What Is Male Depression Syndrome?

(From the Storied Mind Newsletter Archive. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can sign up by using the form in the sidebar or the one on the newsletter page.)

Over the past 15 years or so, there’s been a lot written about a specifically male type of depression. It’s always hard to discuss gender differences since it’s easy to fall into stereotypes and to reinforce discrimination. But my own experience and the stories of dozens of women who have written to Storied Mind lead me to believe there is a pattern of depression that more men than women exhibit.

It’s not the neurobiology of illness but rather the behavior that seems to differ.

David Wexler, a psychotherapist who has written several books about depression in men, describes “male depression syndrome” as consisting of four main patterns.

1. Discontent with Self: Profoundly unhappy with themselves, these men are harshly self-critical and also deeply ashamed at being hobbled and weakened, though they often don’t want to talk about it. They may not be aware of depression or have any words to describe what they’re going through but feel ashamed at not making it. They feel they can’t do the things that men are supposed to do – take action, be successful at work, be in control of their feelings, command respect.

2. Antagonism and Blame: Feeling ineffectual and hurt but not able or willing to discuss what they feel, men turn outward. Sometimes, they demand the respect from others they no longer feel for themselves and get furiously angry if they believe they’re not being listened to. They can also avoid feeling worse about themselves by making others – especially their partners – to blame for their problems.

Wexler believes it’s part of an avoidance strategy to limit the inner damage or risk that they could be hurt even worse. That can lead to fending off intimacy, getting angry at emotional “demands” and denying they feel any love for their partners at all.

3. Exaggerated Behavior: Especially when men are unaware of their own depression and unwilling to look at their feelings, they may overcompensate for feeling less strong, less “manly” than they believe they should be. They might start drinking more heavily or craving more sex or blow up in anger and rage at little or no provocation. They want to prove that they’re still “strong” and full of feeling and drive.

4. Avoidance and Escape: To protect themselves psychologically, men may try to avoid all situations that could deepen emotional pain. The most common thing is to refuse to talk about feelings at all. Instead, they try to create emotional distance whenever their partners want to bring up anything that sounds like fear, sadness, grief or hurt.

As I think about my own actions and read the stories so many women tell, one thing stands out. Men will go to extraordinary lengths to reorganize their entire lives to avoid dealing with depression.

I believe this has to with the expectation that men should be powerful. They need to be able to perform, to get the job done, to be in control, to provide, to protect those who depend on them. In depression, they can’t. They have to deal with vulnerabilities that feel like shameful failures, and they have a hard time doing that.

They may admit they can’t handle things anymore and hate themselves, but at the same time refuse therapy and turn away from their intimate partners. Getting help and being intimate would only put them right in the midst of the feelings they want to avoid.

Avoiding can’t seem like running away, however. It has to be a solution to a problem, and most men are comfortable thinking of themselves as problem-solvers.

The problem is the partner who is the cause of the hurt in the first place. Cutting off communication or leaving is a solution to the pain, and it is also a punishment for the “offender.”

Since they aren’t “sick,” they don’t need doctors or therapists. They would only worsen the problem, not solve it.

One man could see the strangeness of his actions, but had a contorted way of explaining them. He knew his wife dreaded his coming home because he was so angry and abusive to her, and he knew he was bringing one problem after another on himself at work. But this too was a kind of solution to the problem.

He saw himself as trying to bring everything crashing down on him in order that someone might finally rush in and tell him he really mattered. No one had done that yet, so he would go on messing everything up. Of course, his wife had been telling him he mattered a lot, but he couldn’t hear what she was saying. She had been pushed aside as a cause of depression. It all made a twisted sort of sense.

Another man avoided the emotional closeness of his partner and looking at his own feelings by leaving the relationship, but he explained it as the solution in this way. “The problem is that I am too horrible to live with and will bring everyone else down with me, so I’m leaving to spare them the pain.” He took on all the guilt and shame but still avoided facing his own feelings or trying to do anything about his depression.

Any kind of self-destructive and hurtful behavior can be explained as a necessary step if you are willing and able to exclude everything from your world that would contradict it.

When I lived in one of those worlds, I knew I was right about everything, and no one could reach me. It may be possible to get through the barriers into these self-contained worlds of avoidance, but generally men have trouble opening up until the structure they’ve created starts collapsing. Some men can keep it going for years. Others, like me, are luckier because the cracks appear fairly soon.

I was blessed to be able to see that my whole explanation was a delusion. Most of the men I hear about are less fortunate – and their partners have to suffer just as much as they do.

10 Responses to “What Is Male Depression Syndrome?”

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  1. Dom says:

    Hi, I’m a guy who lost everything thanks to my depression I didn’t know I had. My wife had battled depression her whole adult life and yet it was mine that drive us apart after 8 years of happy marriage.

