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Relationships in which one individual is depressed are nine times more likely to divorce. Wow, the normal divorce rate is already over 60% nationally! But, it's not always a spouse who is depressed, sometimes it is a child or an extended family member.
In this article, however, we'll be focusing on depressed partners. Most people agree that marriage should be 50/50. We all know this is an ideal, and, with the ebb-and-flow of marriage, the percentages slide up and down but should do so in both directions. For instance, one week the wife gives 70% and the husband 30% and another week the husband give 80% and the wife 20%. This is the way "ideal" marriages work.
Unfortunately, this is not the case when chronic depression enters the marriage. Let's say that the husband has chronic depression. The wife may pick up many of the tasks that would customarily fall to the husband. Depending on how long this goes on, an avalanche of negative momentum begins.
The longer this process goes on, the more the wife begins to feel resentful, hence, there is less compassion for the one struggling with depression. Yet, for the wife, it's like being a single mother while married. I've been told by many spouses that it would be easier to be a single parent than to live with a spouse struggling with depression, because it's like having a special-needs child in addition to all the other responsibilities.
I do not make any of these remarks to assign blame or heighten anyones sense of being victimized. It's very important to understand that EVERYONE suffers when depression attacks a loved one. Blame only functions to create animosity and distance between two loved ones.
Sometimes the spouse of a depressed partner becomes depressed as a result of living within a "depressed lifestyle" for too long. Depression is said to be contagious and can become a shroud over the spouse or family. It's also vital to consider that depression may not only be genetic, but it can also be taught. You heard me right. For instance, our children's most powerful classroom is the home. Both "Nature and Nurture" contribute to depression.
Depression works its way into your moods, attitudes, behaviors, tone of voice, posture, life outlook, personal hygiene, work ethic, spiritual beliefs and so on. If you live in a "depression atmosphere" you are constantly modeling and teaching how to be depressed. I hope this serves as inspiration for change, not shame. Shame only feeds the power of depression.
The first step in a plan of action is to know that it is actually depression that you're dealing with. I won't go into those details here. You can find those answers at the website listed in my biography below.
Naming and accepting the problem is half the battle, for BOTH spouses. Why? Well, when folks are depressed, there is no obvious scientific evidence to prove it. And yet people have an instinctive need to what is causing such pain. The depressed person may project their negative feelings onto those closest to them, i.e. a spouse, a boss, the children, the neighbors etc. If you're married to a depressed person, at times you may question your own sanity.
You might blame external sources for your spouse's suffering. Without understanding, you might attack your spouse, assuming they do not care or are lazy. What appears to be marital problems, may, in fact, be depression. But certainly marital problems can develop over time when depression goes untreated.
Another important fact to point out is that men and women experience depression differently and each will respond differently when their spouse is depressed. This requires two separate articles just to begin to respectively cover gender issues involved in depression.
Here's what to do. First and foremost, realize that depression is the foe, not your spouse. Developing a "we" instead of an "I" approach to depression treatment is vital. A good recovery motto might be best summed up from the cartoon, Bob the Builder: "Can WE do it? Yes WE can!"
Do everything you can to learn about depression. Seek professional advice. If depression has been present for a long time, both the relationship and the depression will require attention.
Have individual and marital recovery plans. It's the surest way to give depression the one-two punch that can knock it out of your lives. Write your recovery plans down and spend time reviewing, modifying and noting progress made.
Once depression is stabilized, create a list of "red flag" symptoms. This serves as your safety net. If these symptoms recur it would indicate that prompt attention is required. Then list solutions you each are willing to act on if you notice symptoms reappearing. Commit to this in writing and each of you sign it.
Create external support systems. Note that I did not say external griping sessions. There's a major difference between griping and purging. The former only feeds righteous resentment, and deepens the depression problem overall, and the latter helps clean you out.
Support pillars can be comprised of friends, colleagues, churches, support groups and any place you decide is safe to disclose to. Do not hide your dirty laundry in the closet, so-to-speak. Depression loves to isolate individuals, marriages and entire families. It's one of the primary ways it grows strong.
Do recovery activities together. Attend therapy or psychiatry sessions together. Participate in online counseling together. Read a depression recovery book together. Exercise together, pray together or keep a mood log together. If your children are at the appropriate age, educate them about chronic depression. There are good childrens books on chronic parent illness.
