Partner's depression triggered by someone we can't avoid, what to do?
July 11, 2012 6:29 AM   Subscribe

The trigger for my partner's depression? Contact with his child's mother. Need solutions for both of us.

My partner has really scary episodes of depression, and we've come to realize that they, with very few exceptions, exclusively occur when he has contact with his child's mother. He has a very fraught relationship with her---she basically took the child, left him and moved with the child to another city when he was a newborn. The child is now two, I have been with my partner for almost that long (and we now live together), and he is still getting over it.

Because she isn't local, we don't deal with her on a day to day basis so the contact is mostly email-based and revolves around disputes over visitation (this issue is being dealt with presently via ongoing mediation) or money (this is being handled, at her request, by a government agency and not by us any longer, but we still hear about it). Most of the emails, given the above two provisos, are more bluster than substance, but nonetheless, he finds them extremely upsetting.

He is working with a therapist, and we have been going jointly as well. The therapist is encouraging him to wait out the process and let things resolve through the court or through mediation. We have also been working on 1) ways for him to manage his stress responses better and 2) ways for me to manage my response to him (for example, to recognize this is not about me and to resist the impulse to try and fix him or to use logic and reason to try and talk him out of his moods). And the episodes have been getting slightly less frequent, and last slightly less long when they occur.

But I am struggling, perhaps almost as much as he is, with this whole situation. When he gets in this mood, he says a lot of disturbing and alarming things, and I am never sure how seriously I should take it, whether he really is coming to believe these things or whether it is just the mood talking. Often, he'll say things which I interpret personally and find hard to just shrug off once the mood passes (it's all on him, nobody is helping him etc. and then when I get upset, he pounces that it's proof that everybody is making it harder because now he has the situation, plus he has ME to deal with...) He'll say that he just has to accept that life is a struggle and difficult and will never get easy and he is doomed to just suffer through it (and where do I fit it to that master plan?) and he'll say he feels he is close to having a breakdown, to giving up and so on. It's VERY upsetting to me, and it seems like nothing I say bring him out of it---but then come morning, he wakes up, shrugs that life goes on, and that's it. And I still feel like I need two more days to recover from everything he's said to me.

The issue is two-fold. Firstly, there is the detail that because he has a child with her, cutting her off just isn't possible. We have to deal with her, and it's going to provoke these reactions, so any suggestions for ways to accept this and bring down the trauma level are welcome. But more importantly, since I can't manage him and can only manage myself, *I* need some ways to deal with this better. I need to either head this off at the pass, so when I see it coming, I can get him to just stop and be redirected somehow before he starts spewing the stuff that upsets me, or I need a way to cope with it better when he does (my response so far has been to try and use logic to defend myself when I feel personally attacked, and when that doesn't work, burst into tears because I can't help myself, and thereby drag it out for longer). I have occasionally been able to shut down the conversation by threatening to call him mother, but I think I can't overplay that card.

I love this guy to pieces, and when we aren't dealing with this one issue, he's funny, fun and incredibly supportive as a partner. I am in this for the long haul and don't want to mislead that there are problems or issues other than this one. I just need some better strategies. Advice, anyone?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's VERY upsetting to me, and it seems like nothing I say bring him out of it---but then come morning, he wakes up, shrugs that life goes on, and that's it. And I still feel like I need two more days to recover from everything he's said to me.

You need to stop trying to "bring him out of it." It won't work, and it's draining on you and feeding the beast of his anxiety. Instead, say "I'm sorry you're struggling, I'll be here for you when you are ready to talk about it constructively. I love you but right now the intensity of your reaction is too much for me to handle though, so I'm going to go out for a while."

Also a joint session with his therapist would be good, so that the therapist can hear from someone else how his patient deals with stress, and work with him on developing better coping skills.
posted by headnsouth at 6:56 AM on July 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

Is there any way that he would let you be in charge of reading the emails and passing along only the important information along to him? I feel like if he was cut off from the 'bluster', there would be fewer triggering events.

I also agree with headnsouth-- he needs to work on better coping skills, because whatever he's doing now is clearly not working.
posted by Flamingo at 6:58 AM on July 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure this is really depression. To my mind, depression is when you have no reason to be sad, and you're sad. This is a fraught situation where your partner can't be with his child without being with the child's mother, who is toxic to him.

