How can I make a marriage work when depression is involved?
October 9, 2006 2:22 PM   Subscribe

I am thinking about asking my girlfriend to marry me. Things are great in our relationship, with one big exception: she suffers from depression, with serious depressed periods several times a year. I feel very shut-out during these times. And it's hard to not be influenced by her mood. I am looking for advice from married individuals who have depression or those who are married to someone with depression about what it takes to make a marriage like this work.

Background: We're both in our early 30s, together about 2 years. She has had periods of depression since her early 20s. Many times, she's fine: warm and loving and interesting and fun (although always somewhat anxious). And then the depression-times come, and she is withdrawn, angry, tired, full of despair, etc.

I don't know tons about depression, but have been learning, and have learned enough to know that this is likely to always be part of her life in some way. I try to take care of her during these times, and sometimes I can, in small ways, but often she pushes me away and seems to have little interest in me (or anything else). When the depression has passed, things are back to normal, and normal is good. But it's very hard to not feel rejected when she’s depressed, and even when I don’t take it personally, it’s hard to not be able to enjoy life with someone you love for stretches at a time.

I am really torn. I do love her and I feel selfish even wondering about this (after all, she doesn't ask to be depressed). I want this to work. But at the same time, I'm thinking about a life-long decision, and I know that we've already experienced difficulties in our relationship around this issue. We have gotten better about talking about it all, but nothing we talk about when she's not depressed seems to affect what happens when she is depressed. And she says there’s nothing that can be done to stop these depressed periods (she does take medication).

I think it would help me sort this out to hear from people who have been in a similar situation (as the depressed person or married partner) – what have you done to help make a marriage work in these circumstances?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
it's been my experience that periods of depression can make any relationship difficult ... after a few years, this problem could start affecting the times when she's not depressed, because of the distance you feel ... and possibly anger and resentment, too ... you may well start feeling that the whole tone and attitude of your relationship is up to her and that's not going to make you very happy

she'll have to try harder and you'll have to be more accepting and those are two difficult things to do

i really think you should hold off another year before making up your mind on marriage
posted by pyramid termite at 2:36 PM on October 9, 2006

I wonder how long these periods last- a few weeks? a few months? And I wonder what all they entail outside your relationship- can she go about her daily functions? (work, school, or whatever) Does she shut out everyone, or just you? Is she currently attending talk therapy? Does she have a long standing relationship with her doctors? I feel that those last two points are really important. I'm a child of depression, and I've watched both parents go through tough times, but overall they're pretty stable, in large part thanks to great doctors.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:47 PM on October 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

While communication is great depression usually puts the person so out of whack that their normal thoughts and conclusions about themselves are completely irrelevent--this is a situation where actions speak much louder than words. The best thing I can think of is exercise; it helps a lot of depressive people, but is basically impossible to continue to do on your own when you're down. Eating well makes a big difference for some people too. I'm sure that counselors will be able to help you along with more subtle things that you could say or prompt, too.
posted by shownomercy at 2:59 PM on October 9, 2006

So I asked my husband for his point of view, because I'm the one who gets depression and he's the one who's been married to me for 15 years. At first, he thought I was asking for a solution for OP and his partner, and couldn't answer as each episode of depression, as he says, is different.

But when I reframed it and said, "Should or should not OP marry his girlfriend?" my husband said,
Why not? If he loves her unconditionally, depression is part of who she is. Other people in their marriages have to deal with other things. There will always be something that is particularly difficult, that's part of the ups and downs of life.

So what have we done to make this work? (Husband is busy occupied so it'll be just me). I try to exercise regularly and take responsibility for maintaining a good mental chemistry. I can tell when things aren't going too well, because I get incredibly sentimental and/or extremely happy. This is when I need to exercise more.

We both have learned that depression is
a. not my fault
b. not his fault
c. not related to anything that's happening in the real world
d. often not solvable (as in nothing he does can fix the way I'm feeling when I feel that way.)

We also maintain a philosophy of life about what is important, so when it became clear that my job was contributing to my low moods, and my study helping me to feel great, we worked out a way for me to quit work and study full time. (It's okay, the same has applied for him in the past - it's not a one way street. Depression doesn't give me a free pass to all my desires.)

So, would I marry someone with depression? I don't think I could handle it. I'm not as tolerant or as easygoing as my partner.

rereading your post: my husband used to ask, both during an episode and after, what can I do to make it better? I came up with heaps of (ineffective) things -the answer, of course, is nothing. It took us a long time to accept that. I think time and the experience that I always eventually bounce back has made it possible for him to let go of the need to fix that particular problem.
posted by b33j at 3:18 PM on October 9, 2006 [5 favorites]

I don't know tons about depression, but have been learning, and have learned enough to know that this is likely to always be part of her life in some way.

