Living with a partner who has depression.
December 11, 2015 11:25 PM   Subscribe

We're in this cycle, where the worse he feels, the worse he acts toward me, the worse I feel, the more I need kindness, the less he is able to provide it, the angrier I get, the worse he feels, repeat ad nauseum.

I am married to someone who did not have a good childhood, does not have the toolbox I have to deal with things, is a misanthrope, has a job he hates and not much hope of finding a better one, and is just generally miserable. I am a person who is generally happy, likes their job, and is feeling very dragged down by his misery.

I've spent many years dealing with it the best I could, but as I get older (I'm 41) and as we have a kid who is learning how to be a human by watching us, I can't tolerate it the way I used to. I'm learning to ask for what I need. But on the days when he is so miserable he can barely talk or be civil, and I ask for simple words of love/kindness, what I get instead is anger, defensiveness, and it all gets turned around on me, that I make it all about me, I am never nice (this is not true), that I do not understand him, etc.

I tell him my feelings, of being sad, hurt, etc. and ask him for his feelings, and I get things like "I feel that you should stop asking questions all the time" or some such -- I don't think he really knows how to even identify, much less talk about, his feelings.

I tell him that I think he needs, if not medication (he has tried a couple things in the past, it did not work / he was not able to follow through with refills and doctor visits and insists medication will not help) then at least talk therapy, and he refuses to consider it.

To be clear, this is not constant -- there are days when he is a relatively normal, civil person, a loving and involved father, etc. But the days when he disappears into the basement and has almost no interaction with us aside from sitting at the dinner table with us, it's hard. He says, when pressed, that he needs alone time -- that's fine, and I respect that, but there is absolutely no communication with me that that is what he needs -- he just disappears/doesn't talk. And it sucks, because I have needs too, and they're not getting met, and I'm tired of not having my own needs met.

We have a couples therapist that we see occasionally, and I am making an appointment, but if you could tell me your tips for coping that would be great.

(I don't know that I am in DTMFA territory -- yet -- because on balance I think we would all be worse off if we split up. So please don't go there, or if you do, please make a strong case.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
When he's feeling relatively well, is he still down on therapy? Would starting meditation during a more up period be an option?

Are you in therapy? Even though you're not the one with depression, it affects you profoundly and you deserve some support and toolkits building.
posted by hollyholly at 11:45 PM on December 11, 2015

I'm sorry. It sucks when your needs aren't being met. He probably does need therapy, or medication, or both. But you know he needs to want those things for himself, or none of it is going to stick. Right now your only real option is to accept him where he is, especially if you want to stay together long term. You can't change him, but you can change how you feel and act. If you know when he disappears that it means he doesn't want to talk, just leave him alone. If you know that asking for loving words is going to lead to a fight, don't ask. It's hard, I know. But maybe give it a try and see if it eases the tension between you a bit.

Getting your needs met is important. So are there other people in your life that could fill those needs for you? If what you need is kindness, maybe that could come from someone other than your partner for a while -- a family member or a friend. It sounds like when you try to get that need filled by him it's leading to a lot of friction, so if you can accept that loving kindness from somewhere else you might be able to give both of you the space you need to start healing.

Hopefully your couples therapist can help him start to work through this and things will start to shift. Be positive, stay strong, and don't push. When he is ready to work on himself, he will.

You may also want to start practicing non-violent communication (aka compassionate communication). It won't fix everything, but it's a great tool for situations like this, and maybe he'l catch on and get interested as well. Good luck.
posted by ananci at 11:48 PM on December 11, 2015

Previously (especially see this comment by RogueTech).
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:11 AM on December 12, 2015 [8 favorites]

Wow, you could be my wife. Except you're not because I am getting counseling and taking meds and exercising and actively managing my depression. It's one thing to be patient and supportive of a partner who is suffering from a disease, but it's another thing entirely when he's not doing anything to help himself and taking it out on you. There are many different effective ways to approach depression therapeutically that get around potential biases about pharmacotherapy or counseling but moping and isolating is not one of them. It's not fair to expect someone who is profoundly depressed to be able to squash their feelings and not be irritable, but it is absolutely reasonable to expect your husband to recognize (without shaming him or blaming him) that his mood and actions have an effect on others in the household and to demand, with your support, that he get some kind of help that is acceptable to him. His refusal to seek help is what worries me and makes you seem like an enabler.

