If support hit me in the face I wouldn't know what I was look at
December 13, 2012 9:55 AM   Subscribe

How do normal, happy couples support each other in a non-dysfunctional, healthy relationship? Not surprisingly, longish snowflake details inside.

My wife and I both came from households where our parents didn't support each other in meaningful or obvious ways. All of our parents were okay parents to us, but not the best spouses to each other. We're finding out that we're both acting out in ways that mirror our parents' relationships, to the detriment of our marriage.

Lately we've been getting into fights because I don't feel like I've been supported. I ask for support but in the most vague terms, and get angry when I don't get it. I've realized that I get angry probably because I have no idea what support looks like in a healthy relationship, nor do I even know what to ask for. Here a few examples:

- I've been dealing with depression for the past few years and all that my wife has done was given me a plant because she read that plants may help depressed people. When I slip into a depressive episode, she seems ambivalent and doesn't really know what to do.

- In the past, I trained for a few half-marathons. I would get up in the mornings and do my runs while she slept. I asked her to get ready for work while I ran so that we could be on time, but that was followed maybe 50% of the time. I don't feel like there were any special considerations given to my lifestyle. When I finally ran the race she wanted to run with me past the finish line but I let her know that I wanted to cross it myself since she didn't support me.

- I've taken up leadership positions in volunteer organizations, and whenever I have meetings it seems to be viewed as an annoyance, especially since we've had a child. She doesn't particularly seem proud of my achievements nor does she make space for me to continue volunteering.

We have an almost two year old and are finding out that while we're really good parents together, our marriage is slowing crumbling beneath us. We want to be good role-models and give our kid a good foundation for how to have healthy relationships. When we were childless it was easy to push aside problems but it's finally caught up to us. We both have some mental health issues that are definitely the root of these problems (me - depression, codependence; wife - abusive past, borderline/narcissistic personality) and we're seeking counseling, but we need a starting point until that stuff kicks in.

So, hive-mind, what support mean in your healthy relationship?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (36 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Everyone is going to tell you to get therapy, so it's good that you're on that track already - learning a common language for these kinds of negotiations is something that counseling can do for you, and it will really help.

Your specific examples all read a little weird to me, and I'm going to try to suss out why.

1. Dealing helpfully with a depressed person is hard. It's just hard. No one is taught how, there aren't any guaranteed "right" things to do, and it can be very draining even if you do all the right things. It doesn't sound like *you* really know what you wanted her to do, so consider that it isn't really reasonable to expect her to know what to do, either.

2. I can't tell what the special consideration you were asking for even was. You wanted to... not be late to work? That's not special consideration, and doesn't have anything to do with your running. I think there's some logistical issue here that isn't clear, or possibly you were just more annoyed with ordinary shower conflicts than usual because you felt you were doing something particularly virtuous. That's not a healthy way to look at it, really. (And the finish line thing reads as impossibly petty and childish, to me. Tit for tat is a really, really bad way to run a marriage.)

3. The volunteering thing again sounds like you want extra credit for being virtuous. That's... not how it works. If you have a kid and your meeting schedule is interfering with your parenting, you are in the wrong. Your family should be your priority, and if it's not, your wife is very much justified in not cheering you on.

Overall, it sounds like you have a really big need for approval and you feel like you should be getting that from your wife based on *your* priorities. That's not going to work out well for you in the long run, because your priorities and hers are going to be different. And if you're doing things to get approval and not getting it, it's understandable that you'd be upset, but you need to consider whether your expectations were realistic in the first place.

I'm sure she's an equal partner in the dysfunction, but the examples you chose all suggest, to me, like your thinking is causing much of your unhappiness. Do consider individual therapy as well as couples counseling if you're not getting it already. There's a lot to unpack and having an objective ear can be really helpful.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:11 AM on December 13, 2012 [43 favorites]

It looks to me like she was trying to support you in two different instances that you kind of dismiss quickly, the plant and the running across the finish line thing.

The thing about support is that it's freely given and freely accepted. It's not like fees due at a meeting, you take what you get and say Thank You and work at being more supportive yourself.

In answer to what it looks like: Mr. Llama is really supportive. He tells me he's my biggest fan. He buys my favorite beer for me on Fridays. He suggests going to lunch when I'm feeling down. He brings me coffee in bed. He doesn't criticize me or put me down or make me feel undermined. I try to do the same sorts of things for him -- even silly things that wouldn't matter to anyone else -- making sure he gets his favorite fork at dinner. I'm talking seriously trivial stuff, but trivial stuff really matters, as does gratitude. We say Thank You a lot. I mean, a lot. If one of us needs to work on something, even if it inconveniences the other, we do our best to make space for that person's immediate priorities and need to work.

So: nice, trivial things, sucking it up wherever possible, and saying Thank You.