Yes, but it's best if that way is "it used to be a major factor in my life but I worked my ass off in therapy and/or started taking the right drugs, and it's now under control."

I married a depressed woman and I can tell you that yes, in the long run it is going to be a problem. Particularly if she believes that she has done all that she can do about it, and that you'll just have to live with the situation.

Also, get over the idea that you're being inordinately selfish in trying to decide if you want to invite a person who is withdrawn, angry, tired, full of despair, etc. on a regular basis to be your closest emotional contact. It doesn't really matter *why* she's like that, the effect on you will be both real and cumulative.

That said, the situation really does suck. I'm sorry that you've found yourself there.
posted by tkolar at 3:24 PM on October 9, 2006

I think, in my situation at least, it helps if you know your partner (the one who gets depressed) is activly doing something to try and make the situation better, sometimes what they do/try will have absolutly no efffect of the depressed periods, but just the act of trying indicates an ongoing commitment. Life is one big stuggle, we can not solve all of problems, but that does not mean we should not try to. If you have a commitment from her that she is willing to "fight the good fight" then by all means get married. It will be hard at times, there is no doubt about that. You may also need to externalize some of it, and have a good support system for yourself.
posted by edgeways at 3:29 PM on October 9, 2006

In my opinion you shouldn't ask her to marry you now, not because she suffers from depression, but because you are not convinced yourself.

Yeah, ok, obviously the reason you're not convinced is that she suffers from depression, but it could be any other reason, and I'd still say the same.

A commitment like marriage is always a big leap, but I do think you should wait until you are reasonably surer you want to spend your life with her. Better still, don't just wait to pop the question yourself out of nowhere, wait and then slowly start bringing up the topic of your plans for a future together and discuss it, together.

It may be less romantic this way but if you just come up with a 'let's get married' out of the blue, without being sure yourself, then you're handing her the hot potato and, depression aside, she might not be able to handle it, so to speak.

What would you answer if it was her asking you right now? Would you want to take more time to think about it? Then do.

And don't be ashamed to think 'selfishly' it's great that you love her as she is and have stood by her through bad times and want to keep doing so, but you have to pur your own happiness first anyway. If you don't, it's not going to help her either. Some effort and sacrifice is required in every relationship but it must be the kind one does willingly and freely and rewardingly, not the kind that leaves you feeling like you're pulling all the weight.

It's not really selfishness you're talking about there, it's awareness and a sense of responsibility.

Uncertainty when facing such a big step is good, it means you're thinking things through. Think them through some more, possibly together.
posted by pleeker at 3:34 PM on October 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

Before you propose, I recommend this book: What to Do When Someone You Love is Depressed: A Practical, Compassionate, and Helpful Guide for Caregivers. How I wish my ex-partner had had it as a resource.
posted by Carol Anne at 3:35 PM on October 9, 2006

Oh, on a practical note: biological depressions often have a rhythm to them. For your own sanity you might want to start keeping track of her ups and downs -- if you're lucky it will give you a rough idea of whether to expect a well-adjusted wife or an angry nihilist when you get home in the evening.
posted by tkolar at 3:36 PM on October 9, 2006

It's complicated. b33j's post is astute.

If the question is if I really knew what I was getting into and could go back and do it all over, would I marry the depressed person I married again?, then the answer is yes, I would. Be sure you're in love, decide to do it, then do it. A commitment to taking care of each other is part and parcel of marriage.
It's important to remember that marriage is not easy for anyone. Depression will be just one of many complications; it might not even be the biggest.
posted by willpie at 4:07 PM on October 9, 2006

Also: To a certain extent, belief that there is nothing that can be done about the depression is a symptom of the depression (meditate on just how insidious that is for a while), and to a certain extent, it's just the truth. I reckon that particular equation balances differently for just about everyone.
posted by willpie at 4:09 PM on October 9, 2006

I've been married for five years to a woman who has bipolar disorder (type II). Minor manic phases, with occasional prolonged depressed periods. We are stable and doing well, and enjoying our three-month old daughter. I'd say that a diagnosis of depression shouldn't necessarily be a deal-breaker. But here's why things are working for us:

1) We agreed that excellent pyschiatric care was mandantory for us. We lived in fairly small towns for a couple of years, and that meant a monthly trip of two or three hours one-way to a larger city. But it was worth it. (Now, thankfully, we have a great pyschiatrist just minutes away.)

2) She never skips her meds. (Lamictal has been a godsend.)

3) We are both well aware of her triggers, so when it's been overcast for more than two days, or there's been some significant disruption in her routine, I am careful not to add to her stress. We don't talk about important issues until things are better for her.

4) I support her, but I don't try to "fix" things. I'm her husband, not her counselor, and we keep those roles clear.

