Revisiting: Removing Barriers to Closeness

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This is a new version of an early post about how my wife and I were able to keep our relationship together despite the impact of depression. It discusses a therapeutic approach to emotional awareness that helps eliminate barriers to closeness by drawing on ideas about acceptance.

More than 20 years ago I stopped believing my own fantasies of finding happiness by leaving my marriage. I could see that those dreams were only substitutes for taking a hard look at who I was. Depression made that difficult task even harder by convincing me there was no one worth knowing inside this mind and soul.

I had a dream at that time full of images of shame, letting me visualize the barriers to closeness that hemmed me in. It was crowded with people speaking in my own depressed voice all the messages I kept sending to myself. I sat shrinking in the corner of a big room, and each of them came in turn, looking twice their normal size, to tell me what a mess I was.

The gloom of that dream woke me up – not just from sleep but into a new awareness. I could see how my psyche was devilishly busy turning my own thoughts into hammer blows to drive me deeper underground. Something snapped, and I was suddenly alert with purpose to fight back against that force. I knew it was trying to kill me.

It was the same powerful feeling that woke me up from depression during an earlier bout with cancer. I wasn’t going to let that darkness prevent me from rediscovering who I really was and rebuilding a close relationship with my wife.

But exactly what do you do to regain this closeness with your partner?

In my case, I started a process of working through the layers that were hiding whatever core remained after years of depression. Some of this I did on my own, much more by working with a therapist, often together with my wife. Most important of all were long, close talks with her, usually in the midst of an excitedly sleepless night when we could finally get through to each other.

In those moments, we could at last find words to capture honestly what we were feeling. After a number of crises and years of effort, we made a breakthrough and had the experience of falling in love all over again. That gave us hope for dealing with the inevitable lapses and recurrent bouts of depression, and we needed that hope.

I often pulled away under the pressure of illness, but we learned something from each of the painful times. We were gradually able to strengthen the skills needed to separate depression from the ordinary problems any two people have in living together.

One method for developing those skills is described by the therapists Jett Psaris and Marlena Lyons in Undefended Love. These practitioners go more deeply than most therapists in exploring what the search for intimacy is all about. They emphasize that engaging in this work takes a deep commitment to look into the emotional struggles and pain at the core of what we want from a partner and from life itself.

Their method proceeds by a questioning that draws out layers of desire and frustration, starting with the most immediate problems couples fight about. The therapists identify the barriers between the partners as they get stuck on these issues, then refocus each partner on how those barriers reflect defenses built into their own personalities. Working on the origin of those defenses, they bring out the frustration, hurt and unmet needs experienced very early in life that helped build those methods of concealing or controlling what was felt to be missing or wrong. Each personality, in their use of the term, becomes a defensive structure build to conceal a “cracked identity.”

Like many therapists, they recognize that couples often reach an accommodation at this level of a personality-centered relationship. Partners establish a basic agreement about how they view each other, strike a fair balance between them, rebuild trust and find mutual acceptance.

Unlike most therapists, however, they move beyond that to ask deeper questions aimed at taking down the defenses to get at fundamental needs of each partner. The goal is to help them achieve an inner peace and sense of wholeness while preserving the give and take with their partners. This is what I have found to be the crucial step, to stop feeling on some level that I can’t be fully me within the relationship. That’s a powerful inner message during depression. I often repeated this to myself during difficult times in spite of the fact that I never felt like a whole person outside the relationship either. But there isn’t much sense to depressive thinking.

Cracking into defenses like these is a scary business. They’ve built themselves up over a lifetime to limit how close you get to your loved ones. Psaris and Lyons refer to this phase as entering the “black hole” where life can look bewildering and frightening at first.

If you can get through to the other side of that black hole, two people can achieve a sense of peace about who they are that enables them to experience each other with compassion. I think of compassion as short-hand for seeing someone as they are, not as the person you want them to be.

Without the blinders and fixed reactions of a defensive personality, each can respond with spontaneity more directly to daily life and to one another. The need to reach deals and accommodations is gone because each feels an inner security that enables them to be open to whatever may come.

That’s an ideal to work toward, and it may sound too good to be true. These writers recognize that you can’t get there by a one-time victory but only by a life commitment. Undefended intimacy takes hard and frightening work that too many people will refuse to do. If the commitment is there, I know that a renewed closeness can be reached.

If you and your partner have been able to stick it out through depression, what has helped you stay together? Is there a particular type of therapy you’ve used? What made the difference in helping you separate the depression from the usual ups and downs?

10 Responses to “Revisiting: Removing Barriers to Closeness”

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  1. Lili says:

    I wouldnt say my partner and i are completely out of the mess just yet. We have had an almost end to the relationship and the relationship have suffered quite few blows for the last one and half year, but, we managed to cling together and crawling towards what look like a steady recovery.
    Ofcause there is no definite victory just yet and things still feel shaky, i am trying my best to continue being the surportive partner that i set myself out to be and just taking one step and a time. And blessed to have each single day as long as we are together.