But the framing of your question seems so tit for tat. It doesn't work that way. Entire seasons go buy where one adult in my house is being indulged more than the other. Dealing with accounting on that level sucks, and it's damaging. This is where saying Thank You right and left and noticing effort is important. She noticed your depression and bought you a plant to cheer you up -- it counts -- and if you guys have backgrounds where your guard is automatically up, putting yourself out there is costly and if it's not appreciated it's hard to keep going.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:14 AM on December 13, 2012 [19 favorites]

Here's what these things look like in my family.

1. Husbunny suffers from severe depression. I hocked and nagged him to get a sleep study, where SURPRISE, it's sleep apnea that's making his brain sad. He's on a CPAP and his depression is under control.

My question to you: What would support for your depression look like to you? What exactly would you like your wife to do for you? If you can't articulate it, how is she supposed to know?

2. Husbunny did a "couch to 5k" thing. While I'm not that ambitious, I cheered him on. We both want to incorporate exercise into our healthy lifestyle. We bought a treadmill. I wake up early and walk on it first, then he walks.

My Observation: Your marathons are very personal goals. As for getting your wife to wake up, that's got NOTHING to do with your running. You just wanted her to get up, she didn't. THAT'S the issue. As for running with you at the finish line, she came up with a supportive idea, but you slapped her back in her place because she didn't support you the way you expected to be supported. That sounds mean and punishing to me.

3. Husbunny is really into Women's Basketball. I mean, SERIOUSLY into it. He attends games, writes on blogs, watches international games in the off season. We don't have children, so we both have lots of free time. I'm fine with it because it doesn't impact me.

What's different for you: YOU have a young child. While you galavant around doing your volunteer stuff, your wife is home alone with the kid. 2 year olds are pains in the ass, and it gets old, especially when your spouse is out doing stuff he enjoys. Is this reciprocal? Does she get time out of the house in the evenings for what she wants to do?

Your wife could very well resent you for not pulling your weight with your child and the housework. I know I would.

Your demands for "support" are sounding very selfish and self-centered. You want acknowledgement and praise from your wife, but at what cost to her?

What exactly do you do to support her?

My advice is to tell your wife exactly what you want and to encourage her to do the same. Are you willing to give up your volunteer work if what she wants is for you to stay home, eat dinner with your family and put in a load of laundry>?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:15 AM on December 13, 2012 [25 favorites]

"Support" can mean a lot of different things, but I think they all start with a willingness to listen to each other non-judgmentally so that you each understand what the other's life is like, how it feels, what's easy and what's hard; a willingness to empathize; a general positive regard. It can also involve practical actions, but without listening and understanding that goes nowhere.

From your examples, the expectations you seem to have don't sound very reasonable. Your wife is not a psychiatrist; she can't "support" you out of your depression, she can only hold your hand while you work through treatment. Your commitments to running and volunteering may be great things in your life, but they are not her commitments, and they don't relieve you of your other responsibilities. If you don't want to hear that she's not thrilled to rearrange her habits for your convenience, or to do more childcare to free up your time, it seems legitimate that she'd be unhappy with you. Also, not letting her cross the finish line with you was petty and counterproductive; she tried for one moment to support you and you shot her down, which is a great way to dissuade her from trying again. Next time she tries to be nice, even if it's not everything you'd wish for, suck it up and say 'Thank you, Honey. I love you."
posted by jon1270 at 10:15 AM on December 13, 2012 [8 favorites]

Here's the deal with relationships: they are a series of ongoing transactions, not much different than a barter system between two people. The currency is...whatever you want it to be: time, attention, effort, talking, anything you value -- most especially emotionally.

You have things that you want and things that you value. So does your wife, but they mostly will be different wants and values. The exchange rates will vary, sometimes wildly.

Most of the time these exchanges aren't one-for-one, as in 'I will rub your feet if you rub mine' or the like. They usually disconnected in time and space. My wife and I are familiar and comfortable enough with this concept that we will openly negotiate for the things we want. ("Yes, I'm OK if you do x but next weekend I would like you to do y for me.")

Healthy relationships are the ones where each person feels like they are getting a fair return in the trades, over the long term. The occasional "bad deal" is tolerable with somebody who you know will make it up over time.

Problems arise when people think they are doing well in their emotional trades but the other person doesn't value things at the same rate. My sister & her husband are on such different wavelengths in this regard that it is a real struggle: he works hard on the job and at home, but she values that far less than he does. She wants time, talk, closeness. He doesn't value that, only physical effort. Both feel they are contributing hugely to the relationship and both feel they are getting short-changed.

When one or both people feel emotionally overdrawn enough, the relationship can't continue.

You have to talk this out together. Really come to understand what the other person values, what they want to get back. Be consciously aware of how much value you are providing the other in the currency they value. Put the law of reciprocity to work in your favor.
posted by trinity8-director at 10:17 AM on December 13, 2012 [12 favorites]

You have also asked your question in pretty vague terms, because I am having a pretty hard time understanding what you mean by "support".

When you have a depressive episode, you complain that "doesn't really know what to do". Well, no one knows how to make a depressed person not to be depressed. Otherwise, it wouldn't be such a mental health problem. Have you told her what would help you when you have a depressive episode? Are you seeing a psychiatrist?