5) I have resigned myself to the fact that, as with any chronic condition, there will be bad days. But they pass. This isn't going away and the best meds available are a help, but not a cure. Sometimes I just have to remind myself that "in a week she'll be back to herself." We manage.

I might be making it sound harder than it is. 90% of the time, it's not an issue at all. She does excellent self-management. In fact, one of the things that made me interested in her to begin with was that fact that she handled herself so well. Even with bipolar disorder (and a pretty messed up family, IMHO), she earned a master's degree and had a great reputation at her job. Seeing how consistently she has worked at maintaining her stability is a large part of what made me aware of what a strong, wonderful person she is.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:23 PM on October 9, 2006 [5 favorites]

There's a lot to be said for the theory that depression is infectious; I think the answer depends a lot on your mental fortitude, and to a certain extent mental resistance (I also think it's important that you don't think you're selfish if you are negatively affected).

If you can accept these depressive periods without becoming likewise, then sure, however if you find yourself as depressed as her, then perhaps marriage, right now, isn't the best option.

I think you should spend a few more years together, marriage should be a big commitment, and I can't see what is to be gained by rushing into it. The romance of caprice aside that is.

Whatever you decide, good luck, and my thoughts are certainly with you.
posted by oxford blue at 4:53 PM on October 9, 2006

The heart of this question, IMHO, is not "can I fix it", or even "can I bear it" but "Will this be forever and will it be hard?"

The answer is yes, it will be forever and yes it will be hard. But really, to make this simple, if you loved her this much and she became mentally handicapped in an accident the day after your wedding, would it change how you feel? How you would help her and love her everyday?
If the answer is "no,it would not", you are going to be ok.
posted by BrodieShadeTree at 5:09 PM on October 9, 2006

I suffer from depression and I'm not married, but I'm in a serious relationship that is verging on marriage. From what you've said of your girlfriend, I see a lot of those same characteristics in myself; in fact, if you hadn't specified your age I would have suspected my boyfriend of writing this post.

I'm currently in the process of dragging myself out of a 6 month long episode, and it's the first really debilitating one that my boyfriend has witnessed. He has no personal/familial experience with depression and one of the key things I realized was that my shutting him out made the whole ordeal much worse for him because he was so confused about what I was going through. He didn't know what I was going through, or if he had done something, or what (if anything) he could do to make me feel better. Even once I explained what was going on, specifically its chemical/genetic nature, he still felt as if he had lost me. During the depths of it, we talked about how my depression was affecting the possibility that we would get married. His conclusion was that even though he loves me, he would not be able to live with me if I were always experiencing such acute symptoms. I certainly don't blame him - I am abhorrent when I'm depressed, exhibiting all the symptoms you describe plus extreme irritability.

One of the most salient thoughts I've had about this whole situation is this - nothing bad has ever happened to me (relatively) and my brain still sometimes decides to rebel against me for months at a time. But I'm 22, and bad things are going to happen at some point in my life, and I'm probably going to spiral down into a horrible place. Will you be able to handle her depression when extreme stressors are present?

FWIW, I wouldn't marry me (or any other depressed person.) I don't think people can be saved; what I (and probably your gf) am suffering from is biological and inescapable. I definitely do not think you're selfish for questioning a life with a depressed person; I think it would be foolish not to. I would wait a little longer so that you can truly gauge your reactions to her episodes.

One other thing I think about - my depression is scarily similar to my father's and my paternal grandmother's. When I think about having children, it's terrifying to consider the very real possibility that they'll suffer all this shit that has existed in my family for at least three generations and probably many more. Maybe discuss with your gf and see what her thoughts are on this.

Sorry I wrote a book, you just happened to describe my life in your post and I wanted to tell you how I felt.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 5:32 PM on October 9, 2006

One thing I can add, as someone who's been in the OPs position, is that while your partner does not have any control over her brain chemistry, she does have control over whether she communicates with you about what her current condition is. I finally ended a painful, close-to-marriage 3 year relationship with someone not because she suffered from depression, but because she always refused to talk to me or anyone else about what was going on in her head, and what those around her could do in order not to trigger badness. If your girlfriend allows you in, like it's something you are working on together, then you have a much better chance of working.

I should know, because the woman I'm in a relationshipo with now actually has it worse, and talks to me about it freely. That makes it so much easier to deal with.

And tatiana, I don't know how far down the road you see kids in your future, but I can say that I believe that many forms of genetically-based depression will be cured in your lifetime (for children, not adults) (I'm a scientist who is involved in neuro research.) So maybe kids are not out of the question.
posted by overhauser at 8:53 PM on October 9, 2006

tatiana wrote...
what I (and probably your gf) am suffering from is biological and inescapable.