    I found the most important thing that pulled me through the storm that just passed was being there and not being there at the same time. Naturally most depressive partner goes through the phase of wanting everything gone, and push everything and everyone away. Here i am not really understanding why, but i managed to give space yet keeping in range at the same time. I was not there to corner him, yet i was there to help him when he needed me. I tried my best to become less needy emotionally as well, this was very very hard, as i was so badly hurt, i desperately want some affection to comfort my wounded soul. But i am doing well being satisfied with what i can get when i get it. A small peck on the cheeck or a hug became a huge deal. They are nothing compared to what our relationship was like before, but being understanding and patient is all one can do when facing a depressive partner.
    I pray that eventually we can say for sure that we have made it to the other end of the blackhole, but for now patience is the key.

  2. I know says:

    It’s all about the trigger. There’s always something the depressed person goes on and on over again. Wanting to break up, can’t handle a situation a person. That’s the ice berg without depression the person is more than capable of dealing with the comment problem of the specific trigger, they can be ridiculous as using the Hoover!!!! What ever it is that’s the top layer, u then have to ask urself why the Hoover situation is bothering u so much?? That’s when the past will start coming back saying well this happened and that and it reminded me of its pointless etc, that’s when u hit the core cause u have to relearn the feelings u shut out or didnt deal with probably back in the past. Watch it like a movie and remember ur in a safe place and tell urself how u feel it could be dealt with differently. Once u learn that u then realise the trigger can be changed too. And then u start to heal the brains resolved the problem takes a few weeks to come back. It’s all about the trigger. Listern to the depressed person is saying to u? I don’t know if u love me? Means that in scared of not being in control with someone else loving me and I’ve been hurt in the past. Work through it slowly. If u prompt a depressed they usually are more than able in there agitation to tell u the tip of their iceberg it’s up to a good friend therapist partner, to ignore the iceberg and dig. Goo luck

  3. Judy says:

    Yes, my husband and I have made it for nearly 40 years, despite my depression – maybe even because of it. We did get into couples therapy and stayed with it for a good number of years and it did, indeed, involve being able to see each other as we truly are, not as some ideal we might have had in our heads. Reality isn’t always so wonderful, but it’s REAL and that’s all you have. You ask how we can distinguish between depression and life’s usual ups and downs and I guess I’d say it’s usually a matter of how long I stay “down.” I’m much more resilient now to things that used to trigger my depression for weeks or months, probably because I became aware of what was actually triggering what. I can still find my temper flaring if I detect any hint of authoritarian tone coming out of him (especially since he knows this is one of my buttons!), but it doesn’t morph into the litany I used to tell myself about how awful I am because I get angry, etc., etc. Also, I guess I can more easily see that sometimes he just can’t help himself! And I’m not so perfect, either, LOL. Are there things we could do better? For sure. But I guess after all this time, we’re pretty committed to sticking with each other, understanding that nobody’s perfect and appreciating that it’s easier to be ourselves now with each other whereas in the past, we were playing roles, trying to be what we thought the other wanted. Well, that doesn’t work!

    Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice if life were like Benjamin Button? We could get smarter and smarter, but get younger and have more time to enjoy being wiser! Or maybe getting wiser is what makes you not mind so much getting older?

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Judy –

      We are so on the same page – 40 years here too, next month. Almost everything you say applies to me and us – except I’m the one with the authoritarian tone of voice. That’s part of a personality role I’ll be trying to get out of for the duration. Why is it so hard just to be myself? I suppose a Buddhist would say that it’s the question that sets up the problem.


      • Daniel says:

        Yes, a Buddhist would say that.

        “ keep coming back to each other… Isn’t that the main thing?”

        Yes, John, I believe that’s the main thing. Precisely. Like the ‘tropism’ that keeps bringing a plant back toward the light. That deeply embedded.. that internalized.. that innate…

  4. Wendy Love says:

    What a wonderful post. A couple that works through the tough stuff, now that is inspiring.
    I don’t know if I can say that my husband and I have any tricks for staying close. It is a second marriage for both of us and so we are committed to making it work no matter what. I don’t have anything to add to what you have said, just wanted to compliment you on saying it well.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thank you, Wendy –

      I think the conscious commitment to making your marriage work – and the awareness of what can go wrong – is more important than the techniques. When something gets stuck, you keep coming back to each other. Isn’t that the main thing?


  5. Galen says:

    For some time depression gave our marriage a tough time. During bad episodes I retreated, partly because of the pain, partly because I didn’t want to complain, and partly I liked to imagine myself a more noble creature than the person experiencing so many messy, humbling feelings. My wife responded to my isolationist tactics by assuming she was at fault and herself moving away. And so on.

    We largely solved this problem through committing to honesty, especially about feelings that could hurt the other person or embarass us with our own pettiness and immaturity. and staying with wherever this took us. After a test-drive that encountered a few bumps, this has worked well for us. We don’t always agree, we don’t always like a situation or the other person’s behavior, but provided we are honest about our reactions our intimacy flourishes. Sometimes it is hard and we need to stay vigilant, especially when it comes to feelings we ourselves would prefer not to have, much less acknowledge and discuss. but the payoff is worth the effort.

  6. John Folk-Williams says:

    Hi, Galen –

    That’s so hard to do – to stay with the real feelings when it counts. Congratulations to both of you! We have found the same thing – that agreeing with each other or liking your partner’s behavior isn’t the point. Taking the risk of opening up and accepting what you hear in return are the hard parts, and the most rewarding.



  1. Storied Mind says:

    Revisiting: Removing Barriers to Closeness…

    Revisiting: Removing Barriers to Closeness This is a new version of an early post about how my wife and…

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