Most importantly, develop the "WE!" It's you and your spouse against this powerful depression foe. Together you can do this!
Best recovery wishes and always let me know if I can be of any help.
Cope with Wife's Depression
You love her and everything about her. When you took the vow "in good times and in bad," you may not have expected the bad would include depression. A depressed wife can be a sad situation for not only her but for you as well. When you love your wife, you would do anything to protect her. Yet, how do you help her when the problem is in her?
Learn about it. The more you know about a problem, the better you are to deal with it. There are numerous sources of information on female depression. If you need to, consult a therapist who can help you learn about what your spouse could be feeling.
Love her. Your wife is in pain and your love for her can often times be the lifeline she needs. Give her the continued attention and affection that you have in the past. Maybe even more if you can. While your love may not turn her feelings around over night, it can put a light at the end of the tunnel.
Know when to give her room. As her depression can lead to anger and negativity, you need to be able to give her space. There will also be times where she doesn't need space but needs you right there with her. It is a tricky lesson to learn but not an impossible one.
Do what you can. If her depression is crippling, you may have to do more around the house, do more with the family if you have kids and definitely do more in the relationship. Do what you can and don't beat yourself up if you're not able to do everything.
Take care of yourself. Keep your energy level high. You are of no help to your wife if you burn out trying to help her. Do things you like to do, go places you like to go and spend time with friends that get your spirits high.
Seek professional assistance. A counselor or therapist can give you pointers on how to help your wife, how to keep yourself healthy and how to get you both into a better place. If you can, try and get your wife into counseling with you and also by herself. It can lead to major breakthroughs.
Coping with a Depressed Spouse
When one spouse is depressed, a marriage is depressed. This illness erodes emotional and sexual intimacy and suffuses a relationship with pessimism and resentment, anger and isolation. Even the sunniest, most capable partner can be pulled into depression's strong undertow: You may be overwhelmed by extra household chores that your partner is too lethargic to finish, resentful because your spouse won't just snap out of it, or feel that you're somehow to blame for the illness itself. You may feel alone yet unwilling to tell anyone there's depression in your household, or you may simply wonder when the sparkle and joy, the humor and fun seeped out of your relationship. Meanwhile, a depressed spouse may believe these sad, empty, tired feelings will pass, that it's not a big deal -- or is all the fault of the well spouse, the boss, or life circumstances. Or that depression must be kept secret. If there's depression in your marriage, it's time to act -- for your partner and yourself. Waiting increases the chances that your relationship won't last; depressed couples are nine times more likely to divorce. And trying to fight or make peace with this often misunderstood illness on your own raises risks for both of you. The longer a nondepressed spouse lives with a depressed partner, the higher his or her own risks for depression. The deeper a depressed spouse sinks, the tougher it may be to finally treat the depression -- and the greater the risk for alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, and even suicide. The stakes are high, but the odds are that things will improve. Remember, you're not alone. An estimated 19 million Americans are currently going through depression. In the Reader's Digest Marriage in America Survey, 42 percent of respondents named depression as a major challenge in their relationships. It's not surprising that most said this insidious illness had a negative effect on them. But there was an unexpected ray of hope: One in four said depression had a positive outcome for their marriages. "Getting diagnosed and treated makes all the difference," says Emily Scott-Lowe, Ph.D., an assistant visiting professor of social work at Pepperdine University, who leads workshops across the country about depression and marriage with her husband, Dennis Lowe, Ph.D., a psychologist and director of Pepperdine's Center for the Family. "Just 33 percent of people with depression seek and get help. But when you do, your chances for significant improvement are 80 to 90 percent. Almost everyone gets some relief." In a University of Colorado study of 774 married couples, researchers found that when depression entered a relationship, both partners became unhappy with their marriage. That's no surprise for the Lowes. Their struggle with depression began many years into their marriage and surprised them both: "I was never someone that anyone considered most likely to become depressed," Dennis Lowe says. "In fact, I was voted 'best smile' in my high school yearbook." His depression isolated his family and strained his marriage, yet it took years to diagnose, even though he and his wife are both mental-health professionals. "There's a bias that says women get depression more often than men, but it may just be that men don't ask for help or realize what's wrong, or respond to depression by abusing alcohol or becoming aggressive or violent," Emily Scott-Lowe says. "And often with men, there's more agitation than lethargy. A man may seem worked up. He may have frenetic, restless energy that doesn't fit with the typical picture of someone in bed with shades down and the sheets up over their head." The battle won, the couple now present workshops about depression's impact on couples and families based on their own experience. Their advice? See depression as an unwelcome guest -- it's an illness, not a shortcoming. Get help, and support, together.
