parts of his life. Men abandon their wives to manage their own dread of failure and inadequacy, leaving them alone with their needs. As Love and Stosny put it, “A man needs to value the longing of a woman’s heart, or he will leave her alone in her dreams and become the failure he dreads.”
The key is to understand the core vulnerabilities and avoid setting them off while also offering assurance in response to the underlying fear or shame.
I’d like to know if you have found these general ideas about the ways men and women react to stress to be accurate in the context of your own relationship. Do you think these tensions have added to the problems of depression?
In my 13 yr marriage, I was never sure which of us had the worst mood problem. The fact both of us had depression, but each of us called it something different, didn’t help the situation. My husband acted like anything less than “being a man’s man” meant he was inadequate. I think he also felt that my depression meant he was inadequate. So he chose to ignore the fact we were both battling depression and just came out swinging with accusations of infidelity and being untrustworthy that were totally untrue. That way, he could protect his own reputation. He evidenced his own mood disorder by being angry and devaluing, then he would retreat into a shell whenever we were around his family so that I was the one responsible for smoothing things over and mediating between him and people I didn’t even know. This was my “tending.” Naturally, my own lifelong tendency to be depressed and anxious and fearful was only heightened each time this happened. It was hard for me to socialize, yet I tried to socialize on his behalf which felt like a double-whammy. And as a woman, I wanted to be taken care of. I wanted to draw strength from him in order to be able to handle my own insecurities. But he interpreted that as my being too needy rather than my honest desire to connect and share. Eventually it just didn’t work on any level any more. We could not have been any futher apart if he had been in Antarctica and I had been in the Arctic even though we were both freezing from the withdrawal of any warmth.
Thank you for what is fresh insight to me. When I search for this topic online in articles, blogs, podcasts, and videos I usually see the same old information. Always about codependence, narcissism, borderline personality, attachment styles — and these pathologize the individuals involved. But as Aristotle said in “Metaphysics” — the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The insight for me in your article here, John, is the “tending” that women attempt. And that is different than codepence or borderline personality disorder. It is human nature. It isn’t popular or politically correct these days to simply allow for human nature. Everything is either watered down or distilled to the degree that neither is entirely relevant to the vast majority of relationship problems caused by mood disorders. It should not be necessary for every participant in a relationship to be labeled by the DSM-5 in order to be able to be treated. I feel sorry for therapists/counselors who have to write up treatment plans like short-order cooks in order to be paid by insurance companies.
Reading this is like reading my exact circumstances. Thanks so much for your insight.
This seems to totally explain my almost three weeks ago sudden break up from my partner who acknowledges the relationship was really good, he still cares, feel tenderness and desire for me, but says he has been feeling different, or that he doesn’t love me, gradually, for two months…I had told him before to go to a psychologist, I thought he didn’t listen but a week after the break up I went to his house since he refused to answer my calls, and although he looked completely fine at the beginning when I told him I thought I wasn’t the problem but that he was depressed, he broke and started crying. Even more when I said I was worried he might be thinking of suicide…He confessed he did go but he didn’t find it helpful so he quited…then he promesas me to go to a psychiatrist…
He hugged me while crying and while saying good bye…I told him I would be there for him, he could call whenever he needed that I know he tells me things he doesn’t to anybody else…
But it’s been already a little more than a week and still no signs from him 🙁
I just want to help him and have him back 🙁 I wonder how long it will take or if he ever will
As I just read your lines and it reminded me very much of my own story..
I only brought up the fact that he has issues and demons in his head, cause he was telling me always how he felt in some situations, and how his thoughts pressuring him etc. He always said, he thought it’s just his character and that it belongs to him. That the emptiness, the pressure and fear and the resulting loneliness is just the way he is. I have a depressive father my half life, so I could find similarities but it took me long time to recognize even that. Cause they play their role as long as their able to. Until they crack and until they reached ground zero the first time.
As i told him, “you don’t have to live with that the rest of your life. That’s why people see a therapist, that’s why people talk to a councilor” he step by step was more reflected, opened up more an more. It seemed like something came from the ground up and the was thinking a lot more and more over the weeks And told me about his suicudal thoughts, panic attacks, his belief not being enough for me or for people he locked up in his heart. (Which is only his mum and me)
I was there for him, the best I could with being positive and making him laugh and relax as much as possible. I was not pushing him to see a therapist, cause I am convinced that this step is HIS step.