I disagree. I suffer from a pretty solid biological depression, and I've found that a combination of drugs and therapy have allowed me to escape it.

As yet there is no cure for biological depression, but it is very treatable.
posted by tkolar at 10:19 PM on October 9, 2006

My wife and I both suffer problems of this nature to a degree. I actually consented to therapy prior to our marriage because my depression was affecting the relationship so badly it was threatening to fall apart.

For me talking therapy was instrumental in learning that I had more control than I thought over the degree to which I took out my negative feelings on my wife, i.e. withdrawing, not communicating, or expressing myself in harsh, totally negative ways. But I've also learned to communicate to her, when I really can't "snap out of it," that she may need to let me be, give me some space to work it out. Likewise, I've learned to take more responsibility for my own feelings when she has a bad episode - it still affects me of course but I can keep in mind that it is temporary and not some reflection of a deficiency in her, or me, or our relationship.

Obviously this is a tough one to talk about for several reasons but I think more discussion with her is critical - if you can find a gentle, nonjudgemental way to approach it, specifically addressing the fact that this is making you feel uncertain about the long term future of the relationship. If you decide that she is the one despite these difficult elements, some premarital couples therapy might help - it might help you just to talk to someone about your feelings as well, or perhaps you could find a couples therapist who also would do some one on one with each of you. My bottom line is yes, you can deal with it and yes, it can get better - but not without addressing it, communicating about it (on an ongoing basis, it's not the kind of thing you can talk about once and be done with it) and continuing to work on it.
posted by nanojath at 10:31 PM on October 9, 2006

I don't have direct experience with this and admit to only have skimmed this thread due to time constraints right now.

One point I'd like to make is don't make her depression about You. Support her as she'll allow or leave her be, but don't ever say "What about me??" during her periods of depression. (I'm in a situation where when something like this happens to me, that's exactly what I hear. It's maddening!)

It sounds like you know the 'routine' to her depression and that before too very long she'll be back, so just try to wait it out and support her as best you can.
posted by SoftSummerBreeze at 7:37 AM on October 10, 2006

I've found that a combination of drugs and therapy have allowed me to escape it.

As yet there is no cure for biological depression, but it is very treatable.

That's great for you. Not everyone is so lucky. There is a huge range of severity of depression. Please don't blithely generalize from your own experience.

As someone who has a terrible time functioning at all these days, hearing how high-functioning and easily-treatable people are doing just makes me feel even more like it's my fault, like if I did the right things I'd be high-functioning too, and so forth. I know it's bullshit but comments like yours just add to it. It's so tempting to try to find someone to blame, even if it is myself. Unfortunately that doesn't get me any closer to relief.

The truth is that it's different for everyone. And that it can change significantly over time. Trust me, I've had good years, I've had relatively "normal" times when the medication was working, then my meds pooped out after awhile. I haven't given up trying to find others that work, but it's a difficult hit-or-miss process that takes a long time.

Good luck, anon. If you can avoid feeling resentful of her, or feeling like it's your fault for not making her better, I think you have a good chance of making it work.
posted by beth at 12:31 PM on October 10, 2006

Please don't blithely generalize from your own experience.

I'm not. Depression is extremely treatable. Drugs and therapy together have an 80% 'cure' rate.

I realize that isn't of much help for the remaining 20% of people, but I also realize that the nature of depression makes everyone (including myself, when I'm depressed) believe that they're a member of that 20%.

About the worst tragedy that I can imagine is someone who believes that "there’s nothing that can be done to stop these depressed periods". You might not be able to do anything in the short term, but there is always a new drug, a new therapy, a new something, out there. Yes, it's a bit of a crapshoot, but there's always hope.

In short, I would marry someone who was aggressive about managing and attempting to treat their depression. I would never marry someone who believed it was just a fact of life.
posted by tkolar at 1:28 PM on October 10, 2006

In short, I would marry someone who was aggressive about managing and attempting to treat their depression. I would never marry someone who believed it was just a fact of life.

In my personal experience, depression is a fact of life despite the fact that I'm aggressive about management. For me, management is regular talk therapy rather than drugs - I don't tolerate them well and they're not a solution to me (a conclusion I've reached over a period of several years and many different medications.) Despite my best efforts, the support of my family, friends, and my therapist, there are times when my mind is out of control. I understand that this isn't your experience, and I'm glad that you are someone who has been helped by meds and therapy. However, my experience has been different so far, and I felt that it might be useful to the OP.

I want to stress to the OP that I also agree that management is a must - if she isn't taking responsibility to help herself, whether through therapy, meds, exercise, mindfulness, or whatever works for her, things will be much more stressful for both of you in the long run.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 4:33 PM on October 10, 2006

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