I don't understand the complaint about the half-marathons. You wanted her to get ready for work while you ran so you could be "on time". "On time" for what? I don't understand how her sleeping while you are running affects your ability to run. In either event, your tantrum at the finish line was petty and spiteful beyond words.

On community organizations, I have some experience with this. I've been an active Freemason for about six years and am currently the Worshipful Master of my lodge. I take the job very seriously and I put in a lot of time. I am also active in Rotary. However, I remember that my wife and two young children come first. So, I don't go to every single Masonic event and Rotary meeting. Instead, I prioritize which functions are the important ones. The time I spend away from work is already time not spent with my wife and children, but I have to do it. Therefore, if I am going to spend optional time away from my wife and children, I make damn sure that this is something I *must* do. I generally limit myself to a maximum of one weekday function per week.

Everything you have described seems to be about your need for recognition and praise. I am glad you are getting help for your mental health issues, although you seem not to recognize the narcissism in yourself.
posted by Tanizaki at 10:21 AM on December 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

A few thoughts corresponding to your examples:
  1. Talk when you're not depressed about what you need when you are depressed. It could be that she wants to support you but needs very concrete instructions. Some examples of support could be making sure you eat regularly, going with you to your therapist appointment, and either giving you space or insisting you see other people (depending on your individual needs). Again, this is likely easier to discuss when you're feeling like yourself. A therapist might be able to help guide that discussion.
  2. It sounds like you gave her a command about something that involved both of you. In the future, you might consider discussing how to factor your morning runs into your shared schedule rather than giving her a command to "follow". It's not just your lifestyle that should be considered, and perhaps she would be behave more to your liking if you demonstrated concern for the effects of your needs on her rather than expecting her to give "special considerations" to your "lifestyle". Failing to follow your commands is not "unsupportive".
  3. You have a kid. You (theoretically) have a home life you care about. You going to meetings, however noble, may actually be a legitimate inconvenience. If you want support, you need to set yourself up to receive it by negotiating what you want to do within the life you share with your family. Being supportive, in this case, would probably be her having that conversation in good faith and trying to make it possible for you to do what you want without negative effect on her and your child. If you want her to be proud of you for helping others, make sure it's not at her expense. Then maybe she'll tell you she's proud of you for this, which seems to be what you want.

posted by cranberry_nut at 10:22 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are you saying your wife was abused by a narcissistic/boderline personality type(s)? Or are you saying your wife IS a narcissistic/boderline personality type?

If you are not a psychiatrist, and you are labeling your wife with a personality disorder, you might want to back waaaay off on that and apologize to her.

It sounds like you are vilifying your wife and that you are some kind of "martyr" or "hero."

It is really difficult adjusting to children, and some marriages don't make it.

Which way do you want this to go?

If you want to stay together, tell your ego to "fuck off" every time it wants to paint you as the hero or victim during frustration or conflict. Seriously. It isn't doing you any good right now.

Focus on your child and being a helpful husband in the meantime, before you start therapy. It's a concrete and positive stop-gap measure you can start implementing immediately.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 10:22 AM on December 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Support in a relationship is a two-way street. What you've listed here are several examples of times when you wanted your wife to support you, but have you given any thought to the ways in which you can support your wife?

Regarding your specific examples:
1. Supporting someone with depression is really, really hard. I have been depressed at various points in my life and have been in a relationship with someone who was depressed and I don't think anyone really knows what to do in these situations. To a large extent, there isn't a lot a partner can do. I think the gift of a plant from your wife was a sweet thing to do -- I think you should strive to appreciate these things more.

2. What I gathered from this is that you want your wife to get ready for work -- i.e. you want her to get both of you ready for work while you run. This could work in some relationships, but only if not framed as an expectation. For example, I take time to do my makeup and get ready in the mornings, during which time my boyfriend packs my lunch and laptop. I thank him every time he does it and try not to expect that he does it. Strive to be grateful for the times when she does get you ready for work -- that is a favor she is doing you which you are in no way owed. Finally, it is incredibly petty and bad behavior to not allow her to run across the finish line with you. That is her way of supporting you. Frankly, if you had pulled that on me, I would be reconsidering the relationship, because that is in no way the kind of behavior I would expect from a partner.

3. The volunteering: Do you get something out of the volunteering? Validation of your worth in the community? Respect from community members? Try to see how from her point of you, your volunteering is a "selfish" thing, not in that it's a bad thing to do, but in that it's something that increases your value to community members and your status. When you go volunteering, is she being expected to take care of your child on her own? Then she's already supporting you.

Speaking as someone with wonderful marriages as examples (my parents and both sets of grandparents have had long, content marriages), learn to be more grateful for whatever support you get, even if intermittent. Praise the behavior you want -- if someone does something you like, thank them out of all proportion to the thing they did. Don't keep score of who did what and who didn't do what. That way lies bitterness. Think of small ways in which you can show support to your partner each day. I'm not a naturally tidy person, so the only thing that gets me to clean things up and do the dishes and so forth is the thought of how happy my boyfriend would be to come home to a clean house.
posted by peacheater at 10:23 AM on December 13, 2012 [7 favorites]

When I slip into a depressive episode, she seems ambivalent and doesn't really know what to do.