There's some low hanging fruit that offers big gains in depression and maybe you could start there. Can he take some time off work (pretend to be ill? A sympathetic doctor can write a note that Mr Anonymous is under my care for a medical illness and may not return to work for x days)? Is he drinking and can he stop? Exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in the short term and actually works faster than meds. Could he do a yoga or meditation retreat to help deal with anxiety symptoms? Once he's feeling a little better, will he soften on other treatments like counseling?

This doesn't primarily seem like a couples counseling issue and this could be unproductive and distracting from the treatment he really needs.

I'm sorry you are going through this. I think giving him a bit of space when he needs it and being careful about what kind of burdens he can take on when he's emotionally impaired, and modeling healthy respectful behavior are very kind and supportive things but they are temporary ways to deal with this problem and ultimately useless if he's not moving toward treatment.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:03 AM on December 12, 2015 [26 favorites]

I'm the opposite (I had the shitty upbringing) but the same of this (we have a young child and my husband is sometimes as childish...) I find staying super calm and not triggered helps my spouse come back down to Earth. This does not help overall, though...

I guess it is determined by your options and how long "marriage" means to you. Can you stick around along enough for him to "grow up," or do you need better NOW.

Without a great reason to "get it" your spouse will continue dragging you down, collectively. He has no reason to change, even though his own displeasure should be reason enough, right??

You can't self-start another human.

I think you start taking steps to protect yourself and your child. Act like a change is coming. If things shift - great.

What else can you do?
posted by jbenben at 1:19 AM on December 12, 2015 [7 favorites]

Depression is insidious. When I have periods of time where I'm behaving how you describe your husband, maybe the worst part is that my mind is constantly thinking of reasons why nothing I think might help when I'm in a better state of mind will actually change anything, that every action I take is futile, that simple niceties towards those I love or even myself are a waste of... something. I truly can't see outside of my own numbing despair. When I am on an uptick, I am pretty intensely empathetic, so losing that ability to imagine how others are feeling makes it even worse and more isolating. I had a very good childhood and enjoy a great relationship with my family as an adult.

This is all to say that what your husband is dealing with might be contributed to by his upbringing but maybe not as much as you think. It might help you to approach it as your spouse having a chronic, but very treatable, illness. Because he does.

There are different kinds of therapy and some people respond to one type better than others. I think that since you are open to mental health assistance you should make it a priority to find a therapist for yourself, and not just couples counseling. You deserve support and you can get it for yourself. I think you might respond well to CBT because of how you wrote your question. Your husband might feel more comfortable doing one on one therapy sessions if you are too, or he might see you getting a lot out of it and think it's worth a try again.

Some stuff you are going to have to stop expecting him to do, but you can tell him that you had expectations and now they are changing. Like when he just disappears to have alone time and you are upset that he couldn't tell you, I have to say that when it hits, it hits, and admitting to my loved ones that I feel nothingness is just going to make it worse - or at least that is what the depression tells me.

Think about what your needs are that he is not meeting. Spend some time figuring out other ways to get those needs met on your own, but he might also be more able to do things for you in ways different than you might expect. For example, he might be unable to verbally tell you he loves you and listen to how your day went and all that, but he might be able to touch you more in ways you both like, or do tedious tasks that you have never thought to ask him to do. One thing that helps bolster stability when dealing with depression is structure, so maybe working with him to establish a stronger structure will help the both of you. This is also a good thing to model for kids.

Depression runs in my family (and other things, wheeee!) and I learned basically nothing about how to live with it well. It might be that framing it as a vitally important thing to get a handle on for the sake of showing your kids healthy ways of coping could be what gets him to follow through on treatment. You might also adjust your own priorities to focus on helping him do that follow through stuff, like renewing prescriptions or getting to therapy appointments. It sounds like that might be worth it and he might be more able to get over his hurdles if he knows he has you as backup.
posted by Mizu at 5:15 AM on December 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Your situation sounds more intense and an important part of your answer is going to involve accessing more/better mental health support, but an agreement we came to is that while it is ok to feel depressed, it isn't ok to act on it in certain ways. That means no self-harm, isolation, unpleasantness, or things like that, while also honoring and respecting (rather than denying or repressing) the feelings of unhappiness.

That maybe sounds too simplistic, but it was really helpful to make the separation between how someone feels and how they act in how we negotiated our relationship and established boundaries.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:22 AM on December 12, 2015 [8 favorites]

Husbunny suffers from Depression, he hated his job, etc. When you're depressed you don't see options, and it lies to you and tells you that treatment doesn't work.

Here's the thing, depression is a tricky bastard. Prozac may not work, but Effexor will. Sometimes you need a sleep study because Apnea has been keeping you from getting proper sleep. If you hate your job, you might have to quit and go back to school to get a completely different job.

