Relationships in Conflict: Action Against Depression

In recalling how couples I’ve encountered have dealt with conflict in their relationships, two moments come to mind. These were just glimpses, but they stand out as the extremes. They have inspired me to take early action against depression to prevent blaming my partner for my own internal pain.

Once during a visit to a Native American community in the Pacific Northwest, I went to see an elder couple at their home. What they said has faded from memory, but how they said it was completely enchanting. Their words flowed together as if the two of them were inside each other’s minds. Without a pause, they spoke in rhythmic alternation, picking up each other’s sentences, finishing thoughts in a way that seemed like sharing rather than interrupting.

Their voices perfectly complemented each other in tone and pitch – it was like listening to music, a beautiful duet. I could hardly imagine what they might have done to reach that harmony. No couple gets through decades together without their share of differences and conflict. I knew they were prominent in the ceremonial life of the community, and perhaps it was that spiritual dimension that had helped them achieve such harmony.

The other example was as different as night from day. I was driving a few blocks from our house on a beautiful New Mexico morning, with a clear view of the mountains on either side of the Rio Grande Valley. In stark contrast, I saw a young couple about a block away flailing in their own dark storm.

The man had just left their house, crossed the street to his car and looked back to see the woman following him out. She marched in one determined step after another right up to him and without a word punched him in the face. He immediately hit back just as hard, and the fight was on. They kept pounding at each other as I watched from a distance, horrified, immobilized. It seemed my car just kept going where it needed to go.

Most of us live somewhere between these extremes, hoping to work things out, but often not knowing what to do. My wife and I have found a couple of methods we keep coming back to. There’s one in particular we’ve learned to use effectively over and over again when I’m losing myself in depression.

One of the most common things I’ve done when depressed is to get intensely irritable and angry with everything and everyone. My wife takes the brunt of this. I’ll either snap in quick judgment about whatever she says or does. Or I won’t say a word and grunt and frown through the day, not even making eye contact. Of course, she’s hurt, angry, frustrated at this punishing behavior, often exploding in return, and then we’re into an increasingly bitter argument. After that, I’ll feel even more depressed about the relationship, and she’ll smolder in resentment while losing hope that I’ll ever change.

We’ve learned to short-circuit that vicious cycle – or at least try to – by naming as quickly as possible the trigger for the anger that I’m nurturing and refusing to talk about directly. There’s always something that sets it off. It could be an incident at work or something I feel I’ve failed at or a comment I’ve interpreted as a slight or attack. Whatever it might have been, I feel hurt or angry or afraid and shut the emotion down, refusing to talk about it. I can do that so well that I put the incident out of mind altogether. Then I get intensely irritable, often imagining that this is a legitimate response.

Whenever I manage to stop and try to think where the anger is coming from, I can usually trace it back to the triggering moment. Sometimes, I’ve been keenly aware of it all the time, but often I really have to think hard to bring it back, so effectively have I pushed it aside. If I can’t step back, my wife might be able to do it. Even if she’s yelling it out, she’ll hit the key point. What’s going on? What started you off? You have to tell me! I can’t take this!

If I can then not only remember but also say in so many words, here’s what happened, I feel an incredible relief. The free-roaming irritability and anger just vanish as I focus on what’s really bothering me, and my wife and I begin to talk about it. At once she becomes responsive and sympathetic. We may be exhausted from tension and fighting, but we’ve calmed down and begun to work on a specific problem.

It may seem like it’s only common sense to go after the cause in this way, but depressed behavior creates so much isolation for both partners over such a long time that every little breakthrough is all the more powerful. It’s the sum of small steps like this that make possible a much bigger change in a relationship damaged by years of emotional withdrawal and hostility.

Using even basic methods like this one takes a lot of practice. I find that many people underestimate this and quickly get frustrated when they try something a couple of times and can’t make it work. It’s almost impossible to interrupt intense emotions when you’re deep in battle with your partner unless you’ve internalized the steps you need to take.

