Dear Spouse of the Depressed,
Depression acts like a sucking vortex that threatens everything in it’s whirling sphere. Your spouse or loved ones depression is out to suck you into its vacuum. You try mightily to rescue both yourself and your spouse. Each of you sees completely different perspectives of the same thing. It’s a little like seeing a tapestry from the bottom or the top.
Your spouse is having a hard time getting up out of bed, getting menial tasks accomplished, and even eating takes a lot of effort. They see the dark side of everything and the things that once brought them some level of happiness are now non-existent. Their dark comments about everything weighs like a cement block attached to your feet.
You have tried to be nice and cheer them up, see the bright side, and encourage them, but to no avail. You may have tried guilt-tripping, manipulating, and shaming them to get them to change. You may feel rejected by them because you think you should be enough to ‘make them feel happy.’ You may be worried because severe depression is a killer. Living with a depressed person takes its toll on you and your emotions.
First, understand that depression is a complex issue. There is not a universal cause of depression. There are many drivers of depression including loss, being overwhelmed, not feeling that you have choices, health issues, medications, significant changes in your life, guilt, anger, genetic predisposition, worry, conflict, unhealthy thinking patterns, false belief systems, lack of nutrition and a host of other things. Then there’s the whole combination of any two or ten of these drivers.
Depression is a killer of self and of relationship. To start, I would encourage you to resist the urge to deal with your spouses depression from a place of offense, so that you are able to offer real hope and help. Here are six helpful things to consider when living with a severely depressed person.
It’s Not About You
Their depression is not about you. They may be nit-picking you for all of your weaknesses, but it’s really not about you. While you can and should put up some healthy boundaries around how and when they offer “constructive criticism”, you must also realize the window they are looking through is caked with mud and splattered with gunk. Their perspective is skewed and so you must be able to let certain things go.
Resist the urge to tell them how you’re feeling and how it’s affecting you. It’s not that this isn’t important, because it is very important. It’s just that in the midst of deep depression, they can’t respond to it. They might even want to, but they can’t. The day will come when this will need to be discussed, but it can’t be today.
Talk About It
You may need to insist that you have a conversation about their depression. They can be pretty good about minimizing, blaming, and deflecting these conversations, so you will need to keep it focused. Keep in mind that it can’t be about your wounding or how you feel. I am not saying your wounding is not real or important. It is very important. But they can’t help you with it right now. You must be able to step out of any offense you are experiencing in order to help them. Your “help” must come from a place of concern for them.
When you attempt to have an honest conversation about their depression, they will probably try to turn the tables on you with, “well you have problems too”. This is very common when someone doesn’t want to look at themselves…expect it and don’t get offended. Just agree with them about your issues and promise that you will work on it with your counselor. But let them know you expect them to continue to work on their depression.
Resist ‘Telling’ Them
The responsibility for change needs to be on the depressed person. Resist the urge to “tell” them what to do. Here’s the kicker…I know, that if they just did what you suggested (eat better, exercise, think positive thoughts, etc.) they really would feel better. You are not wrong. But it simply doesn’t work to “tell” them what to do. I think you can mention some of the things they are doing which is adding to their depression, like alcohol, sweets, lack of exercise, isolation, etc. But stop there and don’t tell them what to eat or how to exercise. They must take on the responsibility for themselves to find the answers.
While you can’t expect a depressed person to be happy, you can expect them to do their part by not feeding the depression. Coping mechanisms often act like a double bind in that they feel like they will rescue us, but in fact, they continue the cycle. Like a diabetic is responsible to watch their diet and take their insulin, if they “have” depression, then they are responsible for their depression. You can let them know you expect them to take on their part.
If they refuse to help themselves, then you may need to implement healthy boundaries like not helping them financially. You can limit the amount of rants that you will listen to. And you may need to walk out of the room if they begin to nit-pick or yell at you.
Another helpful boundary is to let them know that if they continue in harming themselves, you will widen the circle of people who know so as to get them the help they need. Any boundary you create will need to be with an attitude of helping them and not as a punishment. Begin inviting people over who love the depressed person specifically to talk about their emotional state. Again, not in a shaming way, but in a way that aims to help. They may not like that, but it’s o.k. Depression loves to hide and you can help them not to hide. Anyone who comes to help will need to be coached to not ‘rescue’ the person, but to ‘assist’ the person as they begin making healthy choices. If the depressed person decides to start eating healthy, then a friend might stand and talk to them as they throw away unhealthy food. Or a friend might meet them at the gym to start exercising. A helpful guideline is only do for a person what they are incapable to do for themselves.
There may come a day when a depressed person steadfastly refuses the loving help offered. At that point you might lovingly say, I will separate myself from you and not be near you until you start making healthy decisions. This must continue to be done in a way that invites them into healthy living/relationship, but keeps you safe.
Find Your Own Support
You will need to find a support network to help you keep your perspective. This is extremely important because your feelings and wounds are important. Until your spouse can raise their head above the depression, your support network are the people you need to go to for your needs. They can also offer perspective, support, and ideas of boundaries you can set.
Living with a person who is suffering with depression will take it’s tole on you. Taking care of yourself and understanding your own emotions will be very important as you help them. The most difficult task is to not allow the vortex to suck you under so that you can offer real help and hope.