Talking to the depression of a spouse or partner is usually a no-win trap. I speak from the experience of having angrily fought off so many attempts my wife made over the years simply to let me know that something was deeply wrong. Depression is the intruder in any intimate relationship. It creates a replica of the person you know and love, like the pod people of the Body Snatchers films – identical bodies taking the life away from the man or woman living with you and substituting a terrifying, unknown being.
People enduring the pain of relationships distorted by depression tell their stories over and over again in the user groups, blogs, forums and message boards of the internet. These partners to depression, often bewildered and desperate, need the outpouring of support they get on these sites, but they want more than that. They want to know what to do.
Advice is easy to come by on the forums, and we’ve all had mixed experiences with it. Sometimes, it’s enormously helpful, but it can be preachy, dogmatic, irrelevant and even offensive or wounding. But whatever the shortcomings of the help offered, I find it always to be passionate. Most of the participants online have learned what they know from hard experience, and sharing it is usually part of their own healing. Despite having to sort through much that is not relevant to my situation, I keep returning to these forums to understand more about the struggle of living with depression.
But I have a very different experience when I turn to some of the best known books offering analysis and advice on how to respond to a depressed partner. I’m going to avoid names here because there seems to be a more generic problem than one I find in a single writer. It’s a very tricky thing to offer step by step advice to people dealing with depression because the term covers a multitude of conditions along a spectrum from mild to suicidal.
The best writers, from my perspective, ground advice in their own experience with the illness and are helpful in guiding readers to adapt the suggestions to their own unique circumstances. I find Julie Fast’s work – though dealing with bipolar rather than depression, (Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder) to be very helpful for just these reasons.
Many other writers have their own websites and forums, and I often find a strange break between the down-to-earth advice found in their online sites and the overly neat prescriptions in their books. Now, please understand that I have enormous respect for each of these authors. Their books are best sellers, and they have helped thousands of people better understand how to deal with depression. But I’d like to review a few of the problems that most trouble me as I search for advice that would be helpful in my own marriage.
Here’s an exchange from a popular forum that captures what bothers me about the advice in one such book. A woman had posted a few times and expressed enormous relief and gratitude at finding this source of help and support. Following is a response to one of her statements – quoted first below.
“…. I am still trying to persuade him to get help, but so far with no luck.”
Response:“Stop doing that. All he will do is actively resist it. If you make him an appointment [with a therapist], he thinks you are (s)mothering him, and he resents it. Not will. He does.”
“Really, I should stop trying to persuade him? I just read the chapter in [author’s book] about using persuasive techniques — so that’s what I tried. I guess I’ll stop.”
The woman seeking help is so hurt and confused that she is grabbing whatever advice comes her way. The book’s prescriptions about how to persuade her husband to get help sounded so clear and doable that she went for it. Finding that contradicted by an experienced contributor to the forum, she goes for the new suggestion – advice which makes more sense in the context of my own experience. The problem with the book’s advice was that it ignored the storm of intense emotion and conflicting feelings in relationships damaged by depression.
In re-reading several books of this type, I’ve listed out a few of the things I find most troubling.
They often present a stereotype of the depressed partner as incapable of thinking rationally, helpless, needing to be guided like a child, needing to be treated and talked to carefully lest the wrong words trigger an angry or violent reaction. Of course, there’s an element of truth in this, but there’s a lot more going on. Denial is not the same as irrationality. To use myself as an example – though I know I’m not unique in this – my rational mind is often functioning perfectly well, but in the midst of depression it is disconnected from what I’m feeling and capable of doing. The best support comes from understanding that I’m in the grip of something I haven’t been able to control, not from assuming I can’t think straight.
Despite the characterization of irrationality, the advice is completely rational. Here are the stages you as the non-depressed partner go through, here are the steps to take in dealing with the depressed partner. Here is what you should say, here is what you shouldn’t say. I don’t believe it’s possible to use rational techniques of persuasion with a person in the midst of depression. More fundamentally, it’s not the words themselves that cause a negative reaction. It’s the attitude and feeling behind them. If I hear scripted words coated in reassuring tones that conceal hurt or anger – I’m not going to be fooled or pay much attention.
- The advice also tends to assume that the undepressed partner has a big responsibility to help change the troubled one. First, this is unfair. Only the depressed person can initiate change. Second, I worry that a person trying these techniques, which in many cases will fail, will believe they’re not up to the job of overcoming the partner’s resistance. That not only damages self-esteem, it reinforces the idea that they may have contributed to the onset of depression. Or worse – they might come to feel that success in changing the partner will make them happy That’s almost a formula for codependence – putting the depressed person’s state of feeling above your own and making it a condition of your wellbeing.
There is a lot that the better books get right, but the priorities are often backwards. They emphasize that depression is the problem, not the relationship or the partner. Even though the impact of the practical advice might contradict this, it’s the single most reassuring thing a reader needs to understand. There’s an illness here; it’s not your fault. They also get to another key point, that the undepressed partners need to take care of themselves by drawing behavioral boundaries, setting conditions for what they can’t tolerate and backing those conditions with action, even if it means leaving the relationship. The problem is that these books often get to these points last, when they should be first and give shape to everything else.
Lastly, the books seem to assume that this drama is a one-time thing. If the techniques are applied and work, the relationship is saved and happiness results. If they fail, the relationship may well end. But, while many people may endure only one major episode of depression, it’s more likely that there will be many more. Having dealt successfully with one doesn’t necessarily mean that the next will yield in the same way. Both members of a relationship need to understand this possibility. They may well be in training for a long struggle.
Another anecdote posted by the same woman quoted above is worth repeating here. She and her husband went to a family gathering where he was completely sociable, happy and at ease. Overcome by the terrible difference between his behavior in that setting and his silence and abuse at home, she burst into tears. The husband saw this, as did other members of the family. They told him – You’re wife is crying, you have to do something. This finally got through to him. On the way home, he told her that he probably needed to get help. A small step, but a huge change for him.
That’s the way change can begin to happen. No learned strategies, no persuasive words spoken by the wife, simply the genuine emotion of a life falling apart. Added to that was the witness of concerned relatives outside the marriage. What could be more powerful than that?