    I still can’t tell you where it came from or what caused it. All I can tell you is I didn’t like who I was, who I’d let down and who I was failing.

    I now start again, a new partner and new beginning, but I can’t help but wonder if my high functioning depression will cripple this relationship like it did the last.

    • Chiara says:

      Why didn’t you try to reconnect with your wife, after you discovered that was the depression talking,?

  2. lori says:

    I have suspected this about my husband for a long time too. He sleepwalks through his life, busies himself with minutae that keeps him looking productive for hours, but in fact, has him accomplish little or nothing.

    He sees only flaws, what’s wrong, bad, dirty, broken, and is blind to the beauty all around us. He is not present even when his body is. He has bouts of binge drinking, and becomes a foul mouthed raging dragon when under the influence. Once upon a time I though love would be enough to help him move past his childhood wounds, but alas, he is comfortable in his sadness. I get little or no support from him, not a word of encouragement, and most times, he doesn’t hear a word I say. He always right – about everything – and only a fool would argue with one.

    Our lives are further complicated because we also are business partners, and we do not agree on anything pertaining to business. He’s told our staff, “its a dictatorship, not a democracy” “my way or the highway”, and that is the opposite of what I believe or how I choose to lead. He needs to control – everything -and cannot accept the fact that it’s gods job to control the universe, not his. No wonder he’s disappointed and frustrated.

    I am considering a divorce right now. After 18 years of living in the muck with him, and offering my back for him to use to climb out of it, it’s become to clear that he prefers the darkenss to the light. I am used up, and it’s too bad for both of us. If I were the woman I am today, meeting this man for the first time, I would hightail it as far away from him as I could get. My naive younger self didn’t know better. I cant want his happiness more than he wants it for himself, except that he doesn’t want to be happy, and I do. I am, except when I’m with him.

  3. DLee says:

    John,

    Thank God for your website. I am moved to tears. As I navigate the emotional torture of my own situation with my beloved, I feel (FINALLY) there is an answer to all this turmoil. I have with out a doubt known for some time that my partner suffers from chronic depression. He also suffers from the “disease to pleas”. He reads countless self help books, goes to therapy and has been doing so since shortly after we met nearly five years ago. He says if it weren’t for meeting me and forcing him to face his patterns he probably would have gone on forever repeating the same pattern over and over (the pull and push away of loved ones, intimate partners). While he has acknowledged his people pleasing propensity, he is finding it difficult to accept the depression aspect. My man is Colonel in the Air Force; he is a fighter pilot. He is exceptional in his career. He is a hot mess in his personal life. Divorced father with teenage son. It was a painful divorce and came out of nowhere on him (his wife just up and left him for their neighbor). Perhaps, she saw the pattern and decided to leave instead of facing it head on like I have. I must be a glutton for punishment. I am a fighter and I fight for those I love. When he is out from under the cloud of depression, he is the most amazing man, loving and kind, giving and energetic. This is who my man is. Not the disease. This is why I stay, even though when he is trapped in the hole all he desires is to be alone. This is where I’m at now. We are not married. We do not have a legal document tying us together, so each time he does this, it seems like I’m the one who ends up leaving because he “Needs to be alone”. Yet each time he climbs out of the hole, he inevitably comes back to me professing his love and commitment, how he is “all in”. We had a good run of it the last year and a half. However just this last January after I returned from two weeks of yoga teacher training, he professed AGAIN how unhappy he is and that he “just isn’t cut out for relationships” and that “he is happiest being alone”. The rug literally was pulled out from under me. We had just purchased a vacation home in Florida, had done major renovations to our house and landscaping ; we did this together and seemed entirely happy. Life was finally good and I was finally not walking on egg shells in this relationship. I felt secure. Then it happened again… When I confronted him the other night about the depression topic, it didn’t end well. You see, as a pilot with security clearances and such, he cannot be on any medication that isn’t on the approved list of meds. Nor can he take any supplements – no mood altering substances whatsoever. Here is the dilemma. He used to be extremely active physically. Spurts of working out now and then. He doesn’t eat extremely well. Seems to be addicted to sugar although I have tried to exert my influence over his diet. He listens somewhat. He simply says he has “no time” to take care of himself. When the emotions have gotten too intense for him, he packs his bags and leaves. Takes his camper and stations himself at the air force base or he simply checks himself into a hotel for a few days. I am at my wits end. I am hurt. Angry. Confused. I will say, your website is a Godsend. Bless you. I referred this to him and he says he will read through your articles. I hope it sheds some clarity on him. So much of what you write about with your own experience resonates with me.