Mission 1: Fight the Depression
Depression isn't a choice or a little case of the blues. It's a physical illness as serious and life-altering as diabetes, heart disease, or arthritis. A depressed spouse can't just "snap out of it" or "get on with life." The reason: Depression is marked by dramatic shifts in brain chemistry that alter mood, thoughts, sleep, appetite, and energy levels. Genetics usually make many of us susceptible to depression; any number of factors can trigger the slide, including prolonged or severe stress, financial problems, a big loss or change in your life, the birth of a child, parenthood, and even some health conditions and prescription drugs. Marriage itself even raises your risk: Up to 1 in 10 brides experience "postnuptial depression" in the months after the wedding. And up to half of all women and men in unhappy marriages may be depressed, perhaps due to marriage problems (though some experts suspect that undiagnosed depression is behind the problems). If you think your partner may be depressed, your first step is to pay attention to the clues -- and help him or her get a diagnosis and treatment. These steps can help. Be alert to small changes. Depression can come on slowly, almost imperceptibly. "You look for all types of other explanations -- we just had a new baby, it's a tough time at work, it's a phase," Emily Scott-Lowe notes. "It can take a while to see the pattern or to be ready to accept that depression might be the cause." Often it's up to the nondepressed spouse to take the lead: The illness itself often prevents depressed people from recognizing that something's wrong or seeking help. They may feel too lethargic or withdrawn or may think they can fix it alone. If you notice that your spouse isn't acting, feeling, or thinking as he or she normally does, ask yourself if it could be depression, but don't stop there. Depression may be the reason your spouse is working extremely long hours, drinking too much, using recreational drugs, or looking for thrills in risky activities. It can also look different in men and women.
Don't wait for your spouse to hit bottom. Letting a depressed person sink low before offering help is an old-school approach borrowed from the early days of alcohol- and drug-addiction treatment. But the reasoning behind it is flawed and dangerous. Long-term depression is harder on your marriage, tougher to treat, and more likely to recur, and it leaves its victim in despair. The most chilling risk: It leaves open the very real possibility of suicide. About 60 percent of people who attempt suicide have major or minor depression or another mood disorder -- and depressed men are four times more likely than depressed women to take their own lives.
Break the ice gently yet firmly. If you suspect your partner is depressed, don't blurt out a layperson's diagnosis: "You're depressed!" or announce: "You better get help!" In order to begin the process of healing, approach your spouse with concern and with an action plan. You might say, "I'm concerned about how feeling tired and losing your appetite are affecting you. You deserve to feel better. Our doctor may be able to help you, and I'd like to arrange a time when we can meet with him. Next week, I can go on Wednesday or Friday. What's good for you?"
See a Doctor Together
Get a diagnosis -- together. Dozens of health conditions -- including heart disease, diabetes, lupus, viral infections, and chronic pain -- can trigger the same symptoms as depression. So can scores of prescription medications, including some birth-control pills and drugs that treat acne, herpes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cancer. Your family doctor can rule out underlying causes and decide whether or not it's really depression.
Ask your spouse if it's okay for you to attend this evaluation. "When you're down that low, you may not be able to express what's going on or even realize what all your symptoms are," Emily Scott-Lowe notes. "And you may not be able to concentrate on the treatment recommendations your doctor is making. You need an ally in the room."
Know that the odds are in your favor. As we noted, the success rate of depression treatment is as high as 90 percent. Usually the road back is relatively simple: antidepressants, counseling, or a combination of the two. That said, recovery may take time and patience. There may be an initial trial-and-error period while you try various antidepressants or see whether various therapy techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal counseling, are helpful. The results are worth it.
