Are You Still You When Your Partner Is Depressed?

Relationship in Turmoil

Over and over, I find online stories about the transformation of a loving partner, most often a man, into a depressed stranger. As I’ve often written here, I have been that stranger.

I’ve told several stories about what happened during that time in my life and what I’ve tried to learn from my own depressed behavior. I’ve described fantasies about becoming a new me, blaming my wife and my work for the unhappiness, losing control of myself in rage – and then pulling out of it before losing everything.

The story was all about me, and that’s always the way it is when depression is ghost writing at my side. My wife had a different story. Of course, it started with the crisis I had set in motion but then shifted to everything she did to sustain herself. When I “came back,” the old relationship didn’t come back with me. Instead, we had to create something different because we were both different. It wasn’t about me or her then but both of us.

Because of what I’ve been through and knowing how my wife took care of herself, I worry about many of the stories I read online. They tend to be all about him. I hear a great deal about what the depressed partner is doing, what may be wrong, his refusal to get help, his on-again off-again emotions, his confusion and pain. The hopef-for turning point of this story centers on whether or not he’ll get over it and return as the loving partner he used to be.

What I hear so much less about is the person who has to live with Depression Fallout as Anne Sheffield calls it – the emotional damage caused by living with a depressed partner.

I always want to ask, What about you? Where are you in all this? Except for a brief mention here and there about pain and perhaps efforts to get help, I have a hard time getting as sharp a picture of who you are and what this relationship means for your own sense of self.

Are you worried you won’t be you anymore once he’s gone? Why do you think you can change him? Why do you ask only about what will happen to him? Where are you?

There is so much invested in a close relationship that it inevitably affects the sense of who we are. Each partner, hopefully, feels enough trust to open and share a usually closed emotional core. Once it’s clear the relationship is a lasting one, there’s a sense of fulfillment and sureness of commitment on both sides. I’m still me, but I’m also more.

Even when troubled, angry or hurt by each other, the emotional resonance and mingling can move two people to some sort of healing. It’s all the more shocking, then, when depression takes control of one partner and rips the relationship. It’s not only a betrayal; it takes away the part of me that emerged through closeness to my partner. That cuts too deeply. I won’t feel complete anymore. How can I survive this?

I think the depth of loss of that joint identity varies a lot. At one extreme, there’s a complete dependence on another person to feel like a “real” person. That’s what I went through In my early twenties when I had the experience of being left abruptly. The crisis for me was extreme because I couldn’t imagine myself without this partner. I had no sense of my own value as a person and looked to her to make up for everything I wasn’t. In my state at the time, I could only feel OK because she was with me.

As I told myself, there was nothing left to fill the inner emptiness, so I fell apart. For a long time, I couldn’t accept what had happened and obsessed over the relationship, convinced I could do this or that to turn back the clock. Every attempt failed miserably, and my condition got worse and worse. It took a few years to get past that, but the long-term result was a much healthier sense of who I was.

That’s one extreme. Another is a level of independence of two people that they limit carefully the amount of time they spend together. There’s a fear of losing personal identity by getting too enmeshed in each other. One couple I knew (obviously wealthy) built side-by-side houses connected by a common space so that they could choose when to be together. If one had a serious problem like depression, there was certainly a loving concern but also a safe distance preserved to keep one from damaging the other – or so they thought.

There’s a balance that has to be found between needing a partner to feel good about yourself, as I did, and feeling so autonomous as to see a depressed partner’s problems as his own and having nothing to do with you.

As Peter Kramer puts it in his thoughtful book, Should You Leave?, society as a whole values independence and self-fulfillment far more than fulfillment through the interdependence of a relationship. But the goal for so many is to combine both.

Kramer offers a beautiful image of the way two people can be closely entwined without losing their own identities. He tells about his great aunt, who offered this comparison when she learned of his wedding engagement.

[She] pointed to a pair of white pines planted close together. They had developed a cone of branches and needles around the two trunks, responding to the sun as a single tree; if you were to cut one down, the other would look unbalanced, bare on one side and rounded on the other. A couple, she said, should be like those trees.

I suppose the continuing challenge is to find the balance between a healthy sense of one’s separate self and the shared identity of a close relationship. Neither can exclude the other, and even if relationships fail, they’ve given as much as they’ve taken away.

Sometimes I find out how the online stories have ended – though not so often as how they began. Usually, it’s encouraging, not because the relationship has been restored (that’s rare), but because an inner resilience has led to acceptance of what’s happened. The new story begins, and it’s all about you, no longer about him.

So that’s why I ask: where are you in the story you tell? Are you worried you won’t be you anymore once he’s gone?

22 Responses to “Are You Still You When Your Partner Is Depressed?”

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  1. Jennifer says:

    My Name is Jennifer,I’m married to a Wonderful Man ,when he’s not down.He has times in his life of shutting down and being mean to those who Love,&care about him.I had him to agree to go see the Dr this past Monday,he was given Meds. I feel I’m riding a Roller Coaster everyday.One day he turns to me ,other days he acts as if he don’t know me.Today he stated to just end our marriage and hes been in the bed the remainder of the day.I love him but his words hurt so bad ,and I know I don’t need to leave him,He has always lived a high means of living ,and now he isnt .He doesnt driink or drugs,he turns to Face Book and speaks with females,I feel hes looking for a replacement that he thinks that will make him get over this.I feel so alone and lost in Arkansas

  2. Karen says:

    I have bipolar disorder, and believe my father did too, although he died before diagnosis was very good. He wouldn’t have seen a psychiatrist either.