Working with a therapist is one way. Trying out a method in the calmer setting of a session may seem like an artificial exercise, precisely because you and your partner are less driven by emotion. Although it’s nothing like the intensity of the real thing, every repetition helps build a new habit. And that’s what it must become, something you can recall, if only dimly, even when you’re hurt and angry and want to lash out.

This part of recovery is a long story, and there are many other self-interventions to describe. However, before any of them can work, something even more basic has to happen. You have to find enough emotional detachment in the heat of the moment to be able to take that critical step back from the brink.

Have you been able to take that step back and use some method to keep an argument from escalating? How have you been able to do that – or what has kept it from happening?

6 Responses to “Relationships in Conflict: Action Against Depression”

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  1. j smith says:

    Thanks real help

  2. Serafina says:

    Many thanks John – good advice.

    Have been booking many courses to take and to learn new things and meet new people.

  3. Serafina says:


    I have been reading with interest your blog and have found it helpful in some ways. My situation is that I am in a long distance relationship with my boyfriend (for 2 years now) and for the last year he has become depressed. He feels low, not good enough for me, angry, doom and gloom, lethargy, zero sex drive etc. As I do not live with him from day-to-day it is hard to know how to help. I cannot make doctors appointments for him for example. We do not talk as much as we used to and rely on the phone or e-mail, although most days he just grunts or never replies to e-mails. I feel very stuck – do I just walk away on the basis we are not married or stick with him?

    He pushes me away constantly. When I am due to visit him – at the last minute he cries down the phone that he does not want me to come. The pressure is to much for him and he does not want me to see his apartment in the mess it is in. Although I say I am always happy to help him tidy and in any event I am not there to look at the state of the place, he does not listen. On three separate occassions this past year I have not gone to visit him as he has begged me not to. I am certain this is not because he has someone else, but rather because he puts so much pressure on himself to make sure that my visits are “perfect”! He is very excited to visit me in my country – maybe this is because it helps him to get away from his every day life?

    I was due to visit him for 2 weeks recently and two days beforehand he was such a state. I screamed at him that I was going to come anyway and he was distraught! We screamed at each other for a while and then I decided that I did not want to spend my precious vacation time from work in his country being very miserable. Eventually I decided to go to New York on my own – I had never been before. When I told him I was going, he was very upset – he wanted us to do this together, but I wanted to show him that I will not wait for him and that I will get on with my life (I have not really been living for the last year). Anyway, I think my decision to go to NY shocked him and in the last few days he says he has returned to working out in the gym (he has put on weight in the last year and is very upset about his body), has made an appointment to see a doctor about possibly finding some meds for him and has taken up golf! I don’t know whether these are good signs that he is starting to come to terms with his disorder. I am happy in some ways about this.

    In addition, we have talked about both of us seeing my therapist together and him separately because he has not had good experiences of CBT in his country. I am talking to my therapist about this idea later today to see what she thinks.

    Anyway – do you have any views on how I can help him whilst living apart?

    Many thanks

    • john says:

      Hi, Serafina –

      To be honest, Serafina, I think the best thing you can do is to continue “shocking” him with the real state of your feelings and your need to live your life again. You understand quite well that he needs to make his own commitment to get serious about his disorder and work hard at dealing with it. Sometimes the shock of possibly losing your partner can be a powerful wake-up call. Still, it’s not up to you to start him on serious treatment or take responsibility for helping him. Being honest about what you feel – without holding back out of concern that he’s too fragile or depressed to take it – may help him, but it’s more important to you for your own well-being.

      There’s no right or wrong answer, and it’s great that you see a therapist to help you keep your own needs in mind. If you don’t take care of yourself and spend a lot of time trying to help him, I’m afraid you’ll wind up depressed yourself and harm you health.

      My best wishes to you –


  4. Robin says:

    This seems like a wonderful idea. I’ll definitely give this a try with my partner.

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