As I could see in him that he was amlost drowning in his ballast, desperately searching for relief, he finally made a doctors appointment. It wasn’t even a therapist, just the regular Internist (he had to tell that internist at first to get a referral to a therapist). But he opened up to him and I think that’s the first time, when everything crumbled in him. The first time someone approved him, “yes you need help”
He was so overwhelmed and helpless that he left me out of the blue. He called me crying and surprisingly during work and said nothing makes sense, we both have no future together, that he sees how I try everything to make him feel better and he is just taking from me, not able to give this back one day, I should just forget him and he disappeared out of my life. He left the apartment keys, took all his stuff and left. That’s 5 days ago and he went silent completely. I haven’t tried to contact him cause i feel like he needs this space. And for now, I will give him this space. Of course in my mind I totally crashed. I cried, called sick at work, cause this is my personal nightmare. Being just pushed away like some dirt on the shoe… but the more I thought about HOW he did all that, the more I understand that it wasn’t even one single percent reflecting our relationship. It makes no sense logical. If he wouldn’t love me, he would behave totally different. Thank god my dad went through all this and that’s when conclusion came into my life again, cause he said he couldn’t do it any other way. “He is fleeing right now cause his mind is full of trouble and emptiness and right now, there is no space for your relationship which not means you should let him fall” that helped a lot.
Despite the fact that this guy broke your heart and probably all your girlfriends will tell you, to move on from this men, you deserve better…. he is sick. And that’s one thing I always keep in mind. His actions are not HIM it’s the sickness and this sickness has control over him right now. Cause I know, and you do probably too in your case, that this relationship was beautiful, loving and sweet. And probably just like me it’s hard on some days to understand the drastic change, being told all these mean things. I swear they don’t mean it. they need help and don’t know it better.
He def. Needs you still but the most important thing is that he gets professional help and your support. It’s never the solution to shut down the people you love but he doesn’t know it better right now.
Iliving with a partner with depression will require all your patience and love you ever had. Saw that for years with my mom. But for me – I will never let him stand there in the rain all by hisself knowing he feels worthless and empty and guilty for what he has done!!
I would love to know how your story continued. Are there any news since?
I wish you truly all the best and hope that things turned out better!!!
All the best, hugs and wishes
(English is not my mother tongue so please excuse grammars.. 🙂 )
English isn’t my mother tongue either! 😛
Im so happy for your interest in my story, actually if you had replied yesterday I would have had nothing to tell…I see a lot of coincidences lately…
So after that time I went to his house we had zero contact…I run by accident into his best friend last week and he didn’t know, my ex hadn’t told him…
But yesterday there was a party from a common friend…I was so nervous cause this month I’ve been getting back on my feet, feeling better but also thinking what could I do to get him back…so there were a lot of expectations on yesterday.
I dressed beautifully I showed myself very happy and confident, I said hello to everyone including him, we were supposed to sit in the same table and I took a chair next to him. He was really kind, even worrying where I put my bag so I wouldn’t lose it…he seemed happy we talked and laughed a lot…we had shots together…we danced, better than any time before, I thought we were gonna kiss…but nothing happened, at the end of the night he waited for me to go out offered me company to get the cab…I gave him a beautiful letter I had made for him….but what I was really hoping was that he told me something else…maybe let’s go for some drinks, I’ve missed you…whatever. But no. He seemed to take the letter with comfort, he stood up outside his taxi for a while to wave at me goodbye….
And that was it.
I feel so sad he didn’t tell me anything but at the same time I feel calmed, I feel I played my cards right…I do have those friends who say it’s obvious he doesn’t want me back and I should just let it go and forget about him…and part of me thinks that makes sense, and I should do that… But the biggest part of me thinks this opens the door for me to restablish contact and with nice contact we may get back together eventually…I don’t need him to be my super bf again, and that we see each other everyday and we are a couple right now…but I think there’s still a lot of happiness to give to each other, there’s still the flame, and I just love him so much…I think he was being more than polite…I understand if he said nothing he remains firm in his desicion but maybe he can think it was correct to finish things in that moment but with nice moments with me like yesterday he just opens to the possibility of building a new relationship…
I’m hoping so much that he would contact me about the letter, even if it’s just to say thank you, or to ask what is it that I was diagnosed with -I had been losing weight and in a very anxious and depressed state for about three months, we didn’t know what it was until last week, turns out it’s hyperthyroidism, so in the letter I say this state of mine combined with his and caused chaos, but I don’t tell him the diagnosis per sé-. But he’s a master of remaining silent…
He told me he’ll have an important test on Wednesday so I was thinking on sending a good luck message that day…
I don’t know…At the least I’m happy I’m calmed and I had fun last night…
If I understood right your partner left only five days ago?! You sound very calmed for such a short time…If you wanna maybe talk more we could contact through WhatsApp or Facebook, no?