Living with a depressed person and helping them can be hard and confusing hard work. If you had a physical illness, would you expect her to be able to be a good live-in nurse, administering medicine and physical therapy, without having ever had any training or support? It sounds to me like possibly your wife doesn't know how to deal with this, and that's not really surprising -- not necessarily as an artifact of lacking relationship skills, but because she's not (I assume) a professional trained in dealing with this kind of thing. Seeking counseling may help here, both to help deal with your depression and to give her some skills to apply.

The other two points sound to me like work/life negotiation, and in the absence of more detail it's easy for me to imagine an alternative explanation of these -- e.g. one in which your wife came on and said, "I've got this toddler, I'm exhausted all the time looking after her, I never get to leave the house, but my husband guilts me out about not being delighted when he goes out, and then he wants me to get up early when I've not had enough sleep..." and so on. And I think rejecting the thing she did offer you (running across the finish line with you) was a bit on the hurtful side as well.

So I think you and she need to be talking a lot more about what you both need and what's practical for you to do; and if e.g. it's really important that she get up at a particular time, then address together any practical issues that make that hard. In my relationship, it is the goal of both of us for both of us to be happy and successful, but we bring different resources and have different needs. So we work together on what we can each do in order to accomplish our mutual goal. That means that I wind up doing a little more than my share of planning vacations an filling out paperwork, and he does a little more than his share of housework when I'm completely overloaded with my job, and both of us have times where we're temporarily doing more of the cooking or more of the listening-to-problems or whatever.

If something isn't working for one of us, then we have a conversation about the problem ("hey, I keep getting to work late") that is framed in terms of how WE will fix that problem, rather than a conversation about how the other let us down ("hey, you keep not waking up on time, you must not support me, grar").

(Caveat: we don't have kids. But I like to think that these strategies would continue to work, if with more difficult challenges.)
posted by shattersock at 10:26 AM on December 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am not a very articulate person, so I am not going to go on and on, but it seems to me by your own examples that she DOES try to support you, in her own way.

A healthy priority list is like this, providing that you are able to take care of yourself, first:

Career/whatever brings in income

It seems that your priority list reads as:

Look at you
Not enough of you
You, more you, etc...
posted by TinWhistle at 10:30 AM on December 13, 2012 [10 favorites]

The biggest thing my partner does to support me is to ask me if there are ways he can support me in my goals. For instance when I wanted to lose weight, he asked what would be helpful. I didn't have a lot of ideas, so he asked if removing food when we were done but just sort of picking at the "leftovers" would help. It did!

So the big thing here, as with most relationship questions, is to communicate. Go you guys for setting up the counseling, that should help!
posted by ldthomps at 10:30 AM on December 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here's how my partner and I support each other:
- When we want or need something, we ask for it, as specifically as possible.
- If the other person is ok with giving/doing it, no problem.
- If not, then the other person can say "that will cost points". We don't keep track of points, but it is a way of saying "I don't want to do this, but if it is important to you, I will".
- Or, the other person can counter-offer, "I don't want to do X, but how about if I do Y?" or "I don't want to do X now, but I will this afternoon."

Support can look like:
- a hug
- a good cry
- going to an event we don't want to go to
or a lot of other things, but these are the main ways we show each other support.
posted by elmay at 10:35 AM on December 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

You need to learn to ask for what you want in appropriate ways.

And to understand that your wife has her own needs and priorities. Your volunteer work may well pose some inconveniences in scheduling, and her getting bugged by that doesn't mean she doesn't support you.

Let me recommend the works of John Gottman and of Pepper Schwartz. Each are sociologists who have researched successful relationships.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:43 AM on December 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do you respect your wife?
posted by Katine at 10:45 AM on December 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't feel like there were any special considerations given to my lifestyle.

You're married with a small child. You don't have a lifestyle. You have a family, and the family has needs and expectations that supersede your own wishes and desires. Training for a marathon is something you do when you have free time and the family doesn't have any pressing needs. Same with community volunteering. Spare time, after family time.

Your depression should be handled by a medical professional, not your spouse. If you want back-rubs, cups of tea, hand-holding--you have to tell her what you would like. She can't guess. (She gave you a plant, which wasn't something you wanted, so she guessed wrong.)
posted by Ideefixe at 10:48 AM on December 13, 2012 [26 favorites]

I've been dealing with depression for the past few years and all that my wife has done was given me a plant

"All"? She's @#$* married to you...!

Part of healthy adults supporting each other involves the healthy adults taking care of themselves. You sound like an abyss of neediness and I would suspect that your wife feels that nothing that she pours into that abyss makes a difference, so: why bother? You can't reject support (eg, 'I would like to cross the finish line with you') and keep demanding it in vague terms and then expect somebody to keep flinging "support" at you in every possible fashion until they find out what sticks.

