Relationships in Conflict: Depression’s Role

Depression is a natural enemy of close relationships. It helps build tension and conflict as a once-loving partner either withdraws into emotional isolation or turns angry and blaming. I suppose that’s inevitable since the loving support of a long-term relationship doesn’t fit the depressed view of an undeserving and damaged self. Nor does it fit the phase of depression that blames the partner for causing the inner pain.

Either way, depressed people push their partners off to a distance they can handle, and the partners search for explanations. A helpful one is to think of depression as a force that splits a person in two and starts an inner struggle between the healthy and depressed personalities. Then depression becomes the cause of conflict, the culprit that breaks apart the relationship.

My wife and I came to think in these terms and took comfort in imagining depression as the evil twin I needed to kick out of my life. That view gave us something to hope for. With each new treatment, there was another chance to get rid of the intruder and bring back the real me permanently. That’s how we’d end the tension and restore what we could of a damaged relationship.

But there were problems with that approach. It took a lot of our energy away from dealing with the tension and conflict we lived with every day. It was true that I had to focus on ending depression – my wife couldn’t do that for me. And while I was working hard on doing that, she had to take care of herself. But we also needed to try every day to repair the weakened bond between us.

Reconnecting with each other was just as crucial to recovery as the work I was doing on my own. Too often our effort to talk about it, though, came down to venting frustration, sometimes only confirming the worst. The one solution we kept coming back to began with progress in my treatment. And that was too long in coming.

In an earlier period, we had worked with therapists as a couple and had learned specific skills to get to the root of issues we fought over. We still tried to use them, but they no longer seemed adequate. They were too rational and didn’t recognize the power of emotions to overwhelm them.

We needed ways to deal with the specific distortions that depression brought to the relationship. The first step was to recognize what they were.

Depressed Ways of Thinking & Feeling

Here are a few that have been the strongest and most damaging to our relationship.

  • The Center of the World: First is the self-absorption that possessed me. Everything revolved around the pain I felt and the obsessive thinking that went with it. Whether I was in a phase of feeling worthless and causing all the unhappiness in my family – or blaming everything on them, the world revolved around me. My wife and every person I knew became players in my drama, projections of my depression, and I couldn’t see them for who they were.
  • Proof of Worthlessness: Wherever I looked, I found evidence to prove my own worthlessness. Anything that on its face supported the belief I had about what was happening I embraced immediately. Anything that contradicted it – especially if my wife or a close friend tried to be supportive and offer hope for the future – I’d attack and reject.
  • The Future is Fixed: All my thinking insisted that change was not possible. I would always be rotten – or I’d always be miserable. It will always be hopeless, and there will never be any remedy – except for an extreme one. That could mean suicide or complete escape into a new life where everything would be perfect.
  • Self-Defeat: With that conviction, I found myself fulfilling the prophecy of endless failure, disappointment and depression. I couldn’t possibly succeed – it just wasn’t meant to be. If others told me I had been successful, I knew that they simply couldn’t see through my false facade. They were completely wrong and not to be listened to.
  • Absolutes Rule: Everything I did was wrong. Everyone judged me. I could never be better. Hope was impossible. Treatments couldn’t work. I always failed. And on and on. My world of depression was full of absolutes. Everything was either good or bad. There were no complications.

A relationship of love, trust and sharing disappeared in this perpetual storm of negativity. I couldn’t see my wife for the person she was. I couldn’t even see myself.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy refers to these as “cognitive errors” and assumes that such habits of thinking produce the negative feelings of depression. By changing those habits, thinking, feeling and behavior can become more positive. You can start to see the world again in all its complexity and assess experience in a realistic manner.

That method has been of some help, but like so many others it assumes that rationality will prevail. The guiding assumption that thinking rules emotion doesn’t jibe with my experience. And I’m hardly the only one questioning this approach. Writers like Joseph LeDoux, in The Emotional Brain, and Antonio Damasio in The Feeling of What Happens, have written extensively about the intertwining of emotion and reason that gives rise to ideas and awareness.

Have you found ways to work with your partner to keep your relationship going while you’re also trying to deal with depression? What has worked for you?

21 Responses to “Relationships in Conflict: Depression’s Role”

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  1. Startedfromthebottom says:

    Hi all, I will try to keep it short.

    My very recent ex is one of the most amazing persons I have known. It’s so hard to explain the intense emotions I feel for her. We fell completely in love. I didn’t know such amazing deep love was possible, such happiness was possible and that life could be so beautiful and heaven like. We literally saw each other like if not every day, like every other day, only to come home and talk literally for an average of 4 hours a day online or on skype. (We used to live in a conservative city in an Islamic country.)