I hope I could give you a hug, I need it too 🙁 and I only want to remind you everything will be okay even when it looks all terrible today. I’m no longer in the pain I was the first three weeks, even though I’m sad, I’m calmed, so there’s really a light at the end of the tunnel…
All the best for you 🙂
first of all: i have hypothyroidism, so the exact opposite of you 🙂 what a coincidence! But no matter if hypo or hyper – if you’re not set up right with the amount of hormones, you’re a total nerve-wreck, arent you?! i have this since 9 years and they diagnosed it when i was 18 cause i fell asleep everywhere, gained weight, had headache every day, could not concentrate, felt down and slow… the time before i was diagnosed was horrible, so i can imagine how you felt, cause you must have the extreme opposite of my symptoms!
What i try to say is that, throw THIS in the mix with the mental illness of your spouse and you have a tough time!
i felt so proud of you as i read the story of the party! I would have done the same, dress up, smile, just spend a wonderful evening, so he learns to link positivity with you again as a person! have you ever talked again about the brake up? i cant imagine, he wont show a sign of interest after your letter. but it may take some time. for those who wait, its always a longer way to suffer.
You’re so right: the most important thing is to stay calm and see the light in the end of the tunnel.
When i texted you first, i felt strong for like 2 hours but it comes and goes. you know, you sometimes think, you’re going to get through this, all will be fine with or without him… but than this sick strange darkness comes creeping in, or something reminds me of him and you just cry for hours, listening to adele and staring out of your window like “why does this happening to me, i miss him so much”
what helped me was after the first 48hours of total shock was websites like THIS, people like You, who suffer the same! it gives you conclusion, that the person you loved over so many years is not turned into a monster by accident. Its a sickness. But its his choice, if he takes my support or not.
I also wrote him a letter these days, saying that i would never leave him standing in the dark alone but clearly distanced from our relationship. i told him, he could never make me hate him, no matter how hard he pushed me away. but that he needs help.
its not that i want him back to be there for me, my super duper boyfriend again. but i know him like nobody else does, and know that he longs for a family, a home, a child someday and … he is not made to run away for the rest of his life, but HE has to takes steps in this direction.
i am not sure, when this letter gets to him or if he even will react. but thats all i can do for now. distance and time! even when in some moments i just want to hop in my car, smash down his door and just hug him cause i know he suffers. in other moments i think.. what men chooses to hurt me this much and chose to live without me? do you also sometimes think, time will bring him back anyway cause there is not THAT GIRL waiting for him outside, know what i mean? aahh its just so emotional, isnt it?
i would love to connect with you via Facebook and we could keep us up to date from time to time, how our story continues!?
how can i find you there?
i wish you all the best so far and hope i will able to get in your footsteps of getting back on track soon, just like you!
all the best, hugs and wishes
talk to you soon 🙂
🙂 can you write me an email? Almanmeli [at] gmail [dot] com
Maria & Beverly,
I have been reading your post and I am in the same situation now. I’m crushed! My husband of 29 yrs is dealing with all you both have written about. He told me a month a go he doesn’t want to be a husband anymore but still loves me and wants to be friends. He has not left yet but the distance he has put in between us feels the same if not worse. I need to hear how you both have ended up and if there is any advise. I too want to just hug him so tight, which everyday I was doing that till he told me he was done. Now I am afraid that if i talk to him it will feel like I’m pushing him.
Wow.. I can relate so much to your stories.. my boyfriend went to his parents shortly before yours and it’s been a whirlwind.. blamed me for not being there for him and such. The difference is that I do talk to mine.. last week we talked one day and it seemed like things would have been resolved and he was back and then everyday one day at a time I could see him sinking deeper and deeper. We talked few days ago where he wanted to have his meds checked to increase dose or change meds. So I was seeing an upside. We talked on Friday and have heard nothing since. I don’t know how I could keep faith going on for weeks with no contact like that. I keep contact because it’s a reminder that I’m here and not going anywhere and though everyone has given up on him I will be the one to prove him wrong and yes all my friends say to leave him but I know this guy isn’t him so I hold on. But like u guys I have days when I wanna walk away, days when I’m like no I will be strong. It’s hard when you are dealing with your own stuff and they too lost to care. I’m holding on for hope. But I don’t know if I could wait for months like a lot of posts I read..
I’m so sorry Marsha. That this pains is part of the lives of so many people. If you and Maria Feel like it I would really like to chat with you, since you nderstand better than everyone…
To catch you on things, I called the next day, so two days after the party. I asked him whether at the party he was just being polite, and he said no…so I said “I understand if you haven’t said anything to me you must remain firm in your decision…however, maybe that “resistance” you said you felt towrds being with me has changed a little bit, and we could restablish contact and see if things work or definitely not” So he said he was ok with it but he was scared cause he was still very confused about his life and didn’t want to hurt me…I said it was my risk to take…and that was it. We talked a little bit that day…Two days later I talked to him agan just to say hi and he replied fast and nice. two days later he talked to me, said it was about some books we had to give back to the library like a month go and of course I had gave in a lot of time ago,..”I was like ?! you didn’t talk to say hi?! he said yes, also that and started telling me he had definitely decided to drop his career…we talked that day, we said good night…I thought it was going on a good track…two days later I invited him to a concert, he said yes, but not very entusiasthc…he kept replying and even sent me a video…but not as nicely as thursday, so I asked him whther he liked that I was talking to him and he says “It don’t dislike it”……….