Don't score-keep, and go forward with asking what you can do for your wife instead of vice versa. One's own life is greatly improved by actively trying to better others', as you are presumably at least peripherally aware of from your volunteer work.
posted by kmennie at 10:49 AM on December 13, 2012 [15 favorites]

Although I don't recommend martyrdom for anyone, why not flip this on its head? Start by asking HER what YOU can do to support HER (and your child's) needs. Be ready to be selfless.

Like many things in life, it's amazing what can happen when you are the giver. Often by forgetting about your "needs" and focusing on your responsibilities and the happiness of others, you will find that your needs are met without being demanding, resentful, or keeping score.
posted by The Deej at 10:52 AM on December 13, 2012 [10 favorites]

Something that has helped me A LOT in my marriage is learning and striving to give, give more and be selfless. When I feel like I am not getting enough of something (love, understanding, kindness etc) from my husband, I work on giving that exact thing to my husband and somehow this benefits the whole dynamic. It is for sure not always easy, my ego takes over sometimes and I have to work at putting the needs of the family ahead of what I want but when I can really stop and try to put myself in his shoes and take actions based on giving what I want, my relationship always seems to improve.
posted by heatherly at 10:53 AM on December 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

We have different definitions of "support."

Speaking to your examples, I have little experience with depression, and can't give advice on the issue. #2 sounds like a logistical problem; if you phrased the issue to Wife in terms of support, you may get a different response. I'm slow to get out of bed in the morning, but if my wife made it clear that it was inconveniencing her in some way, or if she read it as a lack of support, I would act differently. #3 sounds like you want an attaboy for doing good things, which again, could be a lack of communication issue. Or it may just be that you have a difficult schedule.

Speaking more generally, support in our family looks like this: supporting, or at least tolerating, the things the other enjoys. She gets up early to work out -- she tries not to wake me, but I don't gripe if she does. She doesn't gripe when I leave to go kayaking for the weekend. I don't gripe if she comes along. It involves taking a real interest in what is important for your partner, or at least faking it for a while. We ask "how was your day," and we're interested in the answer. Often, it's just being available and offering things that may help -- if one has a lousy day, the other will offer dinner/drinks/backrubs/whatever. Or will stay out of the way if that's what bad-day-haver wants. A lot of this depends on communication. I've written about this before, but if the question "how are you doing" or "what's wrong" is asked, it gets an honest answer. Every time. A truthful answer is almost always helpful -- if it's "work is crappy and you can't help right now just leave me alone and let me finish this," it's a helpful answer. If it's "It makes me mad when you do X," then your partner, if they are supportive, will try not to do X any more. Because they care about you and don't want you to be unhappy. If, on the other hand, they do X more often out of spite, you are in a Bad Relationship, or at least one that needs a lot of fixing.

If you have the lines of communication open and actively communicate your wants and needs, being "supportive" often doesn't take much effort. It's something you end up doing naturally -- if you know that doing X instead of Y will make your partner happy, you'll probably do X, especially if it's no extra effort (e.g. putting dishes into the dishwasher the Right Way instead of the Wrong Way) or even if it's just some extra effort (using the water glass she likes, buying the expensive tea she likes, going to that Work Party). That's what support looks like in our relationship.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:02 AM on December 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think maybe you are forgetting that the two of you are on the same team? Why is this question a litany of complaints about how she's not supporting you enough, while there is not a word about what she needs and wants for support?

Luckily for you, I think she still thinks of you as part of her team (hence the ham-handed attempts at supporting your hobbies and dealing with your depression). Wipe the slate clean with her; you seem to take her inability/unwillingness to support you in exactly the manner you desire as acts of passive-aggression. Whether or not this is true, you need to forgive this before you can move forward.

Here is how I have figured out how to support someone. Note: there is no right way to support someone. There is only the way that makes them feel supported.

1) Pay attention. How do they support you? What makes them smile and feel like their burden is lighter? For instance, your wife wanted to run with you to the finish. Would she like it if you did something similar? Or is that something she assumed about you? Is that perhaps what you resent, that she doesn't know you well enough?
2) Ask many, many clarifying questions. Smile when you ask the questions--you'd be surprised what it does to your tone. "Would you like it if I did X? How about Y?" Let the other person speak fully, wait 30 seconds, then respond.
3) Try out things you think would work. If it doesn't work, find a way to laugh over it together.
4) Be patient and consistent when they are weirded out or even suspicious, as long as it is something that seems to work for them.

Here is how I have helped someone support me.

1) Talk in a positive way about what you're doing. Involve them by describing sights, sounds, and personalities. Talk about how you feel about recent events. When they offer advice or opinions, actively listen. Clear up their misconceptions, but don't jump on them for "not getting it". This gives them a much better idea of what would actually be supportive.
2) Be encouraging and verbally thankful when they do anything. If possible, reciprocate. Your wife gets up early to help you get out the door during training season? Take over kid care in the evenings so she can have some "me" time and get to bed early.
3) Gently explain why something won't work if they come up with a bad idea. Use the "shit sandwich" approach: praise, criticize, praise. So "Babe that's an awesome idea, but it won't work because X. I still think it's great you came up with it though. What if we did Y instead...?"