Find a mental-health counselor for the two of you. Depression affects both of you -- and your whole family. The Lowes suggest finding a therapist or counselor who has worked with depression in couples. "You may have issues to deal with individually as the depressed person, and the two of you may have issues to deal with that stem from coping with depression," Dennis Lowe says. "We found it very helpful to have a counselor we could see together at times and separately at other times."
Keep on learning about depression. Read books, check out websites, ask your doctor about advances in treatment and understanding of this illness. The more you know, the better you can cope and fight.
Be alert for relapses. About half of all people who suffer a bout of major depression will have a relapse; 75 percent of those will have another relapse; and 90 percent of those will have yet another. Once a first episode passes, many doctors prescribe a maintenance dose of antidepressants to prevent a relapse. Both spouses should also stay alert for signs that the illness is returning.
Mission 2: Protect Your Marriage -- and Yourself
Caring for a depressed spouse can be lonely, overwhelming, and emotionally draining. You may blame yourself, feel helpless, grow pessimistic, lose your sense of humor, and even consider leaving. It's easy for the nondepressed spouse to become angry and frustrated with an irritable, lethargic mate who's pessimistic and critical, who can't unload the dishwasher or get the kids ready for bed anymore -- let alone make love, ask how you're doing, or acknowledge that you've been holding things together for weeks, months, or years.
"This starts a cycle that burns you out and doesn't help your partner at all," Emily Scott-Lowe notes. "I did this with Dennis -- I would become extremely angry with him. Then I would feel really guilty and try to make up for it by taking on more and more around the house. Then I would get angry all over again. This wasn't helping Dennis, of course, and it was wearing me out emotionally and physically."
These steps can help the nondepressed spouse stay well -- and protect your marriage and your family while helping a depressed partner.
Admit that you cannot cure your partner's depression. Your spouse needs your love, support, and concern. But these important qualities can't reverse depression any more than they can control blood sugar, ease arthritis pain, or clear out clogged arteries. Just as you wouldn't rely on love alone to cure a medical condition -- or withdraw love because it didn't -- don't expect that your feelings or attention will be able to alter your spouse's off-kilter brain chemistry. Use your love to get help and to remind your partner of his or her intrinsic worth during this challenging time.
See depression as an intruder in your marriage. Like any other illness, depression is an outside force -- an unwelcome visitor wreaking havoc with your spouse's health, your marriage, and your home life. Seeing it this way can allow both of you to talk about its effects without blame or shame. "Once we started talking about it as a third party -- as 'the depression' -- we could express our frustrations constructively," Emily Scott-Lowe says. "If Dennis was really doubting his worth, I could say, 'That's just the depression talking. It's not you. When you're not depressed, you don't think this way. It's feeding you lies.'"
This shift in thinking can clear the air. "It was a relief for me," Dennis Lowe says. "I felt Emily was walking on eggshells sometimes, not wanting to tell me how she was feeling. Depression was the elephant in the room that no one wanted to talk about, and I felt even guiltier. Seeing it as the intruder was an accurate perspective. It helped me see why I felt the way I did and let me accept reassurance because it acknowledges what's going on instead of denying it."
Find support. Admitting there's depression in your marriage can be tough. So can accepting help. Choose a trusted friend to confide in -- preferably someone who's experienced depression in their own life or within their family. And if you're overwhelmed by extra household duties because your spouse can't do his or her share, say yes when others offer assistance. "At one point, I was crying at church, when my friend shook me and said, 'Emily, people here at church are lined up waiting to help you.' I kept saying we didn't need help until she shook me into reality. We had people bringing us dinner several nights a week. One neighbor took our sons to spend the night, and it was so nice to know they were having fun. Depression can suck the energy right out of a household."
Tackle the Illness First
Monitor your own moods and thinking. Enduring barrages of negative comments, holding the household and family together, and losing the sweetest, most supportive aspects of your marriage isn't easy. Over months and years, the nondepressed spouse may give in to confusion, self-blame, demoralization, and resentment, notes Anne Sheffield, author of Depression Fallout: The Impact of Depression on Couples and What You Can Do to Preserve the Bond. You may conclude that you must leave to save yourself. If this sounds familiar, get help for yourself -- and insist that your mate do the same. "Depression separates couples with surgical skill and is a major home-breaker," Sheffield notes in her book.