I called him to ask for clearence on that…and he said if I was in that mood to be bothered by that we shouldnt be doing this, this isnt a good idea, so then I asked him again to explain and he said it means he replyed because he feels and likes to reply and if not, he wouldnt do it…so i said ok, that’s different…and we started talking other stuff.
Next day, sunday, I found out I had a rehearsal at the time the concert we were going to attend was…I asked him whther we could go out that same day instead…hes said he didn’t have money for the bus but he was gonna look for the money -This is part of the issue, he’s 25 and still economically depends on his father and feels bad about it specially cause he was a son, and is his father who sends money for the boy…and his father is not doing financially well either…”…Bottomline he got the money from some other member of his family…but he struggled to get the money to go out with me and I thought it was a very positive sign…he went out and it was great…we seemes like anew couple…he kissed me, and we walked hugging through the park and spent like 9 hours together just talking and drinking wine…he told me he shouldn’t be drinking since lately, everytime he gets sad after he drinks…
So next day I asked him whther he had been sad last night after we went home…he said yes…and that was it! He never said hi to me again….
It was a torture to wait to see which day he would just say hi…so yesterday, 4 days after our date I started talking to him, and unlike last week he replied not nicely…very serious…I called him and ask him why his behaviour had changed, and he said nothing happen all normal….
So I asked him what he had been thinking about us, he said that when he said he was ok with us meeting he did it in fear of hurting me, because he DOESNT WANT the relationship back, he kept daying I don’t want to go back I dont want to go back …he said he’s too confused just figuring out what to do with his life and he doesnt wanna have anything else to pay attention to….I talked a lot about how I felt responsible for him, and how I wanted to be there for him and be patient and maybe later we can be together…and he said he just thinks its gonna hurt me more cause he sees no hope for us…I asked whther we could improve this situation by stablishing how many days a week we talk or how often we see, and he said no, “No, because you’re trying to save something and I DONT WANT to save anything”
I asked what had happened, why last week he would say hi and be nicer at me, and this week after we share an amazing day together -I had already asked him whther it was a good day for him and he say yes, and it was obvious cause I was there to notice!- instead of keeping that or even improving that he would go backwards…and he said “You’re trying to understand something I don’t understand myself”
I asked whther there was anything in his life right now he knew he did want, and he said yes, I asked what and he said he wouldnt tell me. Ao I was like wth?? Last week you were all the time open to talk to me, how come this week after we go out not anymore?? and he kept quite
I asked him if any day he had missed me, and he said there are a lot of beautiful memories with you, but not a single day I have regreted my decision
I asked him whether we could maybe meet up in two days and maybe have a more productive conversation, and he said he was ok with it, he replied to me he answers my phone calls and all he has no problem with it…we hung up…
I went and told the story to a friend of mine…and she said that conversation reminded her of her conversation with her ex bf who dumped her, but then came back around, anf went again…and that this was just hurting me more…and anyways…That conversation I wanted to have in person was just to let him go, cause I really can’t stand him not talking to me or barely replying and wondering whether he will ever talk to me….
So I called him again, he counded tired of having to pick up…and I said, I was just thinking, and you made it very clear you do not want to be with me…and if we go out and have a great date and you go backwards instead of forward then this makes no sense…I think I’ve played my last card, I tried my best and now I can leave in calm…so let’s stop talking…
He said ok…forgive me about all this horrible stuation,..