When we were first married Husbunny was on Welbutrin, working as a nurse and living in New York. His Apnea was horrible.

Shortly after we married, we decided to have him stop being a nurse (a profession he HATED because of the stress) so we moved to Atlanta so he could return to school for Actuarial Science. Then we got him into a sleep study where he was diagnosed and prescribed a CPAP machine. After experimenting around our doctor got him on an antidepressant that works for him. It took a couple of years all told, but Husbunny is now a very happy person, with a job he likes, who manages this chronic disease quite well. He has episodes but they are few and far between and of short duration.

You don't have to put up with this. Your husband is NOT the best judge of his illness, and he shouldn't be directing his treatment until he's stabilized.

If he's not in a depression now, it's time to broach the topic of a multi-pronged approach to treating his depression. If he snores, get him into a sleep study, get him trying new drug therapies and talk-therapy, do NOT accept his contention that it won't work. Just as you would not allow your husband to ignore his physical health by refusing insulin if he were a diabetic, accepting his contention that he knows best about depression, when it's not managed and it's negatively affecting your life is just as foolish.

Perhaps your couples counselor can guide you both through this process.

If your husband is a willing soul, if he trusts you to help him make this journey, wonderful things await. If he digs in his heels and refuses to may be time to move on. It's not okay to ignore your health, especially when other people have to put up with your bullshit.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:30 AM on December 12, 2015 [19 favorites]

For Him:

Buy a small calendar that you can keep hidden away from him. On his very dark days, make a small mark. This will help you see how often it is happening. If it is, on average, once a month, then you could probably deal with that. If it is, on average once a week or more, then, after several months of you tracking it, you will need to address it in therapy, while he is doing well, in a loving and supportive manner: Dear, I was feeling down because it felt like you weren't there for me. I didn't want to feel selfish so I started keeping track of how often you are there for me, so that I could remember how much you love me. In the process of this, I noticed that you are spending more and more time withdrawn in the basement and I am very concerned for you. I would like it if you would allow me to support you while you get treatment for this, if not for you, and not for me, for our son. We both love you so much.

For You:

You can't have all of your needs met by one person. It is too much pressure on them. And to top it off, he can't meet his own needs, so he doesn't have room most days for yours. Accept that. Yes, it sucks. That's why women have wine clubs and book clubs. You can handle this. Sometimes a change in perspective is much better than a change in circumstances.
posted by myselfasme at 5:54 AM on December 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

We're in this cycle, where the worse he feels, the worse he acts toward me, the worse I feel, the more I need kindness, the less he is able to provide it, the angrier I get, the worse he feels, repeat ad nauseum.

There are things your husband can and should do, as a responsible parent and partner, to manage and mitigate his depression.

I'm making that point right up front because it's going to be easy to misconstrue what I have to say next as "taking sides". But this is not about taking sides. It's not about who is right and who is wrong and whose fault any of this is. This is about effectiveness, and resilience, and modelling effectiveness and resilience for your child. Some of it is based on personal experience about how depression works from an inside perspective. Some of it is based on observations of other people.

The central principle is that if two people are in a cycle, and one of them thinks that the cycle is mainly because of things the other person is doing or needs to do, and therefore makes no changes to what they themselves are doing, then the cycle will persist.

So I'm not saying that here are a bunch of things you should do. I'm saying that there are things you can do, and if you do them, the cycle you're currently in will change. Ultimately, you are not stuck with what you have right now and there are things you can alter on your own side of the cycle in order to unwind it.

I'm learning to ask for what I need. But on the days when he is so miserable he can barely talk or be civil, and I ask for simple words of love/kindness, what I get instead is anger, defensiveness, and it all gets turned around on me...

My best advice here is to learn to pick your times, and not to ask for those things on those particular days. As a person with completely legitimate needs of your own, this will of course be outrageously difficult. But I honestly think it's still a reasonable thing to try, and here's why:

Depression causes almost intolerable amounts of internal suffering. The suffering isn't rational: it's not about anything. But it renders the sufferer very nearly completely incapable of dealing with anything except simply trying to keep breathing long enough to survive it.

What it doesn't do is remove awareness of all those things that the depressed person ought to be able to do - dress, bathe, be civil to other people. The depressed person feels keenly aware of being unable to do even these most basic things, and this awareness fuels a particularly noxious kind of helpless self-directed fury that intensifies and perpetuates the depression. Put a brain in that kind of state in charge of a mouth, and not much that comes out of that mouth is going to be pleasant.

