Part of running Storied Mind is responding to a steady stream of emails and comments from readers, and most of them concern the collision of depression and close relationships. They are mostly from people who have watched their depressed partners turn into angry strangers who leave.
It’s a theme I’ve written about many times, but the immediate impact of the crisis is always shocking, always unbelievable, always leaving a partner struggling to make sense of what has happened.
While there are no simple answers for the partners in crisis, it does help to know that they are not alone and not the cause of the breakdown in the relationship. I’ve been struck by the similarities in the behavior they describe, despite the enormous variety of circumstances in which these ordeals occur.
Here are some of the clusters of depressive behavior I keep hearing about.
Angry and Abusive. Self-absorbed, so consumed with shame and unable to deal with it that he blocks it out completely. All is well so long as everyone agrees with him and supports his frail sense of self-worth.To block out his own inner shame, he blocks empathy not only for himself for others as well. He manipulates others to serve his own needs and often becomes the accomplished psychological abuser in a close relationship. When his partner does what he wants, the relationship is good. When she asserts independence, she is betraying him. Then he lashes out vindictively, angrily and is capable of turning everyone against the offending partner.They never seek treatment, and they either leave forever or kick their partners out. But it’s not over then. They take every chance to vilify and undermine their ex’s and set about looking for the next partner who will be perfect for him until she tries to be herself.
Self-Blaming. whose shame is at the forefront of his thinking. He not only isolates himself emotionally but usually insists that he is bad for his partner, that she would be better off without him. Sometimes, he escapes in self-destructive behavior, even suicide attempts. He is so self-absorbed and obsessed with his shame and self-hate that empathy and love for his partner is impossible. Shame is his reality, depression, if acknowledged, his due, and treatment is shunned.
In Limbo. Confusion about feelings, emotionally on-again off-again about the relationship, inability to make decisions or stick to them, feeling detached enough to suggest selling everything and traveling around with no ties, feeling unworthy and guilty.
Self-Destructive. Drinking too much and combining that with antidepressants, having affairs, retreating from close relationships, pushing themselves at work to a point of collapse. Sometimes, you can feel so emotionally numb and confused about feelings generally that you do more extreme things just to feel alive again.
Changeable. aware of depression but unable to make consistent progress in dealing with it. Confused, now in love and remorseful, now out of love, withdrawn and indifferent. Often angry or overcome by shame. Unable to make a decision or commitment to the relationship when the partner is searching desperately for a sign that the old loving partner survives and will come back. They are often in treatment but not fully committed – taking meds even when they do nothing rather than trying to find ones that do work – half-heartedly trying therapy, usually backing off after a session or two. Or else refusing therapy because they convince themselves it will only make things worse by focusing on the pain he wants to avoid.
Numb. who can’t feel anything anymore and assumes it’s because he’s fallen out of love or that the relationship isn’t working anymore. He could well be having a hard time at work where the stress of the job has become impossible to handle. He’s starting to cut himself from all his friends as well as his partner – and that can provide some immediate relief since he no longer feels the pressure of dealing with his or anyone else’s feelings. They may well be completely unaware of depression but more and more worried that something terrible is happening. They can’t accept the idea of depression or anything that sounds like mental illness and avoid real treatment for fear it will make things worse. They feel barely in control and escape from relationships, job and home seems like the answer.
What most of these partners share is a lack of awareness that they are depressed. Or if they are aware, even in treatment, they have yet to confront the full scope of what the illness is doing to them. It is hard to grasp, even when your life is rapidly going out of control, that a condition called depression could be the central reality at the root of everything.
It takes a long time before awareness can challenge belief. After all, you live your life and can explain what is going on.
The mindset is so dominated by what you tell yourself is real. You know it’s true – these are your thoughts and feelings. Who better to know what is going on? Yet the only hope is to test your belief and perception against the reality of what others are experiencing.
Testing in this way isn’t easy and requires that you learn a healthy skepticism toward what you believe about yourself. I always had a nagging doubt about my interpretations when I was at my blaming worst. Partly, that came from my sense of shame and self-doubt that permeated much of my thinking. That sort of doubt, though, ate away at anything I tried to accomplish, but when it came to my beliefs about myself I was much more confident.
I had always gone my own way, ignoring contrary counsel from people who had been there before me. I would be different. I knew what was right for me, and this was it. That sort of self-confidence encouraged me to barrel into things that I really couldn’t handle, and that seemed to set me up for confirming low self-worth. It took decades before I learned to pause before acting on my enthusiastic impulses and the certainty I was right.
Depression can involve a strange combination of self-certainty and self-doubt. Whatever the mix, you put up barriers to getting new information that might break into your beliefs about yourself. You can also entertain the most contradictory behavior. You can feel worthless and lost but confidently belief that you don’t need treatment. You can berate yourself for not being a better partner, then be absolutely certain that your partner is the cause of your grief.
How can that change occur? Does it have to take the sort of collapse that leaves you unable to find any explanations, feeling so lost that you finally know you need help?
(This post on depressed partners is from the Storied Mind Newsletter Archive.)