How Depression Impacts Marriage.

Image by Thomas Leth-Olsen on  Flickr

Image by Thomas Leth-Olsen on Flickr

Has depression impacted your marriage?

Then maybe you know what it's like to look over at a spouse you don't recognize anymore. Or perhaps you're the spouse who feels unrecognizable.

In his memoir, The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon writes that depression can be just as difficult on spouses of depressed partners as it is on depressed partners themselves. Spouses have to learn to cope with this stranger called depression who has stolen the life from their beloved who, during the excitement of courtship, expressed so much vitality.

This creates confusion for spouses who don't know what to do with this suffering person they love. There's already incredible strain on all intimate partners to communicate effectively.

So When you add in depression, things get even more challenging, especially because one of the worst symptoms of depression is a lack of motivation to explain or fix anything.

If a partner in a committed relationship is having her or his first depressive episode, this can be especially challenging because they don't know what the hell they're going through. They could feel their drive and ambition wither away for the first time with no explanation.

What does depression look like in a marriage?

Although we commonly associate depression with sadness, some depressed people feel little sadness, but an intense apathy and an even greater frustration about that apathy. They lose friends because their friends don't know what to do.

noonday demon

Depressed persons can lose jobs, social relationships, board positions, fellowships and their places in life's rhythms - all for immediately inexpiable reasons that turn out to be depression.

Spouses who watch this unfold may wonder why their partner is beginning to push away all the meaningful relationships in their life. Spouses may begin to interpret this as a kind of "F**k it I don't care," attitude, when it's exactly the opposite.

Depressed people push their relationships away because they care so much.

They begin to see themselves as a burden and don't want to burden others. But they also don't know what to do. Instead, they simply feel conflicted - and pushing others away is a solution to the problem of being a burden.

Then, as if depression didn't claim enough, it slithers it's way into the depressed person's final refuge: their marriage. At some point, not knowing what's happening to them, it turns out that both a depressed partner and her spouse must cope with depression. Depressed spouses are like travelers on a new road called depression their partners are sometimes their only companions.

This new travel companionship is unspeakably difficult for both spouses because a depressed traveler has no idea what to ask for - and even the most supportive companion has no idea what to do.

Powerlessness and depression go to war.

I know this seems like a bleak picture: two spouses locked together by this shared experience of mental illness and uncertainty, trying to figure out what to do. The hardest part can be the hope. Depression is relentless in the sense that it provides brief glimmers of life when the symptoms fade a little. Spouses begin to think that they're getting their best friend back, and just when things start to settle, the depression comes back and steals joy away again.

So what should you do if you or your spouse experiences depression?

First, get educated.

There's no single greater tool. Resources like NAMI Connection Groups provide an amazing way to connect with other people who've been through the same thing. They'll also connect you to educational resources that can help you understand what depression is and how it could impact you or your loved one.

Second, do yourselves a favor and invest in some counseling.

Call someone you trust. If you're not sure, ask a friend. If you're not quite ready to talk to friends about how you feel, then websites like Psychology Today or referral sources like your doctor can help. A good therapist can work with you to structure your lives around this new normal, refer you to nurse practitioners or psychiatrists who can provide medical intervention if necessary, and support you as you try to establish new communication patterns.

Finally, practice self-compassion.

I know this sounds like fluff, but there's another problem we haven't talked about yet that both depressed partners and their spouses encounter. When we come into contact with depression - we start asking ourselves why we can't just snap out of it already. We tel ourselves we should be over it or that we should be able to help more.

But these are nasty judgments and symptoms of self-ridicule and shame. It's almost as bad as the depression itself because it keeps us trapped in a pattern of experiencing something we can't control (depression) and then judging ourselves for it (shame). It's hard to just stop a thought pattern like self-judgment. We need a new practice to replace it. Self-compassion is one way to start.

Regardless of where you're at in your journey with depression, whether you are the traveler or the companion, reach out. Find help. You don't have to travel alone.


Dr. Mathis Kennington