Good luck. And be excellent to each other. Forgive slights, praise effusively, and look for silver linings together.
posted by rhythm and booze at 11:32 AM on December 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

I suffer from depression and have since before I entered in to my relationship with my fiance. He and I have talked about it many times. About what I am feeling/thinking when I am having an especially bad day, about how he feels when I get that way (worried and powerless), and what he could do that would help me the most. We talked about this when I wasn't depressed, and that is key.

Just last week had a big emotional bottoming out due to some forgotten pills. How did that play out?
- I was very open about the fact that my mood dipped out hard. I never expect him to just "know". I said outright that I was having a very sad, low day and that I would do my best to not take it out on him. I said outright that my mood wasn't because of anything he did because I never want him to think my depression is something he causes. He always thanks me for letting him know.
- He asked me specifically what I needed from him and asked what he could do that would make me feel better. I did my best to tell him.
- He did what he could to give me what I needed but didn't let me be totally self destructive. I said that I really felt like eating my feelings (I have a history of binge eating), so he gave me two lindor chocolates as a treat but didn't encourage/enable me to go beyond that because he knew I would beat myself up for it later.
- He shelved any uncharacteristically unkind behaviour or jerkishness I gave and waiting until I levelled back out to mention those things so that I would be aware and would make ammends. (My being depressed doesn't and shouldn't give me a free pass to treat him poorly)
- He didn't take everything personally and he took everything with a grain of salt. When I had a proper sob over Christmas plans he knew it wasn't about him or frankly even Christmas. I was just having an emotion and that was a catalyst.

Supportive isn't mind reading. Supportive isn't having your every need pandered to. Supportive relationships stem from
- very open and clear communication of each person's feelings and priorities
- very open and clear communication of what each person feels they need
- negotiation of how to meet those needs. Sometimes they are easily given (a hug) but sometimes they aren't so cut and dry and need to be negotiated (He isn't going to start coming to the gym with me every day to support my efforts to get healthy, but he WILL encourage me to go and acknowledge my successes and cheer me on)
- frequent discussions on how each person is feeling within the relationship with an expectation that any negative feelings or dissatisfaction can be mentioned without the other person getting upset. (My fiance can tell me that I've been a bit light on the "I Love You"s lately and a little too frequent in the criticisms. I can hear that, acknowledge it, and then work to try to do better.)

In summary, quit expecting your wife to just know what you need and to do it. Instead talk to her and tell her directly what you would most appreciate her doing and what she could do that would make you feel the most supported. And then be prepared for a negotiation over what is and isn't possible/reasonable, as well as what YOU can do for HER.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:37 AM on December 13, 2012 [19 favorites]

The rules of communication state that you need to ask for what you need, specifically and concretely. The party of whom you are asking gets to make their own assessment of that request, but at least everyone is clear and that's about 65% of the battle even on a bad day.

I've been dealing with depression for the past few years and all that my wife has done was given me a plant because she read that plants may help depressed people.

That's a nice thing. Did you thank her?

When I slip into a depressive episode, she seems ambivalent and doesn't really know what to do.

Supporting people with depression is very hard. Have you given her concrete suggestions? Not "support me!" but "please check in with me about my meds and maybe you could also ____"

When I finally ran the race she wanted to run with me past the finish line but I let her know that I wanted to cross it myself since she didn't support me.

One, that was rude and two, that is not what "support" means. Did your wife go to the race? Cheer? Was she happy for you that you finished, and proud before you kicked her? That's support. If she's ever laundered your stinky socks, made sure there was breakfast in the fridge for you for post-run eating, saved hot water for you, budgeted for new running shoes, etc, that is all being supportive of your running.

Whenever I have meetings it seems to be viewed as an annoyance, especially since we've had a child. She doesn't particularly seem proud of my achievements nor does she make space for me to continue volunteering.

It is an annoyance because you're leaving her as the caretaker for a two year old during times you could be parenting together. Unless this is something you worked out and agreed to, that sucks. And now, apparently, she doesn't want to agree to it anymore.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:41 AM on December 13, 2012 [16 favorites]

In our happy marriage, I think we demonstrate two kinds of support that work pretty well for us.

The first is almost behind-the-scenes tangible deeds. When I'm busy and stressed, husband goes out of his way to do the dishes out of turn (although our turn system is somewhat informal) or, although I do 99 percent of the cooking, he will help think of things that can be quickly prepared when he knows I will be working late and get instructions from me on how to get the meal started.
Likewise from my end - apparently doing the dishes out of turn is a big thing for us, since we both hate it. Taking on an extra chore that's usually the other person's realm, or making a loving gesture - in winter, stick a pair of fresh socks under the covers with your still-sleeping spouse so they'll be warm for them.

