Q. I am married to a wonderful man who suffers from depression. I want to be supportive but I feel under incredible pressure as I’m expected to be the one who keeps it together all of the time and I don’t know how much longer I can. I spend my days shielding our children from his mood swings and making excuses for his behaviour. While I understand this is an illness, sometimes I feel that he uses his depression as an excuse to get him off the hook. Some days he takes to the bed as soon as I say something he doesn’t want to hear, which can be something as simple as asking him to put his dirty laundry in the laundry hamper. How do I stay supportive when some days I just want to get into the bed and not deal with life either?
Being the wife to a husband who suffers from depression suffers herself. Suffer is an interesting but apt word and when someone experiences chronic depression, it can become the third unwanted guest in your relationship.
Like an unwanted guest, depression can seem to just turn up, unannounced, uninvited and always at the worst possible times. When you need to have that conversation; when you want to just get on with getting things done; when you want to be a normal happy functioning family. There it is, sucking up the life, the air and the quality of your lives, your relationship and all the relationships that you both love.
Depression erases the positive
Depression eats up the hope and the optimism – and erodes compassion due to how chronic the problem is. What would be likely to change the dynamic that is operating at the moment? Have you ever just taken to the bed? I’m sure you get tired as well. Physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted as the burden of being the carer, the wife and the mother takes its inevitable toll.
As the wife of a man dealing with depression you seem to feel you have to take up the mantle. The danger to your relationship ultimately will be the insidious build up of feelings of unresolved and unspoken anger; this dangerous combination can often lead to resentment. These feelings are corrosive to your relationship.
This is when communication within your marriage must open the door to explore how you are feeling as well. Would your husband be willing to go to couples counselling? Is he receiving therapeutic care? Are you? I know this can seem a lot, but I would recommend that he gets therapy and that you also get personal therapy and couples therapy.
Couples therapy will help explore the avoidance of having to take responsibility for his part within the family. To understand the dynamic of the very unpleasant threesome going on for you at the moment; you, him and the depression, and what that means to you both.
To really hear how it is for him, and for you to be able to hear this with fresh ears as we call in mindfulness to see with beginner’s eyes.
For you to be heard, to have your emotions heard, acknowledged and validated. It will help you to work together to turn the marriage towards each other and away from the unwanted guest.
You need to create boundaries for yourself as well and to engage with yourself in an emotionally healthy manner. To do this you must start with yourself. You need to create time for yourself, whether that is a walk, or a class or just going out with friends. Create a strong support system around you, family and friends are an extremely effective stress antidote and buffer.
Share your concerns and feelings with close friends and family. This is not your full responsibility. Recognise what drains you; is it his moods or do you find shielding the children very upsetting? Write a list of the aspects of his depression in terms of how it is for you. On a separate list take note of all the positive aspects of your marriage and why it is so important to you. It is important to remember the good, especially to buffer against the bad days.
Be good to yourself
What nourishes you? What energises you? Make another list answering these two questions and prioritise this as a fundamental aspect of your own emotional welfare. Then schedule in this self-care for yourself. This is for you but it is also for the whole family and for you to stay strong and supportive you have to look after your own needs as well. It is also very important for the children to see you take care of your emotional needs as this is what teaches them about creating healthy emotional boundaries for themselves as well.
Soften Soothe Allow is a wonderful CBT technique to help bring awareness to how you feel in a compassionate and kind way:
• Sit down, and get comfortable. Close your eyes. Take in three relaxing breaths.
• Place your hand on your heart and bring a sense of compassion and kindness to yourself.
• Recall a difficult situation or emotion for you right now. Visualise it, what happened, who was there, what was said, what was the feeling?
• Now, name the strongest emotion you felt with the situation – anger, sadness, fear? Repeat the name of the emotion to yourself in a kind understanding voice as if you were validating for a friend what they were feeling.
• Bring your awareness to your body as a whole.
• Scan your body, where do you feel it the most? Is it heavy, tired or achy like heartache?
• Go to where you feel it the most in your body.
• Soften – the location in your body. You can say the words ‘soften…soften…soften’. Like applying heat to a sore muscle. The goal is not to make the feeling go away but to be with it in loving awareness.
• Soothe – yourself for feeling like this, the struggle, the pain, the hurt. You may acknowledge how it has felt with kind words – ‘this is very hard’.
• It can help sometimes to imagine your body as a beloved child that you want to soothe the pain for.
• Allow – the discomfort to be there. Let go of trying to not feel it, or make it go away. You can repeat the word ‘allow…allow…allow.’
• The three words ‘soften soothe allow’ can be said like a mantra, reminding you to incline with tenderness toward your suffering.
• If it becomes too much just stay with your breath until you feel better.
• Slowly open your eyes when you feel ready.
Fight against it
Depression plays a dangerous role in the division of a relationship. This is about the two working together. To work on issues within the marriage that you want him to be part of you need to express how it has been for you.
Your intention is not to hurt him or to make him feel worse than he already does but it is to show him that as he falls into the internal spiral of negativity that feeds depression it leaves you alone, isolated and feeling the burden of being in so many roles as his wife, their mother and as a carer.
When people have described depression to me I visualise this awful negativity spiral that disconnects you from everyone else. The person experiencing depression feels utterly alone, but I can see that also leaves you left behind to deal with the everyday routine that needs to get done.
The aim is to find that connection to help him and you fight against the blackness and to build upon the marriage and relationship that you love and have.
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