I think therapy is good here. So is the Serenity Prayer. So is both of you discussing the patterns when they're *not* happening, so that when they are happening you're aware of them.

I, for example, tend to get depressed in the summer, when no one's around. My wife will then remind me when I'm getting seasonally depressed, so I can recognize what's going on. That tends to take the sting out of it.
posted by musofire at 6:59 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure this is really depression. To my mind, depression is when you have no reason to be sad, and you're sad.

Advice like this extremely careless and it's also why you should never depend on AskMe as a source of medical or psychiatric advice.

I also disagree that you should install yourself as the middleman, as Flamingo suggested. Taking on more responsibility in this situation makes you the number one person to blame if anything goes poorly.

Whenever he starts to say the things that personally upset you, you should stop him and ask if he'd like some alone time to deal with his reaction. It's totally fair to tell him that you want to help, but you can't bear the brunt of his venting and agonizing. Yes, damn right he has you to "deal with." So he'd better adjust his behavior with a mind toward maintaining harmony in the present tense, and if he can't do that without help, then he needs to get help (and not from you).
posted by hermitosis at 7:38 AM on July 11, 2012 [10 favorites]

You mention that he's seeing a therapist and that you have joint sessions, but do you have someone that you can go to alone to talk about the stress you're dealing with. You need an outlet because you have stress over his situation and then guilt that you are adding to his situation. I think you need someone you can go to on your own to talk about your feelings.

Also you need a pre-planned escape when he gets in a mood. Something you both know about before hand so that he doesn't just think you're storming off or running away from the situation. Either an hour at the gym or a friend who will take you out to coffee so that you can have a break and so can he. Whatever works for you but you need to not be there for him literally every second that he's upset.
posted by GilvearSt at 7:49 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's good that you're working together with a therapist on this issue. I think the advice your therapist is giving you is good, but it will take a little while to rewire the patterns of behavior that you've been using to deal with this for the past two years.

Have you talked with him in therapy about some basic ground rules/boundaries about personal attacks and other hopeless morasses, and ways you can completely disengage from further interaction when he gets "in this mood" and finds himself unable to talk to you/treat you in the way you both, in the light of day, agree that you deserve to be treated?

Because, I mean, despite your therapist encouraging you not to try to use logic to talk him out of his moods or to try and fix things for him, it seems like that's what you're still doing (and then getting progressively upset, in counterproductive ways, when you get the same-old same-old back). I think you need to short-circuit that cycle sooner. With my daughter, who seems to deal with stress in a similar way, I have a "three strikes and I'm out" rule. Except, it's more like, "return 3 pitches with a line drive to the pitcher's head and I'm out" rule--in other words, if I'm trying to be helpful and make three helpful suggestions or three attempts to be supportive, and she just rejects everything and instead starts trying to cast blame on me for not fixing the situation, for not helping enough, for not caring about her, for making stupid suggestions, etc. etc.--well, then it's time for me to disengage until she's genuinely willing/able to accept help when she asks for it.
posted by drlith at 8:02 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I imagine that in addition to being depressed, he may be grieving. It is incredibly painful to be separated from one's child. I think we underestimate the effects of this on dads.

I suspect that the only thing that will help this is time --time to understand the mother's behavior and find some semblance of predictability in it -- right now, he has no idea how much of her threats are bluster, empty, or possible in what she says.

He will need to learn to say things like "I can't help you with that" to the mother, rather than arguing. And both of you need to know that she will continue to disrupt your lives in unpredictable and, likely, expensive ways.

It will take years off of his life, no kidding. He's going to be in mourning for awhile.

I think his therapist has a misplaced faith in the ability of a settlement to make things better for him. Fathers dont typically benefit much in these situations. And they constantly get revisted and questioned and tweaked. He has a right to grieve right now. And to be derailed by every new twist.

He'll need to learn coping skills, but he should look for a therapist who's been through or has had lots of male clients who've been through it.