When somebody experiencing severe depression retreats from the presence of other people, they're doing that for two reasons. First, other people are simply too hard to deal with. Second, and more important, the depressed person knows full well that anything they say to somebody else while in that state has a high chance of being hurtful, and if the somebody else is somebody they care about, that risk is unacceptable.

If somebody is experiencing a depressive episode and you deliberately try to engage them in conversation, perhaps in an attempt to get to the bottom of what's bothering them and help them try to fix it, you're going to make them feel worse, not better, and you're going to drive them deeper into the pit and make it take longer for them to come out of it.

You cannot fix your partner's depression. Only your partner can do that. But you have any number of means at your disposal to intensify and lengthen his depressive episodes, and one of those is to draw his attention to ways in which he is, right then and there, failing to meet your own completely legitimate and reasonable needs and those of your child.

Depression is, on one level, incredibly selfish. The suffering it causes is so intense that it makes sufferers genuinely incapable of attending to anything but their own suffering; if you're looking for words of love and kindness from a person in the grip of a depressive episode, you're looking in the wrong place. When the person concerned is your partner - the one person in the world you've come to rely on for that kind of love and kindness - then "this sucks" doesn't even begin to cover how bad this sucks.

I tell him my feelings, of being sad, hurt, etc. and ask him for his feelings, and I get things like "I feel that you should stop asking questions all the time" or some such -- I don't think he really knows how to even identify, much less talk about, his feelings.

I'd bet money that in the grip of a depressive episode he knows exactly how to identify his feelings, that his feelings consist mainly of "get the fuck away from me and leave me the fuck alone" with respect to everything and everybody in the world, not you in particular; and that he also knows that allowing himself to express that particular feeling honestly, in its full intensity, to somebody he loves, would cause more problems than it solves. A good deal of what will be in his head involves trying to keep all that shit inside so it won't end up needing to be cleaned off carpet, furniture and ceilings.

The time to talk with him about this (which is something you absolutely should do, preferably with some professional help) is on one of those "days when he is a relatively normal, civil person, a loving and involved father, etc."

He says, when pressed, that he needs alone time -- that's fine, and I respect that, but there is absolutely no communication with me that that is what he needs -- he just disappears/doesn't talk.

Not all communication is verbal. When he disappears and doesn't talk, he is telling you he needs alone time, right then, right there.

If you're moved to, and if you think it might help, one thing that's worth trying is to pick your moment and just hold him, without saying a single thing. Be prepared for that not to work. It will be stupid hard not to take it personally if it doesn't; you'd need to remind yourself over and over that it's not you he's rejecting, it's everything.

And it sucks

Yes it does.

because I have needs too

Yes you do.

and they're not getting met

No they're not.

and I'm tired of not having my own needs met.

And that's completely reasonable.

You have a partner who is frequently incapable of meeting your needs. Put the specific reason for that aside for the time being; it doesn't change your options, which as I see them are these:

1. Find a different partner.

2. Find other ways of having your needs met, while keeping the partner you have.

3. Examine and understand your needs, perhaps with a view to re-prioritizing them, modifying the way you think about them or even going so far as to discard a few.

on balance I think we would all be worse off if we split up.

So that's (1) ruled out; some combination of (2) and (3) is called for.

Persuading your partner, when he is well, to work on staying well would definitely count as (2). If he shows no inclination to do that, then (1) might be back on the table at some stage.

Depending on the specific needs, a good relationship with a decent therapist would also count as (2).

(3) is something you can work on yourself, starting today, with no input from your partner or your therapist or from anybody else.

Good starting places that I have personally found useful when applying (3) to my own life include

3a. Tease apart the distinctions between things that I cannot be happy without and things that I believe it is only fair that I get. These really are two different sets of things, though seeing the truth of that does involve giving up a belief that the world is fundamentally just.

3b. If my needs involve reassurance from other people that my own life is worthwhile in its own right, find out why I need that; there's a fair chance that I might be able to reduce that need from a must-have to a nice-to-have.

Sorry, all that got longer and ramblier than I'd thought it would when I started. Still, I hope there's something there that's of use to you.
posted by flabdablet at 7:16 AM on December 12, 2015 [14 favorites]

Since depression does have some genetic component, it might be worth considering that your child might struggle with this some day. I wonder if during an "up" time your husband would find that motivating enough to undertake more active management, to model better self-care.

(I almost hate to suggest this because "What about asking him to get treatment in THIS way?" reinforces codependence-creating societal messages that "if only you say / do the right thing... if only you ask perfectly, he'll be able to hear you non-defensively" when in reality, that's not true. So please take this with a huge caveat that ultimately only he can fix this.)

