Depression sets relationship traps for both partners. Everything can change quickly between two people, and it’s crucial to be able to spot these changes as soon as possible.
Here are 11 signs of the illness that seem perfectly designed to undo the bonds of closeness.
Humor, talking and doing things together, sharing special moments – they’re all gone.
In their place are avoidance, anger, blame and isolation.
Two Sides of Depression
Usually, we think of the passive side of the illness with its loss of vitality and despair, but there’s also an aggressive side.
It flares out when depressed partners blame others for what they’re feeling. The person they’re closest to takes the brunt of their anger. The first several symptoms in this list describe these behaviors.
On the passive side, the abuse is turned inward. It’s the depressed partner who’s the center of every problem. They’re self-absorbed to the point of losing the ability to relate to others in a realistic way.
Instead of denial and blaming everyone else for their pain, they focus on their own worthlessness, even to the point of thinking constantly of suicide as the only way out.
Many of these relationship traps converge and become all the more damaging through their combined impact. The specific behaviors can emerge in dozens of different ways, and here I’ve drawn partly on what I did when depressed. The experience could feel very different in your relationship.
The Relationship Traps
Flashes of anger come frequently. Irritability is a constant attitude, leading to criticism and annoyance at trivial things. Money’s being wasted, bills aren’t paid on time, the house is a mess – and it’s your fault. For days at a time, depression can provoke this constant barrage of criticism. Any attempt to probe what’s going on only provokes angry denial.
When inner feelings are most confusing, depressed partners try to control home and family as closely as possible. They want everything to be predictable. Even the flow of spontaneous feeling in the family can be threatening. They can get furious at minor upsets that violate the sense of order they’re desperate to preserve. That order, however, is completely arbitrary and can vary from moment to moment, depending on their own feelings. The depressed partners are full of tension, and their behavior is torture for the rest of the family.
The closer to inner collapse depressed partners feel, the more they blame others for creating their problems. They accuse their partners of ruining their lives and ignoring their needs. They keep lists of their grievances and obsess about the way they’re frustrated at every turn. Their partner is selfish and never tries to help. At work, they’re driving them crazy. Someone else is always at fault. At its worst, this need to blame can turn paranoid.
Contempt and rejection become common. There is rebuke in every glance. Dismissive remarks about their partner’s appearance and attempts at conversation become the norm. With verbal attacks, they try to manipulate partners into believing they’re the ones in need of help and cause them to question their own judgment. At social gatherings, the depressed partners can make cutting remarks and ignore their partners while engaging happily with everyone else. At the worst, verbal abuse can even escalate to physical attacks.
Trying to escape the pain of depression can lead to addictive behavior. Alcohol can dull all feeling. Drugs, pornography, affairs or fantasies of escaping to a new life can all provide temporary emotional highs and arousal to replace the despair or lack of deep feeling depression can cause. Real intimacy and relationship seem remote and disappear in the need to get away from the reality of the illness. The well partners can’t get through to them and can face angry denial that there’s anything wrong with them.
Suddenly a depressed partner can feel like they’re not there. Physically, they can be present, but emotionally there are no reactions, very little response of any kind. In their own minds, they’re becoming observers rather than participants in daily life. Nothing seems to get through to them. It’s as if they’ve disappeared. A relationship becomes impossible when it’s all one way.
It’s often called ruminating, but I prefer to call it obsessive thinking. That gets at the intense anguish that’s part of a compulsive focus on every mistake they’ve ever made. In depression, they can’t stop thinking about what they did wrong today. Or if today was all right, they could summon up that embarrassing or stupid thing they did twenty years ago. Time doesn’t make any difference. The memories of failure, real or imagined, are the most highly charged for a depressed person. They’re always close to the surface and provide reminders every day of how inadequate they are. These thoughts are a constant distraction from any effort to connect with a partner. They’re lost in these memories of everything they’ve ever done wrong and can never set right.
Overwhelmed, unable to face anyone, depressed partners spend a lot of time alone. They may feel a desperate need to get away from everyone. They need space and solitude to hold onto the little energy and spark they have left. Even when not so desperate, they may want to do things alone that they used to do with their partners. They may work all the time and avoid the pressure of being with people. The well partner is deserted. There’s literally no one there to try to relate to.
Sometimes the sense of being overwhelmed or too despairing to face anyone is replaced by the inability to feel much of anything. The partner might say everything is fine, but there is no sense of real connection. Nothing stirs excitement. There’s no interest in sex. They may say they feel fine but have no interest in doing anything. They can be apparently quite sociable and at ease but can’t share anything deep or really make contact. Something is missing inside.
Inability to Talk.
Depression can be so deep that the desire to talk and communicate disappears. The partner might be content to sit and stare for hours. If asked what’s wrong or if they want anything, there’s little response. Or if they’re still active, they may just find it impossible to talk about the depression they’re experiencing. They may say they’re trying to spare their partners the turmoil they’re going through. Or they can feel there is something so monstrous in them that they dare not expose it to anyone close. Nothing inside can be exposed through words.
Shame and Worthlessness.
One of the hallmarks of depression is the overpowering sense of worthlessness. Self-esteem is replaced with self-contempt. An inner voice persuades the partner to think this way: I can’t do anything right, and I’ve never been able to. I’m just too stupid. Everyone else may think I’m fine but they just don’t know what really goes on inside me. My partner couldn’t possibly love an idiot like me. Someone else will come along, someone better, more capable, stronger than I am. It’s only a matter of time before my partner gives up on me and finds real fulfillment with someone else. Nothing will ever work out for me.
It’s hard to imagine a more complete inventory of weapons for destroying relationships. Even one or two would be like poison, but depression often brings them all together. They may not all occur within a single episode, but any of them can arrive without notice.
In future posts in this series, I’ll discuss how both partners can deal with these destructive changes and try to survive depression together.
How has depression affected your relationships? Have you watched a partner disappear in this illness, or have you been the depressed one imposing pain on your partner?