He can also work on establishing a relationship directly with the child. (letters, videos of him reading bedtime stories, etc.) even if the mom creates barriers (doesn't share the letters) he needs to have a record of his efforts for when the child turns 18.
posted by vitabellosi at 8:07 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

We have to deal with her, and it's going to provoke these reactions

I'm in disagreement with at least the latter part. If your therapist isn't treating this as an urgent issue, find one who will. He's having a highly escalated response to this situation and need tools, not a pat on the head.

Also, be real careful about getting couples counseling from the same person who's treating him. It is one thing to loop you in occasionally to his ongoing therapy, it is not generally considered as appropriate to treat you both.

I get that you want to be very understanding about his pain, but that doesn't stop it from being abuse if it is abusive to you. You need your own advocate here.

The way you manage your response to him when he's like that is to disengage. It seems clear to me that he's having a serious anxiety reaction to these communications (this is not unusual, but it doesn't sound like it's being treated either) and you are not Xanax or a neurochemical. You cannot short circuit his panic response. Stop interacting with it. If you can go in another room and have that be enough, awesome. If you can't, you should go somewhere else. Tell him to call 911 *first* and then you if he's having chest pain or trouble breathing or thinks he might hurt himself and you will meet him wherever you need to, but that otherwise you will make this easier on him and you by not being in his way until his attack is over.

Personally, I'd hire someone to read her emails and summarize the actionable items for him. This is becoming a circle of abuse that will eventually include their son. I think the short sharp shock of "we're not able to provide the emotional feedback you seem to want in these communications, so our representative* will be handling these requests and summarizing until we all learn a healthier means of communication" could stop this now before it becomes an even bigger monster.

*Either hire a psychology student or retired businessman or someone else who will find it more interesting/stupid than dramatic, or actually hire a mediator.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:21 AM on July 11, 2012

While it's great that he has a therapist, I'm going to second Lyn Never, and suggest he consider finding another therapist who can give him real tools to use. Because, unless there's a lot of nuance lost here, the following does not seem particularly useful:

The therapist is encouraging him to wait out the process and let things resolve through the court or through mediation.

If he's going to have a relationship with his child he's going to have to deal with the mother, fraught relationship notwithstanding. And it's unlikely that once court/mediation has resolved things she's going to suddenly become a model, congenial co-parent with whom he can have a non-adversarial relationship. He might have to deal with her as she is until the kid is 18.
posted by 6550 at 9:32 AM on July 11, 2012

Can he ask that she send all her emails to a separate account, and block her from his personal account? Then you could check the separate account and distill just the facts and issues that he needs to know about and tell him? I'm thinking of scenarios where exes have all contact through a lawyer/mediator type person -- also an option, but potentially an impractical one.

Sorry you are going through this.
posted by chickenmagazine at 10:10 AM on July 11, 2012

The therapist is encouraging him to wait out the process and let things resolve through the court or through mediation.

Not sure if his therapist is the right one for him or not, and perhaps he could ask for ways/tools he could use for working with an adversarial situation, but his therapist is absolutely CORRECT in stating that this needs to be resolved through court/mediation.

There is a natural tendency to hurry the process and to jump in to try to fix things 'now' that actually works against court/mediation. Her emailing and stirring the pot is one example. It's very frustrating to be doing nothing, especially so for guys with a 'fix it' mentality. Doubly so when it involves someone you love.

My suggestion is to forward the emails, without reading, directly to his lawyer, mediator, or therapist, in that order. Or even two of the three. Let them act as filter and records keeper. He should also keep copies of everything, even though it will be hard not to read them. Her little email trick could severely backfire on him if she misrepresents things, makes threats, is abusive, or suggestive of limiting his legal rights. She may find herself hoist in her own petard, especially if the court sees a pattern of negative behavior that may impact her child. He hase people, let them work for him.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:41 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Does he acknowledge how hurtful his behaviour is and apologise? I am assuming you have told him to stop saying disturbing and alarming things to you, if you haven't, then you need to be very clear about that. He can think those thoughts all he wants, and express them in a safe place like just to his therapist, but repeatedly telling your partner you are suicidal, that they are not doing enough, and a partner being upset at being attacked is proof the partner is part of the problem is emotionally abusive and not healthy for either of you. You are not his therapist; I think when partnered with someone with mental illness, the ill partner cannot see the needs they view as "normal" (sharing stress/anxiety/down moods with their partner) are too intense and magnified for a non-professional to cope with on a long term basis.