    • Esther says:

      Dlee,

      I am so sorry to read of your hurt and experience. I feel as though we are in the same boat. My husband had a “breakdown” last Wednesday and left me and our 2 girls last Thursday night for his mother’s. He has said over and over, our marriage has been nothing and is not worth fighting for. Blindsided? Absolutely.

      We haven’t had a real marriage because of the nature of our work and the girls. However, I plodded through because we had a plan. A plan that would ultimately enrich our family even though it would take extreme sacrifice. I guess the hard work was too much because I was promoted at work recently (that was the plan) and he started having panic attacks. He attributes this to our “unhappy” marriage. I attribute it to lifelong depression, suddenly aggravated by the recent turn of events.

      I have said a prayer for you. After reading through almost the entire site, it looks as though our situations will not ever get better unless our men decide to truly seek therapy and help on their own because THEY want to get better. Hopefully they realize what they have to lose and decide to help themselves and in the long run, help the loved ones around them.

      E

  4. Dee Dee says:

    I am in the exact same limbo. I’m trying to give him the time to heal, but his selfish actions DEVASTED my son and I. It’s been 11 days and I want to reach out to him but I know it will only push him away. People thought we were the perfect couple and we were together for 16 years married for 14. My whole life was with him, my love, laughter and joy. Until he started to feel unhappy with everything. Finding fault in everything I do, coming home angry from work, rage that came out of nowhere. I could almost quote your last paragraph as the words that I feel. I ache for you. I’m in that same limbo. I need answers, I don’t want to give up on him but like you said, he’s emotionally numb to me as well. I’ll say a prayer for you.

    • I says:

      Hi Dee Dee,

      I am so sorry to hear your story. Mine is exactly the same. Everyone said we had the perfect marriage. After over 8 years we still held hands and had so much fun together. All of a sudden, almost overnight, he changed and said he no longer loved me. He turned against me and left me alone. I cry every day. I am completely broken and feel like a girl with no skin – everything effects me so much and it’s all still raw. He has been gone for a month and 4 days and I don’t know how I am supposed to cope with this. I am here if you would ever like to talk.

      xx

  5. ruby1 says:

    So, it’s nearly 7 wks since my partner left, and this is almost exactly what his explanation to me was…..

    “The problem is that I am too horrible to live with and will bring everyone else down with me, so I’m leaving to spare them the pain.” He took on all the guilt and shame but still avoided facing his own feelings or trying to do anything about his depression…..

    I tried everything, and when I even mentioned the chance of depression, his answer was ” I knew you would say that”
    I’ve tried to communicate, reason with him, left him alone, although that’s never been for more than a wk. I cry constantly (not at him) and have tried over and over to just give up and move on…so far I can’t. It’s like living in a horrible limbo. I’ve written here before, sorry for repitition. Have to get through this somehow. Counsellor tells me I’m not mad, as I feel, and that I’m stuck somehow in first stage of grief, waiting for him to return…

    So enough of me, what is it I can do? I am out of answers, I know I cannot force him to feel that his ideas are distorted – he feels like a total failure and I love him to the ends of the earth!! You say this can last for years, do I turn away and just give up on him, am obviously not being heard.I have read all that is here and other places, I know he is emotionally numb to me… Was told by a friend today, she used to think of us as the perfect couple, and yet obviously he was struggling and in pain, and I missed my opportunity to help.
    I know that it is up to him, but I ache for my lovely man, and the pain he is in..

    • I says:

      Hi Ruby,

      I feel the same pain as you. My husband was the same. He told me he wanted to go and live alone and rot because he was so damaged. I would do anything to try to help him through this but he has shut me out and I don’t know how I am supposed to get through this. He is trying to plan a fantasy life without me but all I have ever done is love him completely. I just wish I had found this site earlier so that I could have tried to support him. I was just so confused by the things he was saying and I got angry when he told another girl he had feelings for her. It’s breaking me completely.

      xx

    • Tina says:

      That’s just like me but he answers some of my texts and then stops then answer some more then will go quiet for half a day he will answer my text and it gives me hope that he feels a bit better and cares then all ove a sudden stops answering my text and I feel back in limbo but he gave all the same reasons for leaving as yours he.was on antidepressant tablets be for he walked out leaving by sending a text to tell me he had gone but he says he can’t talk to anyone as he finds it hard but the same when he drinks he starts to say nasty things but usually friendly with everyone else I absolutely love him and I wish I could say I will not text you again if that’s what you want but if you ever need me or would like someone to talk to just ring our text I will always be there for you BUT I AM AFRAID HE MAY NEVER WANT TO TEXT When I do text him some times I feel like I give him the answer he wants then he makes me feel like I have said the rong thing by just blanking my text then I will text something else a hour or so later and he will answer that but completely blank what I first text which leaves me upset or confused

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