I said Ihave nothing to forgive, that I don’t think he decided to switch the button of “not loving Bev anymore”…I told him how great he was he told me how great I was.. I asked him if maybe he could now tell what it is that he knowd for sure he wants…and he said he knows he wants to attend a therapist as he had promised me and things like that…
Many times I said “bye” and he would kept quite, making me feel like he had something to say, but I didn’t want to ask more questions since before he had said it made him uncomfortable I make so many questions…
We finally said good bye wishing the best for each other…
I’m sad of course. I don’t know if more or less than the rest of this almost 2 months since he left…But I’m hoping to be strong enough to let him go and never contact him again. I blocked him from fb and whatsapp, lets hope it’ll do… 🙁
Cause I still have this tiny but strong little person in my heart saying he will come back, he just needs time, he’ll start therapy and feeling better and he will come back 🙁 🙁
I just want to move on, to have the dignity to move on and stop holding on to the little things that shows he likes me, becasue I know he does, but he doesnt want to be with me…
I met my partner when I was a toddler, as my mother and his father are cousins. We enjoyed holidays over the years as a family. I attended his first wedding then we didn’t see each other again for 29 years due to my living overseas. However, we met again as a family at a reunion to celebrate his parents golden wedding anniversary, and there was an immediate spark! Suffice to say he was 18 years into a 2nd marriage, which resulted in another child (3 in total) plus a step son. We immediately began corresponding, by email and text, feelings heightened and dreams escalated. After 5 months he left his 2nd wife and moved in to a flat. We lived 5 hours apart by car, so every available weekend was spent travelling to each other. I eventually bought a house in his home town, left my beloved job, and more importantly left my 20 year old son, family and friends…sacrificing everything I knew to be with the ‘love of my life’. I secured a part time job, to aid the transition. We moved in and it was blissful, the dream had come to fruition. The problems started…..I felt overwhelmed with grief, missing my son, my family and a job I adored and had been successful in for 6 years. My life felt empty. I felt secure though having my partner with me. Finances were difficult as he was paying the mortgage and maintenance to his wife. We had his son with us from Friday to Sunday, every week. His parents would visit us every Saturday and stay for lunch and dinner, I felt every weekend was being hijacked and our special alone time was insignificant. I moved to a full time role within a school, which was disastrous, but stayed there for a year, feeling worthless and invisible but it was often better than being at home, were I felt reclusive, angry and bitter. We rarely communicated about important issues. I discovered he’d had a 7 year affair which he was still involved in when we met at the family reunion, and communication had continued up until the day before we moved in together. I was now quite badly depressed and had left him in my house on a regular basis (every month) to return to the sanctuary of my parents home, where my son also lived. The mental torment and anguish pained us both. Sure, we had issues, but they were rarely discussed or resolved. I love him with all my heart, we share many things in common and I am attracted to him physically, mentally, emotionally and sexually. I am taking medication and have joined the Quakers. I have a fully supportive family. I am now unemployed as I left for the last time 2 months ago. He lives in my house. I am living with my parents. I have lost 3 stone in weight in 2 months. The mets are starting to work. I no longer have the very dark days. I am heart broken that after all our difficulties in being able to be together, planning to get married next year and loving each other deeply….we are now apart and it’s never really been discussed why I had to abandon him so frequently. Thank you for all your information, they have helped me enormously, in understanding how and why my behaviour triggered such violent and hurtful processes.
Sam D. says
I was disappointed in this post. Not because it didn’t contain valuable content, it did. Well, it almost did. My partner and I have mutual shame reactions to many of our interactions and we are very much in need of guidance as to how we overcome this. I felt the post expressed understanding and I anticipated some help. Then the post ended saying possible solutions would be offered in another post. It didn’t say where/when and I couldn’t find anything… except reference to a book I could buy. I was disappointed enough that the subject was talked about but promised solutions were not provided and that this ultimately felt like a tickler just to sell a book that I decided I would not buy the book on principal and express my disappointment in this comment.
I’ve been coming across your posts through various web searches while I try to figure out what to do with my relationship. This one really hit home; it certainly spells out how he’s dealing with his current stress load.
My question is, however: what do I do if we’re already basically living apart? He (34) asked me (27) to sleep at my mom’s house as he couldn’t “give anything to a relationship” in the state he’s in, and that was 6.5 weeks ago now.
We have had very little contact except for a few emails. He’s blaming himself for everything (“I know this is all my fault”), and says he needs to “fix his life” (HUGE financial issues, ex-wife and custody challenges (he has a five year old daughter – I have no children), working long hours as he’s doing an overtime project at work)…he says he’s failing everyone and everything…
Everyone thinks I’m crazy for attempting to wait it out, but I honestly can say that my “womens intuition” tells me to stand by and be patient. I have my own mental health issues, and I can’t help but recognize that he has been in various stages of depression for the last 7 months. I so want to write him and say “lets just go to a movie” or something…some kind of contact that’s non-threatening. I am trying so hard to go “no contact” right now (two weeks today), trusting he’ll come to me when he’s ready, but I fear it will never happen… For now, I’m trying to make my life better. I’ve found a job (I had lost my job and was unemployed for the last 6 weeks before he asked me to sleep at moms) that pays better than any I’ve had before, I’m subletting a condo for the summer, and I’ve gone out to do “ME” things that I enjoy… I still have a huge gap in my life, though…I miss him and his daughter.
I love him deeply, and firmly. What do I do to help him, and help us?? I can’t make him reach out to me if he’s not ready to, but is there something/anything I should be doing besides trying to live my life and allow him the space?