Conquer depression before you try to work on your marriage. Depression can wreak major havoc in your marriage. You may be tempted to fix what seem like smaller issues before tackling the illness head-on (it may be easier to ask your partner to communicate more effectively than it is to say "It's time to get help," for example). It's reasonable to ask your spouse to help all he or she can around the house, to be responsible and treat you well. But looking for major changes while your spouse is under the influence of depression may simply create more frustration. Focus on lifting depression first.
Respect your own needs. If your spouse has depression, you still deserve everyday niceties -- a neat house, regular meals, a calm family environment -- as well as friendships, a social life, and time to pursue meaningful interests. As much as possible, pursue these things. It's easy to spend your time dealing with your spouse's needs and issues. But don't sacrifice your own joys and goals needlessly. As we noted, you are susceptible to depression too. Pursuing your personal pleasures will not only help prevent that but also better prepare you for aiding your spouse.
Living with a Depressed Person
This article shares six easy to understand tips for living with someone suffering from Depression.
Try to be considerate, thoughtful, and empathic. If your spouse had a broken leg, you would expect that their abilities and energy would be restricted, that they would be in pain at times, and that they couldn't heal themselves more quickly just because you wanted them to. Think about depression the same way.
Don't be provocative. Every relationship has the little hot buttons that can start a fight at any time. Dirty socks on the floor, the remote control misplaced, the car low on gas. You know what your partner's buttons are. Don't push them while he/she is in a depressed state.
Small acts of kindness are appreciated, and do help, even if the recipient doesn't reciprocate. When I retreat to bed, my wife makes a point of breaking in to kiss me goodnight. Even though I don't usually act very glad to see her, I would feel worse, lonely and unloved, without her attention.
Easing your partner's burden in small ways can help a great deal. Offer to do the shopping, empty the garbage, do the laundry, take the kids out for pizza. It communicates more than words the feeling that you understand how difficult these mundane chores can seem at times.
"Advance directives" can be a contract loved ones arrange while the sufferer is not depressed, describing what to do when depression sets in. It can be in stages: stage 1, leave me alone; stage 2, be kind, patient, and attentive; stage 3, insist I call my therapist; stage 4, take me to the hospital. One patient loses her ability to see color when depression sets in. From experience, she has learned to let her husband know when this happens, because she won't let him know when it gets worse.
Take the trouble to educate yourself. Learn all you can about depression. Be willing to talk to your friend's therapist. It's amazing how seeing it in print, or hearing it from an authority, can change your perspective. Even if you believe you understand that depression is a disease, that the patient doesn't choose to be depressed, etc. etc., you need all the education you can get. These are facts we don't want to believe. Learning the facts helps you help your friend, and also shows that you care enough to take some trouble.
Things People Have Said About Marriage and About Depression
Marriage is three parts love and seven parts forgiveness of sins. --Langdon Mitchell
Do not brood over your past mistakes and failures as this will only fill your mind with grief, regret and DEPRESSION. Do not repeat them in the future. --Sri Swami Sivananda
The longer we dwell on our misfortunes, the greater is their power to harm us. --Voltaire
Concern should drive us into action and not into a depression. No man is free who cannot control himself. --Pythagoras, BC 582-507, Greek Philosopher, Mathematician
Both optimists and pessimists contribute to the society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute. --George Bernard Shaw
Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for Depression. --Dodie Smith
Through our willingness to help others we can learn to be happy rather than depressed. --Gerald G. Jampolsky, American Psychiatrist, Lecturer, Author
Nothing else is needed to make you depressed, than to fancy you are so. --Author Unknown
I want to help people with depression understand that there is hope, so that they can get the help they need to live rich, fulfilling lives. --Tom Bosley
If depression is creeping up and must be faced, learn something about the nature of the beast: You may escape without a mauling. --Dr R W Shepherd
Marriage is an adventure, like going to war. --Gilbert Keith Chesterton
I cling to depression, thinking it a form of truth. --Mason Cooley
How many pessimists end up by desiring the things they fear, in order to prove that they are right. --Robert Mallet
If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn't it follow that electricians can be delighted, musicians denoted, cowboys deranged, models deposed, tree surgeons debarked, and dry cleaners depressed. --Virginia Ostman
Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at MetroSexual LA