    But she is in now one of the worst episodes of her life I am sure. I am depressed; and very hurt by this, but I am keeping my emotions under control the best I can, and trying to use my head to formulate a strategy to get her back. I know this is perhaps when she needs me the most.

    I did nothing wrong (she even said it) we stopped talking like normally for about the last month we were together because she fell into a very deep depression (she has an intense family background and traumatic upbringing- but I thought she was at peace with it because she was so happy, and seemed so strong when we were together) but recent conflicts related to her family happened in her life and that’s when her depression hit hard.

    She really only had 2 people close to her in her life; her best girlfriend and I. Soon after her depression hit and she pretty much she shut me out- I tried to reach out to her friend for help, and I soon learned my ex shut her out too. They were like sisters.

    After the last month of our relationship of me living through torture, praying and crying while she was so lost and depressed and barely talking to me- I hid my pain from her and tried to support her by sending her very loving and supportive messages and letters- she would give the most lost responses, even though she faked a happy front on FB, she would say how sad she was in some sporadic messages she sent me, but her words seemed so lost and depressed. She finally officially broke up with about 3 weeks ago.

    Seeing as I perhaps made the mistake of trying too hard to talk to her, and sending too many messages when she pulled away (but before we broke up) I decided to change my plan once she officially dumped me.

    Once she broke up, we had a minor, emotional argument, and then I decided the best thing to do was to give her space. I blocked her from my FB news feed and then went no contact. I was planning on going for 1- 2 months of giving her space before I would even try a small message, (to open up the communication lines to reach out to her)

    But she ended up sending me a message 2 weeks after the breakup saying how she knows she hurt me, but that she hopes I don’t hate her.

    I literally just responded (a few days after) explaining why I don’t hate her, and I asked a small question about another part of her message (I asked this to basically just to keep the lines of communication open)

    So now, I am wondering what should be my next move? (Of course this will depend on what she says in her reply message, which I am sure to receive relatively soon)

    What do you think she meant in her message, was she reaching out to me?

    I need some advice for somebody in my place.

    What are some good strategies to get her back?

  2. Nancy says:

    Thank you for the link, John. I agree a couple- or family-oriented approach would be the best approach for all of us.
    Thanks again,

  3. Nancy says:

    I think my husband is very depressed (he has been, on and off, for years) but he is refusing to see it and the impact it is having on me and our three boys. He is emotionally remote, will get extremely angry at something minor, and drinks heavily when he comes home from work. He is blaming his job for stressing him out and thinks the kids and I are the ones shutting him out. Reading your blog has been very helpful to me, and it has given me reason to hope. I know the loving, empathetic man I married is still in there somewhere, and I’m going to keep talking to him until he gets help. I also just finished reading “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” and found that very helpful in understanding not only my husband, but also my father-in-law. Keep writing.

    • John says:

      Hi, Nancy –

      I’m sorry to hear that your husband is taking his depression out on you and your sons. Terrence Real’s book is a source of hope, and it might be that family therapy using his approach could be helpful. Family therapy starts by looking at all the interactions rather than focusing on an individual as the problem person – though, as his stories indicate, a husband’s blindness about the source of inner pain can often be the flash point for everything else. It might be easier for your husband to agree to this on the assumption that you’re trying to heal a family dynamic that isn’t working rather than his depression. That idea may not be at all feasible, but if it is here’s a directory of therapists trained in his relational approach.

      Thank you for commenting.


  4. Mary says:

    I just found your blog. I am pouring over your posts regarding relationships. I loved and lived with a man who has been suffering depression from brain surgery for the past year. He basically kicked me out of his home and said that he does not want to talk to me again. He has blamed me for all his problems: sadness, inabilities to relate to his adult daughters, failing social and business relationships, erectile dysfunction so that he started seeking “attention” from an old girlfriend. I thought our relationship could endure this depression but now he has shut me out. Just like your wife, I have no option other than to take care of myself: mentally, spiritually, and physically. I can only pray for him. Your post was so similar to my life; thank you for sharing.

    • John says:

      Hi, Mary –

      I’m glad that you found your way here and that some of the posts have been helpful.

      Brain surgery can have such unpredictable consequences. I guess a sudden change of personality or emergence of a mood disorder can’t be that unusual, but the cost to loved ones is so high.

      I’m sorry you had to go through this, but it sounds like you’ve done more than most in your situation to take care of yourself.

      I wish you the best –


  5. Pras Gunasekera says:

    Hi John and contributors to this insightful blog.