Thanks so much.
Wow this explains a lot!!!! My boyfriend has been diagnosed with depression three months ago. In this time he has moved out, ended the relationship and has cut me off four times. However, each time he comes back (after he tells me he can feel something for me again), he says he wants to try to restore the relationship. But once I start to express how hurt I am, or that I need him, or support, he cuts me off and walks away again.
This article has really explained the rational. When I see him again in three weeks time (his depressive behavioural cycle), I will really have to do my best- for his sake to hold my hurt in and just be warm, open and seemingly content with life. Well that is the plan anyway.
He is the love of my life, and I will wait for as long as the depression lifts- to be with him.
Just hope he realises one day how hard it has been.
Funny part is that sometimes all of this works the other way around, probably has something to do with family roles, influences and childhood drama.
In my relation the experiences are on the other side of the scale, the depressed partner (girlfriend) acts like a man, shutting down, running away from “heavy” commitment of a serious relationship and tries to amuse her depression with the presence of other depressed friends (mostly female).
I as a man, since I am longing for a more intimate relation (that’s who I am), I am left stunned, alone and isolated, offering words of support, yet the other side always fails to make the final connection and get back though, even if depressed, I can hear her cries, I offer my hand only to see the other hand slowly withdrawing again and disappearing into isolation.
This has a high toll, it doesn’t matter how much I try to protect myself, there is always the feeling of incomplete, the feeling of a relation that was wonderful and now gone, the on going process of appearing and then disappearing is just draining power from my system no matter how much I try to protect myself. It is a very emotional draining task, since love is described only through one feeling, the feeling of intimacy and communication, when those are not present nothing can protect your soul from the draining effect of loss and pain, it can only be minimized but not erased, erasing would mean erasing all feelings or working as a switch.
What I found helpful in my situation, in order to minimize the pain, was to think of the future, that would give me a safe space to rest for a while before struggling again, the future with a depressed partner is like a roller coaster and especially when you think about a serious relationship, how would a serious relationship last when your partner runs away from his feelings, logic comes into the game, and that is the key part of maintaining your stability and sanity, logic tells you that the way you are now following is a roller coaster, a future with only little reassurance of your sanity and ability to maintain your healthy balance and the inner pain.
This is what allows me to suppress the urge of wanting to try more that needed in this relationship and probably this will be the key factor if I will need to decide about my future, because only you decide about your future, not anyone else, same goes about the depressed partner, it doesn’t matter how much you try, they are the only ones who can help their own entities.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, K –
You’ve expressed this quite eloquently, and I’m afraid it’s sadly true. You remind me of the years my wife put in waiting for me to come around. She often gave up hope, though she ultimately stayed with me. I’m afraid some of the losses can’t be made up, but a new relationship has to be created. You don’t mention treatment – it is hard to sustain things if your partner is not committed to getting better. You mention in your other comment that she is getting treatment, but it doesn’t sound like it’s working. I think it takes a lot more than medication when the problem runs deep and continues for a long time.
My best to you —
Unfortunately it does take a great time, although she is getting treatment I have the feeling she does not want to confront the problems.
Problems? yes, family, has raised this person inside a balloon or even better a jar glass, she knows the issues yet I never feel a struggle from her side to change, there are times I wonder if I should be more harsh in my communication, to put more pressure on this, but I always end up wondering if I should follow that path.
She tries to signal a few emotions, but always in a girly manner, yet she is older than me, yet I find nothing assuring, I see no light into the tunnel, she has changed a few thing in her life, but I see no future no more, how could I possibly create a family with this person? It’s been a few months she closed her feelings only to herself, not even a small effort for this relation, she only comes up when I get to see her, yes then she is all around me, once I am gone…well if I wouldn’t make contact she would never contact me!
Thanks John, you are a great helpful hand…especially for the other side…wish I could be a small God and change things…
Wow K your post discribs how I feel extactly. My gf left 4 months ago. I tired to help she wouldn’t let me. The her depression is situational I’ll have to hang on see if passes. But my god it’s hard.
Hey just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The words in your post seem to be running off the screen in
Internet explorer. I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with web browser compatibility but I figured I’d post to let
you know. The design look great though! Hope you get the issue solved soon.
John Folk-Williams says
Thanks for letting me know. I’m doing a cross-browser test now. Which version of IE are you using – I assume you’re on Windows?
Yep, that would be the first rate mistake my partner and I made with each other – the more I tried to help and open up to our problems (not knowing it was depression to begin with), the harder he fought my invasion, thus the more insecure I became and in turn he pushed further away and of course I would ask for explanations which weren’t forthcoming because what more could he add to ‘I feel nothing about anything’, doesn’t come more plain, but of course that was beyond my logic and so I continued to dig for reason and explanation.
