By Jenny Beall, Therapist, MA, LPCC
©September, 2017 Threads of Hope Counseling
So setting aside my experience working with people with depression on a daily basis—living with someone with this disorder is HARD!! In this I can speak from personal experience. Living with a depressed spouse can be painful, exhausting, aggravating, lonely, and overwhelming. That being said, there are ways to make it easier.
You Can’t be your Spouse’s Therapist.
You cannot—and should not—be your spouse’s therapist. (And this is coming from a therapist!) The therapy relationship is inherently one sided- meaning we are there for your needs and goals, but you have no responsibility to take care of us. This works well in the counseling office and is helpful for the client’s healing; but it would be a terrible model for a marriage. Marriage needs balance—even if sometimes the scales are heavily leaning to one side.
Remember: Their depression is NOT about you.
You cannot hold yourself responsible for your spouse’s feelings. You did not single-handedly MAKE them depressed; nor can you MAKE them happy again. Their depression is not about you—even if you have a lot of stress or conflict in your marriage! Depression is caused by a number of factors including environmental stressors, negative thought patterns, brain chemistry, and genes. The brain of a depressed person is physiologically different from that of a non-depressed person; and you are not capable of creating that change in your partner.
Your Spouse May Not Be Able to be Their Best Self While in the Pit
Depressed partners can be withdrawn, moody, irritable, low energy, selfish, needy, and rejecting. (This is not to say that any depressed person behaves exactly the same as another, or to say that they are bad or unloving people). Your partner may not be trying to cause you pain, but this is an unfortunate side effect of the disease. It’s hard to understand if you’ve never experienced the pit, just how dark, confusing, and lonely it can actually be. Understanding makes it easier, but NOT EASY. You can help your partner by understanding (or trying to understand) what they are going through and not personalizing their behavior. You can coach yourself in hard moments like, “My partner didn’t ask about how my day was…this does not mean he doesn’t love me, this is because in his depression he is less able to focus on my needs.”
Their Depression is NOT an Excuse for Bad Behavior
Even though depression is a difficult disease to deal with; you are still part of a partnership and you can ask that your basic needs be met. For example: Depression can cause irritability, but you can still ask to be treated with basic respect. Depression can cause fatigue, but you can still ask that your partner find ways to spend time with you, or get treatment in order to work and support your family. Depression can cause negative thoughts and even suicidal thinking in some individuals, but you can still ask your partner to get professional help rather than expecting you to keep them safe. Professionals may be needed in order to help you better understand and set healthy limits with a depressed spouse.
Seek the RIGHT KIND of Support
It takes a village (or at least one person with skills and training) to help your partner dig themselves out of their hole and you need support too. Be careful about who you go to for support; generally speaking: family members are too close to you to remain unbiased and supportive of your marriage. If you go to your parents or siblings to vent you may move past an issue, but they can have trouble letting go and it can lead to resentment and rifts between your family and your partner. If you family members are generally supportive, it’s ok to acknowledge that your partner is dealing with depression and you are seeking help, or to ask for prayer, but that is usually the extent of sharing you’d want to do with close family.
Additionally, be careful when sharing with friends to ensure that you are speaking with people who are supportive of your relationship and your spouse. There is a difference between seeking support and complaining about your spouse; and the latter should probably be reserved for sessions with a skilled therapist who can encourage you through the hard times rather than helping you stay there.
You can’t Pour from an Empty Cup
Self-care is critical if you are married to someone who is in a depression. Some of your emotional needs may not be met in your marriage during this season. It’s important in the hard seasons to take care of yourself. Seek opportunities for connection with supportive friends, pursue hobbies that you enjoy, exercise, eat a healthy diet, volunteer, attend a life-giving church, seek personal growth, take bubble baths, go for walks, pray, read inspiring blogs, consume chocolate as needed and get your own counseling to feel strengthened and encouraged.