    I am currently studying MA Industrial Design at Central Saint Martins University of Art and Design (based in London) and we are currently undertaking a project in Empathy. I have chosen to look at depression within a relationship as a subject where empathy needs to be experienced on both sides (one from the partner not going through depression to experience and understand what this feels like and vice versa). I am looking to create an experiential outcome that allows either partner to emerse themselves in the others viewpoint/experience. This blog has been so useful in gaining insights as to the viewpoints and experiences of people going through depression and their partners but I was wondering if anyone has any advice, comments, insights or experiences that they have been through to enable their partners to see what they are going through? Forgive me if I seem rather vague and I am more that happy to expand but all comments and viewpoints are welcome.

    Thanks in advance


    • John says:

      Hello, Pras –

      That’s a much needed research project, and I wish you well with it. From the point of view of my experience when severely depressed, empathy was the last thing I was capable of. I was so self-absorbed and emotionally withdrawn that I couldn’t pay attention to anyone else’s needs. In fact, I often blamed my wife for my problems and was emotionally abusive. At other times, I was lost in hopelessness and self-blame and could not relate. For her part, her initial empathy and support became hard to sustain because what she did made no difference, and she became depressed since the relationship seemed all but dead because of the illness. For me, recovery brought with it a renewed awareness and empathy for my family and people generally.

      I hope that helps. Please keep me informed about your progress. I’d be happy to do a write-up of what you find.


    • Inna says:

      I have known someone on and off for 25 years -i was young when we met. But ee ended up having 2 separate lives.He is in fact from the uk. I am not. We reconnected later. He suffers from depression. I love him. I know he loves me. And I don’t know what to do as myself am sucking into depression from feeling helpless to the situation- his negativity. I don’t know what possibly to do. He shuts me out of his life but I can’t leave him like this. Help..please.

  6. Boo says:

    This is such a fantastic post on depression and it is helping me to understand myself, thank you, I’m new to this site but I’ll look forward to future posts. Also it must be nice to have such an understanding and patient wife. I’m new in my current relationship but it has been a none stop rollercoaster of ups and downs. It helps in a way that she suffers from depression too but at the same time, it doesn’t. She calls hers ‘dark moods’ but mine tend to be more like a little voice of doubt and paranoia shouting in the back of my head. But she knows me and I know her and together we are fighting through it.
    Sometimes though I get the feeling my mind looks for reasons to end the relationship, so that I can go back to feeling sorry for myself.

    • john says:

      Hi, Boo –

      As difficult as it may be, fighting through things together is the only way to do it. I think every honest relationship is a roller coaster ride, mine as much as yours. One of the best things is the sense of knowing each other well and being able to get directly into the hard stuff without holding it in and trying to hide it.

      All my best to your both.

      And thanks for your kind words.


  7. Leslie says:

    Me again. I looked up Van de Kolk’s research, and although he was mainly looking at trauma survivors, some of what he discovered applies here. As simply put as I can make it: it’s definitely a more direct path to the part of the brain that processes emotion (limbic system, amygdala), and if emotions are running high, they can actually hijack the more rational parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex), rendering one temporarly incapable of reasoned thought.

    In a heated argument, for example, have you ever had your capacity for reasoning leave you? All the best-laid plans you might have for communicating are useless at this point, and I don’t believe anything productive can come of the discussion until emotions calm down.

    In my marriage, I’ve taken to noticing when emotions are spiraling too high and postposing the ‘discussion’ for another day. I recommend this to my clients too. We’ve all staved off many a destructive conversation, and it’s amazing how different the talk can be the next day. What we were arguing about was often completely a non-issue by then.

    • john says:

      Hi, Leslie –

      I’ve been looking up some of the Van der Kolk material, especially a Psychotherapy Networker article that is a good introduction. It looks very helpful both for the issues we’re mentioning here and the work I’ve done on PTSD, mostly at Health Central.

      I like the method you recommend for couples to postpone difficult discussions – and the reasoning behind it. I’ll bring that up in a future post.

      Thank you!


  8. Leslie says:

    I’d like to offer comment on what you said about the limits of cognitive behavioral therapy and your questioning of the guiding assumption in CBT that thinking rules emotion.

    The reason it does not jibe with your experience is that emotions travel much faster in our neural circuits than thoughts. So before you can think about it, the feeling is already there. And if you’re flooded with difficult emotions, the amygdala (the brain’s fire alarm) gets alerted and rational thinking becomes very difficult, if not impossible. So thinking does not control feeling, but the reverse may well be true.

    I know this from working with clients suffering from the effects of trauma and depression. In therapy, I tend to focus on people’s emotional centre first, and teaching them ways calm down and regulate the flood of feeling, with the understanding they won’t be able to think clearly and rationally until they calm down.

    This is supported in current brain research — sorry I don’t have the reference at my fingertips, but believe it is from the work of Bessel van der Kolk who has extensively studied the effects of trauma on the brain.

    Thanks for such an insightful blog.