The second kind is really just showing love and concern. When I was going through a bad time with depression, husband sat me down for a little talk about what I needed and whether I should talk to my doctor and let me know how it affected him too. Now he's not feeling well physically, and I make sure to ask him after work how he IS feeling, how his day went. I let him know that I wish he felt better. I massage his neck and shoulders every day. We like each other, and it's important to us that the other person knows they are liked and beloved.
posted by Occula at 12:07 PM on December 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm sorrry you are getting piled on, but I hope you are listening with an open mind.

You are coming at this all kinds of cock-eyed, which I suspect is why you're asking anyway. You can't really dictate how your partner supports you. If they don't do it quite right, it doesn't negate all the other stuff they do. You have to accept that they aren't mind readers, and if you don't ask for what you want in a really specific way, it's not their fault.

So yeah, give your wife a break and thnk of how to get you both on the same page.
posted by Blisterlips at 12:10 PM on December 13, 2012

Is it possible that your volunteering activities are putting a childcare burden on your wife that she feels is unfair and/or she thinks you should be spending that time with your child instead?
posted by Dansaman at 12:20 PM on December 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

How do you support her?

I'm also confused about the running thing. Just because she doesn't wake up at the same time you do does not mean she is not supportive.
Take me and Mr. Neekee. We're very supportive of each other. My husband runs marathons. I do not. How do I support him? Almost every morning I hear his alarm go off way before I need to wake up. I'm not a morning person, but I don't objected (except for the occasional groan when he forgets it on). We don't stay out late if he needs to run early in the morning. Come marathon day, I cheer him on and tell him how extremely proud I am of him. But I still get up when he does and I've never offered to run through the finish line* with him.
My point is: she was trying to support you and in a big deal sort of way, you just didn't recognize it as such. Instead you slapped her down in a hurtful way.

*big no-no in some races! Your time can be disqualified.

It's important not to let things fester. If something is bothering you, don't hang on to it until you feel like you have the moral ground to beat her down with it - like you did with the finish line thing. That was kinda mean, man. Just let her know, kindly, when something is mildly bothering you before it becomes something that is majorly bothering you.

Concerning your volunteering: try to volunteer in activities which include your kid. Yes, they exist.

Also: ever heard of love languages? You two should take those tests to see how you each prefer being loved (words of affirmation, acts of service, etc etc).
posted by Neekee at 12:40 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

It sounds like there's a lack of communication about what you need. I would start with:

"When you didn't wake up in time for my marathon I felt _____ . I would like _____ . I really want to feel close to you, but it's hard when I do not feel like X thing that is important to me is acknowledged." It's a normal sort of thing to be bothered about in a marriage. You just need to talk about it.

"When you rolled your eyes [etc.] when I said I need to go to my meeting, I felt _____ . It's something that's really important to me and I want my spouse to feel proud of my accomplishments. When you do X, I feel like you aren't proud of me."

If you have these unmet needs, it's likely that she is feeling it on her end too. Ask her open ended questions about what is going on in her life and listen non-defensively and validate. If that truly happens, she's likely to reciprocate in kind and be more willing to listen to what you need. But that requires 1. You establish that mutual trust. 2. You know what you need. 3. You know how to articulate what you need, and do it. If there's all that history, it really does get hairy. The way people approach these conversations and all the baggage they bring is so complex. I read Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage by John Gottman and for me it was really helpful in giving a roadmap to figure out how to have healthy, difficult conversations that I'd never before seen modeled in my family.

Lastly, I'd recommend practicing mindfulness so that you recognize how you are feeling and what you need, which is a pre-requirement to being able to articulate it. If your wife has BPD, I think mindfulness training is a big part of dialectical therapy, so maybe it could be a joint venture.
posted by mermily at 12:46 PM on December 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Are you doing anything to give her the impression that you like her?

I think that's why living together is supposed to be so nice -- we get to spend a lot of time around someone who, every day in some small way, communicates (through actions, words, kindnesses) that a) he really _gets_ us and recognizes us as an individual, and b) he really likes who we, specifically, are.

Believe me, I had no clue how to love someone or even be nice to someone when I was younger. The above is the product of much reading, psychology classes, reflection, and more.

Reading or skimming (obviously you have little free time if you have a small child) "The Five Love Languages" will probably help you a bit.

Yes, you may have to give more than you seem to get for a while -- you are supporting your child by supporting your wife, too, since happy, safe, contenced parents are better parents, and you want your child to have a happy, safe, content mother -- but perhaps the ultimate rewards will be worth it.

Once your child is older and you both have more time, you'll be able to contribute so much experience and warmth to the organizations that are important to you.
posted by amtho at 1:16 PM on December 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

There's lots of good advice here (and I second the suggestion of getting a book or two by John Gottman). But you asked "what do you do?" Mr. K and I have been together for 32 years. He has a tendency to severe depression. I have a tendency to spiral out of control, blowing a small thing into a crisis. We talk, of course we talk. Sometimes. And sometimes we're kind and sympathetic and as supportive as we can be. And sometimes -- and here's the important part for us, which no one else has mentioned, and quite possibly is entirely unique to us -- sometimes we just go off the deep end. I get angry and stomp around and say terrible things about living with a frigging depressive, and he (since he's depressive) gets very cold and stomps out and slams the door, which makes me angry and I follow and yell. And then he cries, or I cry, or we both cry. And then we're not stuck in the deadend any more.