Although living on opposite sides of the planet currently, we’re still communicating, interestingly last week when I spoke to him and said “I won’t be calling you any more, it’s too painful constantly begging for your attention” he replied with “I kiss you” – I know it doesn’t sound like much but it’s the first affectionate response in 3 months, so do I surmise that my releasing him from emotional explanations actually allowed him to express a feeling?
My partner is usually an affectionate; caring; sensitive man with all the hallmarks of an self-made independent male and he has made comment HE needs to work it out, however, I gleaned over that and went into the role of pseudo nurse/therapist/depression-repairer, after all in my mind we’re partners we share responsibility for each other….yep, I’m a classic study for the above post – but I keep learning thanks to the honest information that a site like this provides.
This website has been a breath of fresh air and a real relief to me so thank you. This article hit the nail on the head for me. My ex boyfriend left me last year very suddenly by announcing we didn’t get on. I was totally confused as we had a fun and happy relationship up until a year or so before when he began to withdraw from me, we lost all intimacy despite my efforts (which was hurtful and humiliating) and he became very selfish. In turn I felt so lonely in the relationship. He left me as he wanted to be “entirely selfish and alone”. I was devastated and confused believing he might have another woman in the wings or just have fallen out of love. I think he thinks he’s fallen out if love because he can’t feel anything but I hear he is still miserable and he has sent a few strange texts saying he doesnt understand why he’s on the planet or what the point is. I have told his family I think he’s depressed but can’t interfere anymore as i sometimes think they just believe he’s left me because he wanted to leave me and that I’m making up an excuse. He has managed to hold down a job but it is working v late hours which I can’t see would help him. Today I received a text saying he was bored with life. We had a lovely life before he ended it with far reaching possibilites but now are both alone with neither happy. Thanks John fir your brilliant website.
Hi Anne, You said exactly what I have been going through with my DBF of 4 years. He has left 3 times in 4 years always returning. We had a lovely relationship by all many standards. I have not told his family(which i was close to0) as I think they themselves are in the dark and have their own issues regarding drinking, depression. They too would think that i was just the scorned GF. We have been separated for 7 months and I am still sad, hardly believing that this has happened.Just doesn’t make any logical sense. I know he cares for me deeply but He will not allow himself to to return to me as he says that he knows the behavior won’t stop and he will do this again. He said he cares “too much” and thats why he is leaving. I asked him to talk to a therapist to find out why he leaves and he refuses. At times he admits something is wrong and then he flips back into denial. He is miserable, has low self esteem, is drinking alcoholically, not sleeping, canceling work, is angry, a victim, blaming me ..saying he didn’t feel what he thinks he should feel (he had just brought me a ring to propose). This is what happens every time he leaves and returns. This time i don’t think he is coming back. He was the one that left yet he continues to drive by my house, show up in my work parking lot, texts me every ten days. Its like he is the victim. I don’t understand. Now we are both alone and both unhappy. Truly sad.
I have been taking care of me, therapy, Alanon, friends, pray .It all helps but I am still left devastated because I miss him so much. I know he feels the same way but can’t express it.
This site helps me to understand just a bit more each time I read the stories and comments.
Very insightful. Thanks John. Every word you said was beautifully written. It was like rereading what happened to me and my ex. I wanted to help and protect him so bad but he withdrew and preferred to do things by himself. His ultimately led to him leaving me. I hope all the couples who are experiencing this could read this. It could help them understand that they are not alone and that they can overcome whatever it is that they are experiencing.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Dragongirl –
I’m sorry things didn’t work out between you. There’s often an imbalance in a couple in their willingness to look at themselves. There are so many partners who just refuse to believe that things can change dramatically within the same relationship – without having to go off and find a new one.
All my best to you —
Dear Jon: Yes. You are totally right. I felt you were describing my life. I am the one who was depressed but my husband acted very much the way you described. I think it was depressed too. Thank you so much for describing so accurately the experiences of millions of people who suffer from this terrible illness and the impact it has on our relationships and the role that gender differences play in all of this. I am going to print this article and see if I can convince my husband to read it with me. He might decline because as he puts it,”I don’t like to live in the past.” He avoids the pain of the past and even the present. But the beauty is that his behavior and ways no longer depress me. I don’t agree with him but I have learned to understand that his responses are not an indication of failures or inadequacies from my part; it is jus the way he is and the way he choses to see life. Men and women: we both want connection and love but we go about different ways to get them. Always inspiring and uplifting to read your words. They are true representations of moments in my life. Thank you.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Jocelyn –
Thanks for your kind words, but do remember that I’m only summarizing the work of others here. I’m been learning a lot from Pat Love, Sue Johnson, John Gottman, David Wexler, Esther Perel and many other great psychotherapists. They’ve been helping me a lot in rethinking relationships and how depression further complicates them. I admire the sense of involved separateness you have with your husband, if I can put it that way. The hardest thing is to appreciate your own individuality, see what’s happening in your partner in a non-threatened way and also enjoy the bond that you share. I think that’s what good relationships are all about.