    • john says:

      Hi, Leslie –

      I have been seeing other research as well that describes a much different mental process from the CBT formula of thought to feeling to action. Interesting to have common sense finally aligning with research results. Without reference to brain studies, some of the prominent long-term treatment approaches to PTSD agree with your approach to trauma. Judith Herman, Jonathan Shay and Edward Tick all begin treatment by helping clients reduce the emotional extremes before they can focus on the initial phase of healing.

      Thanks for these insights.


  9. Karenk says:

    Hi John,

    I’ve found it helpful to externalize depression too. For one thing, I could look at the destructive actions my father engaged in while I was a child. It helps to forgive when I see the bipolar disorder as a force by itself that drove some terrible events. It helps when I think of my own child and forgive myself for some regrettable events. We both suffered when bipolar disorder drove my anger or distance. It drives my relationship to my husband at times.

    Right now I’m struggling with the feeling that he is constantly challenging me and contradicting me and telling me I’m wrong, that I don’t know what I’m talking about. We do have a contradictory conversational style, which I can see if I can stand back. I try to see how I fuel that, but sometimes all I can do is stop talking.

    I found that he really doesn’t care about the subject of depression, but feels he cares about me. That is hard to accept. I try to remind myself that he doesn’t understand, because he CAN’T understand, and he won’t understand, no matter how much explaining I do. I finally told him that I can’t discuss it any more, and won’t talk about what my doctor and I are doing. There is less frustration for me now that I accept it.

    It’s just about impossible to separate depression/mania from the relationship. It’s so easy for another person to avoid questioning his or her own behavior when they can write off what you say or do as driven by your mental illness.

    • john says:

      Hi, Karen –

      I’m sorry to hear that talking with your husband about depression is so hard. Hate to say it but I know that style of putting down my wife snap judgments and not letting her finish what she’s saying. With her help (we’re not talking about subtlety here), I became aware of what I was doing and was able to drop it as the dominant mode of talking. When I fall into it again, it’s always because I’m angry about something I’m not talking about directly – maybe something I’m only dimly aware of. But it’s always there. When I can surface it in my mind, I realize what I’m doing and try to talk about that hidden problem instead. Arguing back and forth to see who’s “right” never gets me anywhere – that’s a strange disguise for what people want from each other when they start talking.

      It’s pretty hard to have a condition that causes you a lot of pain dismissed, if that’s the right word, as “mental illness.” That terrible phrase sounds like a curse and really does cause so many people to stop taking you seriously. There must be a fear that causes that attitude – a deep need to avoid and deny the whole subject. I hope you and your husband can get past that one – and find a better solution than not talking about such a serious problem.

      All my best to you.


  10. Evan says:

    Hi John, it is my partner rather than me that is battling depression.

    We have found that having two plans is important. Having the sense that there is something we are doing, somewhere we are going – and a backup plan in case that one doesn’t work out – is very helpful.

    We have also found that brisk walking (especially up hill for some reason) is helpful. Going for this walk together can help – we get to talk to each other.

    These are the two main ways that work for us.

    • john says:

      Hi, Evan –

      I like the two plans idea – and the way you two seem to work together on them. That’s wonderfully supportive in itself – and the walking also helps add to the sense of partners sharing. It’s such a wonderful support for recovery.

      Thanks for sharing this insight.


  11. Lisa Johnson says:

    Hi John — good to read you, as always!

    Weirdly enough, in most of my relationships, the depression wasn’t as much MY problem, in a sense, as it was theirs. Not to say I was perfect, by a long shot, but made some remarkably bad choices in partners and my depression became a stick they could and did beat me with.

    Everything I thought or felt was suspect because I was “mentally ill,” and discounted as a result.

    And then when I AM drawn to someone, now, frequently I’m drawn to someone who also struggles with depression, under the misguided notion that we have this thing in common that will bring us closer together. I end up getting sucked into their sickness and strangely enough, the relationship is never about MY depression — it become all about HIS!

    Next time, dammit, **I** get to be the one who gets coddled and fussed over and acceded to! 😉

    Yeah, right …..!

    • john says:

      Hi, Lisa –

      Interesting how men can be emotional abusers whether by aggressive behavior or passive self-absorption. In either case, you don’t exist as a real person with your own needs – just serving his. (And I was just thinking those stereotypes were on the way out!) Perhaps you should arm yourself with a couple of weapons before seeing anyone else. One would be a brief psychological inventory test that you could administer casually through a few questions here and there over dinner. Quick scoring – pass/fail only – no benefit of the doubt allowed. Second would be an emotional two-by-four to be kept in a sheath on your back, like a samurai sword. It would always be within easy reach over your shoulder. Have you ever tried that? 😉

      My best to you


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