You have internalised this idea that he has made his moods your problem to solve, and when you don't fix him it is your fault. He needs to take responsibility for himself, his moods, and meeting your needs in the relationship (you do have needs, although your question reads as though both of you think only his needs are valid and are focusing solely on him).

It may be that he can not be healthy in a relationship with anyone until he gets his depression and anxiety under control with professional help. Living together may be making the situation worse and not giving either of you enough space from each other and the situation with his child. You may have a better relationship living apart for now and moving in together again after he has learned some coping skills alone. You mention, "come morning, he wakes up, and shrugs that life must go on....and I still need two days to recover". Does that mean you are having serious, late night conversations? Because stop that, that is making things worse and nothing can be resolved in a depressive, fraught conversation late at night. During those two days are you recovering alone, are you trying to match his "normal" mood to avoid stressing him? Is he giving you an equal amount of support as you are clearly giving him on a continual basis? Does he know that is what he is supposed to do as a partner in a healthy relationship or is it just that he is too unwell to make you a priority right now?

echo that you need either your own therapist or a different couple's therapist, it sounds like everyone is so focused on him that your very real, and very important, problems are being ignored because you aren't being as demanding as he is.
posted by saucysault at 2:52 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

As others have suggested, it sounds like you're putting too much pressure on yourself to handle a situation that's extremely difficult operationally and emotionally.

Too, I am as sympathetic as it it gets when it comes to mental health issues, but what comes across as a lack of anything close to significant progress--with something anyone would reasonably find ugly and disturbing--over a decent amount of time is concerning.

At the end of the day, with all the relevant caveats and qualifiers, there's a decent case to be made that you're getting drawn into coming running and reinforcing hideous behavior.

With a committed-come-hell-or-high-water approach, remember that some people do burn in hell or drown in high water.
posted by ambient2 at 1:37 AM on July 13, 2012

1. Support group for divorced parents. For him or for you. Probably not both of you at the same meeting.
2. Support group for step-parents, for you. It's a difficult job, and the rewards are quite delayed.
3. He would benefit greatly from Behavior Management training to get over saying extreme things that scare people. This is also a parenting issue. This is an issue that will come into play every time his life is stressful. Corollary: Life is always stressful. (I do the same thing. It can be managed.)
4. Have her emails go directly to mediator or another person who can forward anything that requires response/action. It's easy to set up a forwarding rule in email.
5. Listen. Sympathise.
6. You can use some behavior modification methods. After you have listened, listened some more, sympathised gently (yes, it's really hard on you. I know you miss *child* terribly. Ex- is being horribly unreasonable.), leave the conversation. No more engagement. Leave the room, turn on the teevee, leave the house for a walk, etc. No engagement. Yes, I know you're upset, dearest. I'm so sorry this rotten thing is happening. I'll be in the shower. {hug} Angry people often like to argue. Do not give him a sparring partner. He has to learn that his angry feeling is survivable, that he can experience it, and act on it in a neutral or healthy way. He's great at pulling you in. Decline the invitation.
7. When he responds in a neutral or healthy way, give him a hug, or make him a cup of tea. Rewards don't have to be words. Giving him a chocolate kiss is just like giving a dog a biscuit; it reinforces the desired behavior. It's manipulative. Maybe discuss it w/ him & therapist 1st. When I was nearly paralyzed w/depression, my now ex- would talk at me. It made it worse. I told him "Hey, just take me out for a walk" and he just couldn't understand that I couldn't quite do it on my own.
Here's an article I love.

good luck. It really is rotten, especially for the child, who is being pulled in 2 directions. When the going gets tough, the needs of the child come first, and the parent who is sucking up the crud has to keep saying "I'm dealing with this on behalf of my child."

It took a long time, but my child understands some of what I did for him. No need for him to know about all of it. I'm a parent; it's part of the job.
posted by theora55 at 7:09 AM on July 16, 2012

« Older How to move to Boston   |   How to make a relationship work? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.