Again, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I definitely think that these ideas are accurate and have experienced these dynamics in my current relationship frequently. I feel like I want to help him and even protect him. I WANT the relationship to be a safe place for him AND for me. But what you say about it seeming like a ‘testing ground’ makes so much sense: when I ‘try’ too hard to ‘help’ or ‘talk’ or ‘console’ him, it probably really does make him feel inadequate. It often makes things worse. This is hard for me to understand, but I think I’m getting it, and this post very much clarifies things for me.
I also just realized now that I have been assuming (via necessity – -he has been out of work) the role of ‘provider’ and ‘protector’ for the most part — wow, this has got to take a toll on the way he feels as a man! I want so much for him to feel empowered and more confident in all ways. But, sometimes NOT ‘trying’ to help him is actually the best thing, in part so that I can take better care of myself too. And then he can learn how to better manage his stress and depression on his own, which is in itself empowering.
In light of the issues discussed in this article, I’m letting go of that urge to ‘tend’. I’m committed to leaving a ton more space, focussing less on ‘us’ as a couple and more on my (our) individual needs. Maybe he needs to feel like he can ‘provide’ and ‘protect’ better, and I just realized that I need that from him too.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Renee –
I’ve also learned a lot from these ideas – though I certainly can’t take credit for coming up with them. There’s something about the role differences and tendencies for men and women to interpret things in differing patterns that goes deep into everyday awareness. I’m always haunted by sense of inadequacy or nervousness that I won’t measure up, even in trivial ways. It’s remarkable how tiny moments can symbolize very powerful inner needs and fears. Depressive thinking plays into the most negative associations. The other side of it is feeling good or strong when I get something right. The word power comes up so often in all this, and that is one of the inner needs I want to explore more deeply.
Thanks for your comment.
Mary Kay says
Wow! This is exactly what we went through before my husband left. I was worried and stressed about our son who was experiencing a myriad of issues at school thanks to his ADHD; trying to find balance and success for him and his teachers. Your description of the differences between men and women is spot on — I worked through my son’s issues the way women typically do, and my husband exhibited the male behavior pattern, plus he was struggling with depression (but refused to acknowledge). In trying to help our son, I have read a lot on personality traits and other psychological/behavioral differences, but I wish I had come across this. Very insightful and helpful, John! You manage to provide insight at exactly the times I need it!
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Mary Kay –
I’m glad you found this at the right time. The insights from Pat Love and Shelley Taylor are helping me enormously just now, and I’m glad if I can help lead you to them. I think there is a lot of great work of the last decade that’s coming into wider circulation now. It makes me more hopeful about the possibilities for people to manage depression more effectively, especially in terms of their relationships.
Do I find these ideas to be accurate in my own relationship? Totally! Making depression worse? Ditto. John, you’ve managed to condense all of this into something that is so on the mark – I wish every couple with a depressed partner (or two) could somehow be required to read it. My husband was experiencing depression for a time, as well, and luckily we were already in couples therapy so that helped a lot. But what you describe about the shame and fear….it feels sad to me that these can destroy an otherwise working relationship. As a female, I have to say that I go through both of these and sometimes the shame I feel about being depressed is a result of my husband’s reaction, which is to “fix” it, making me feel like I should just be able to get over it. Of course, I know it’s not that simple, but it does feel like abandonment – if I am depressed, then there is something wrong with me and we can’t talk about it, which means I’m left alone. And THAT really helps – NOT! I’m thinking that how I’ve worked this out is to lower my expectations and be thankful that he’s learned to not give me the third degree about it because that only raises his anxiety levels when I can’t give logical explanations for it. It’s maybe not the ideal way of coping and involves a lot of avoidance, but it at least feels more peaceful.
I have to continue working on managing my own depression, with or without him, and some days I just get really sick of it and even angry that it’s a constant thorn in my side and that it’s mostly a lonely job, but if I give up, the result I imagine would be even worse.
Thanks so much for this particular piece – it really spoke to me.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Judy –
I’m glad this spoke to you. The difficulties you describe are so familiar – alas! It would be so nice if a couple could resolve all this, have done with it and get on with each other “happily ever after.” I keep running into “ghosts” of depression in patterns of things I say or think and ways I behave with my wife. I seem to be especially receptive now to learning new ideas and strategies for dealing with this legacy, and it helps to get confirmation that it is relevant to others as well.