It works because we both know for sure, even when the other one is driving us completely around the bend and we're feeling very very sorry for ourselves, we know for sure we'd rather live with each other than without each other. So sometimes we're all rational, and sometimes we're all sweet, and sometimes we're all bonkers, and occasionally one of us will say "It's obvious that this marriage is just a sham! 32 years of sham!" and then we'll both crack up laughing.

I hope for your kid's sake that you can figure out something that works for you.
posted by kestralwing at 1:48 PM on December 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

My husband and I also have an almost-two-year-old child.

Maybe I am wimpier than other parents, but the most important support my husband can give me is helping me meet my basic requirements: eating and sleeping. I would be super upset if non-essentials (like running in marathons or volunteering) interfered with my sleeping in any way.

My husband is not depressed, but I have close family members who are. It is really difficult for the bystander. There is definitely a feeling of helplessness. Maybe you could support your wife by helping her help you. Accept her attempts, even if you feel they are half-hearted. That will encourage more attempts.
posted by pizzazz at 1:48 PM on December 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

I ask for support but in the most vague terms, and get angry when I don't get it. I've realized that I get angry probably because I have no idea what support looks like in a healthy relationship, nor do I even know what to ask for.

People are coming down on you for how you've handled the example situations, but I think this part is the actual question you want the answer to. Before you can ask for the support you want, you have to figure out what that support is, and that's where you're stuck.

Do some brainstorming and make a mental list of what "support" might feel like to you. Here's the trick: when doing this, do not use the word "support." Not even once. It's too vague, and that's tripping you up. Instead, identify some more specific feelings, and from there think of things that inspire those feelings.

I feel nurtured when...
I feel understood when...
I feel desired when...
I feel respected when...
I feel like we are working together when...
I feel confident in our relationship when...

Come up with your own variations, but stick to positive things. Do these give you a little more direction than "support"? The things that complete the above sentences are things to consider asking for. "I'd love it if you [give me extra hugs when I'm depressed]. It makes me feel [comforted]." Swap in whatever actions/feelings apply to you.

Keep in mind that your wife has her own list, and that neither of you will be able to satisfy everything on each other's list all the time, and that there will be times when one or both of you has to compromise. Example: you feel [respected, admired, interesting] when she [expresses enthusiasm for your volunteer work], but she feels [safe, prioritized, helped, like part of a team] when you [stay home and do housework/care for the child instead of going to volunteer opportunities].

Don't keep score, and focus on expressing appreciation for the things she does do rather than resentment for the things she doesn't.

And both of you should get professional help for your respective mental health concerns, because even a perfect relationship is no substitute for professional care. The better each of you takes care of your own health, the better you can look after the relationship's health.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:22 PM on December 13, 2012 [10 favorites]

If you're looking for examples, An Adult Child's Guide to What's 'Normal' is a really helpful book for those who were raised in dysfunctional families.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 2:41 PM on December 13, 2012

A couple of other people have said this but I feel it's worth reiterating. When I feel that I am not getting enough support from my husband, that is usually a good time for me to re-evaluate my own attitude and come up with some ways that I can be more supportive of him and our family.

The 'running across the finish line' thing sounds breathtakingly cruel.
posted by bq at 4:02 PM on December 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Get to know YOURSELF so that you can communicate to her exactly what you wish for. Then realize it may still be difficult for her to accommodate you, so if she does, thank her profusely. Try to reciprocate.

For instance, I know that if I'm in a pissy mood, the best thing my husband can do is NOT snap back at me. If he just asks me, "What wrong, babe?" in a caring tone, it does SO much to calm me down and help me snap out of it. But we had to negotiate for me to get that response from him by talking about the issue calmly. And I had to know MYSELF well enough to know what would help. And I had to ASK for his help. And I have to UNDERSTAND if he snaps back, because it's his natural inclination and what I would probably do, too.

This shit is hard. But you can do it!
posted by wwartorff at 4:08 PM on December 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Addressing the depression bit only, as I can't say I'm over-qualified to comment on the rest: I wish my ex had sat me down and told me in concrete terms how to help him when he was depressed, as I (like most humans on the planet) had no clue how this was supposed to be done.

Depression appears to be quite personal, and not everyone wants to be treated the same way when they're in the doldrums—and it made me extremely sad when he'd get mad at me for doing what I thought was the "right" thing to help him. So if at all possible, tell her what you want, and what makes you feel better. Give her something to grasp onto.

And yes, I echo the chorus of "What can you do to make your wife feel more supported?" These things are often reciprocal. You may see better results if you start figuring out ways you can hold up your end of the bargain, better.
posted by cheberet at 6:38 PM on December 13, 2012

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