I do think couples therapy could be a great strategy. Since he's already open to that, it's a place to start. Do you think your current counselor is good? If the couples counseling doesn't seem to help at all, you might consider whether a better counselor is needed. Couples counseling is good because you can focus on the interpersonal aspects, how the depression is impacting you and the relationship. It could lead to him realizing he needs to take more action to manage it himself, or it could lead to joint strategies for minimizing its impact on you and the family.

I'm sorry you're experiencing this. I hope some of the advice in this thread helps in some way.
posted by salvia at 7:18 AM on December 12, 2015

Hi, I once was your husband.

He CAN'T meet your needs when he is ill. And those things he is saying to you, that's the depression talking.

But he CAN take steps to get better, and that is a choice.

Can you work with your couples counselor and basically let him know treatment is not optional?

Meanwhile, you need friends and/or family to lean on. Clergy too, if you roll that way.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:08 AM on December 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

I imagine he gets quite a bit of attention out of doing the whole basement-withdrawal thing, feels very sorry for himself, and gets to pick a fight with you. That is rewarding for him because he can shift his shitty feelings about himself and his life onto you

My father did exactly this with our entire family. It's really weird when your adult parent throws tantrums for attention. Your kid is noticing this. My brother is now an adult man who throws similar tantrums for attention. Also the refusal to get treatment will make this feel like it is going on for eternity for your kid. Like really eternity, not "maybe it'll get better in a few years."

Definitely start with therapy for yourself, but I have a feeling that the therapist will start encouraging you to make uncomfortable changes, and you should be ready for that.
posted by sweetkid at 8:48 AM on December 12, 2015 [7 favorites]

Please don't view depression -- a serious illness -- and it's assumptions as "throwing tantrums for attention." Please.

(Lots of the comments here have been great at describing depression.)
posted by mkuhnell at 9:54 AM on December 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think there have been a lot of wise and compassionate and well meaning comments in this thread. That said, I have also been a person so at the end of her rope that I aninymously asked strangers to help me cope with my fucked up marriage because I was completely drowning and my husband absolutely, categorically refused to engage. It took several more years to completely grind to a halt and we are now divorcing.

From where I sit now, looking back on my situation, thinking about how your situation resonates with mine, I encourage you to consider that you're at the bargaining stage of those classic stages of grief. I'll bet if you think about it you can identify the denial stage (that sense of "I can't believe he's acting like that", or just confusion about what is going on with him). From what you wrote it sounds like you're well acquainted with anger.

You wrote very little about this man being diagnosed with depression or under medical care, and a lot about his poor treatment of you. I read this as you wishing that there were some explanation, some cure, some magic bullet that will bring him back to... Whatever you wished he were. Whoever he was when you fell in love.

I wish it were that simple. A lot of the time, a lot, a LOT, it's just not.

I can feel that you have love and compassion for him. You can see the ways he's damaged and your instincts are good about how he could heal. However part of his damage means that he blames you instead of looking at himself and being accountable. He won't get it until he's ready. He may never be ready. You cannot nice him into changing.

The last two steps are sadness and acceptance. Just sayin.

If you haven't ever read "Why does he do that?" By Lundy Bancroft, I think you will find it enlightening and helpful. Even if the man has never laid a hand on you. Personally I also found Steven Stosny's writings (Love without Hurt; Living and Loving after Betrayal) to be enormously helpful in healing from a realtionship like this.

Good luck. MeMail me if you need a compassionate ear.
posted by Sublimity at 11:41 AM on December 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Is there somebody else who he would listen to, who could encourage him to seek treatment? Your couples therapist would be an obvious person, but I'm assuming this has come up before to no effect, so maybe a family member or close friend?

Meanwhile, I hope you can find a way to get some of your needs met elsewhere, although that's not a solution to your problem. Maybe individual therapy for you would help?

Also, I'm wondering if you have said, in a very straightforward way, when he is not having a depressive episode, that you need things to change.
posted by chickenmagazine at 2:09 PM on December 12, 2015

1. If your feeling is, "I have weighed the options and on balance it is better not to break up," rather than, "We're in this together," that bodes ill. Not relationship-ending ill, necessarily, but it's a warning that you don't have a lot of shared energy in reserve.

2. You can't force your spouse to take medication or go to therapy, but you can tell your spouse that the status quo is not OK. Since your spouse is depressed, this is very likely not at all obvious to him: part of depression is getting used to things being terrible.
posted by yarntheory at 6:26 PM on December 12, 2015

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