    There are many types of manic states I’ve experienced. One known as a “mixed state” or in one author’s words “black depression” is especially destructive. Medication has been almost miraculous in freeing me from this feeling. It is black because it included hopelessness and agitation. The pain is excruciating, but you can’t tell what’s causing it. Little things set you off and you lash out at those closest to you. Our minds seek the cause of pain, and it seems like it comes from other people as well as the self you are trying to defend from utter worthlessness. It’s easy to think that everything would be better if you just got away from the people who seem to be unable to understand.

    When I was on the receiving end of this type of blowup, or sometimes a silent withdrawal, along with my siblings and mother, it was devastating, and the damage done when I was a small child seems like it will never heal. She tried and tried to endure, compensate, or cater to him, to no avail. At the time, divorce was socially unacceptable.

    In my own case, I was in my 40s before I found effective treatment and am still haunted by how it must have affected my son. It destroyed my first marriage (which had primarily been my way of leaving my family of origin in hopes that things would be better at a distance.)

    I agree that finding a therapist is a good thing, and don’t hesitate to shop around to find the right therapist for you. You are likely to be walking around in a state of PTSD after bouts of anger from your spouse, unless you are unusually resilient.

    You probably feel like the spouse you loved is there inside the manic emotions and behavior, and that’s true. The illness is the thing you shouldn’t be exposed to unnecessarily. You can make this clear. You need your own safe space where you can nurture yourself and see friends and family without fear of things going bad.

    • john says:

      Hi, Karen -

      That state of “black depression” you describe sounds just like what I’ve often gone through. It was most intense about 20+ years ago, and there was no relief for it. I felt quite out of control on many days, and it was my family that took the brunt of it. I’m so glad your treatment brought you out of it. Keeping the marriage together was a close call because the me my wife married was completely gone in those periods. When I snapped out of it and got back to being a good mate again, she could trust me because she knew I’d disappear before long into that same form of depression. That’s where I think the long-term damage can happen. Putting up with instability means taking abusive treatment for much of the time. If there’s a clear treatment plan in place that the depressed partner is fully committed to, I think there is hope for the future. Otherwise, you have to look at the limits of what you and children can or should take.

      John

  3. Karen says:

    I think you have to question the effect on you of the illness. Being abused, whether it’s him or the illness talking, is not good for either of you. If this is repeated, and he is not managing his behavior, especially if children are being exposed to this, you may be better off separating and offering support from a greater distance.

  4. Lynn says:

    Living with a bipolar husband is extremely difficult especially during hypomanic episodes and agitated depressions. During this last one, he became extemely critical of me and blamed me for his illness. Then he went out and impulsively filed for divorce. He refuses to talk to me and just sends text and e-mail messages berating me and showing irrational anger for things I did not do. I am independent and can take care of myself, but how do I deal with this latest divorce filing? It was done in a fit of anger and I don’t think he really wants it, or at least he won’t when he comes down from his hypomanic spell. The courts push cases along, and to try to mediate with him when he is in this state is impossible. Advice, anyone?

    • john says:

      Hi, Lynn -

      Bipolar disorder is quite different from unipolar depression. I have not dealt with a bipolar person in a hypomanic state nor do I have this disorder. I’ve relied on Julie Fast’s book for a better understanding of how to react to a partner during hypomania. One thing I do know for sure is that his behavior and thinking are always irrational and it takes special care to respond. On the other hand, you have to consider how much you can take and when you may just have to call it quits. Consulting a therapist could be important for you. On the divorce issue, I’d see if an attorney can help slow down the process. I’m not sure how it might play out, but it’s not in his interest to get near legal process in his condition. There is always the possibility of the court intervening in his treatment if he’s acting in an obviously irrational way and/or you/your attorney raise the issue. That’s an extreme and probably remote possibility, but you’d have to consider what that would do. I doubt you want the state getting involved, unless things are completely out of hand. You’re right that mediation won’t work. I am a mediator, by the way, though in a much different field, and know a lot about this process. If it later becomes necessary or possible to use mediation, there are protocols for representing the interests of someone in an irrational state.

      Taking care of yourself is the priority at this point.

      I really hope this works out in a positive way.

      John

  5. Karen says:

    Somehow I learned when I was about 20 how girls tend to choose men like their fathers, and I realized that my strongest attractions were to self-centered “bad boys” and that i never fell in love with the nice guys. I made a conscious decision then to find a dependable, normal guy who would be a good father, was not an alcoholic, and believed in going to work every day. My first husband fit those requirements but he eventually wanted someone less complicated and more outgoing. I found someone less outgoing and more compatible, but still not depressed or addiction-prone. Both were good fathers to my son. If you had a parent who hurt or belittled your other parent, you need to make sure you stay away from relationships that echo the same. My sisters and mother didn’t get that insight soon enough and married men much like my dad. They are out of those marriages now, but as you say, went years without the support they needed.

    • john says:

      Hi, Karen -

      What you say makes me realize how hard it is to escape the influence of your parents in finding a partner. Men are said to be looking for their mothers, just as you say women look for their fathers. Some people seem to look for the same problems, others for the idealized version of the parent. My wife and I went for the opposites of our parents. A steady guy as opposed to an alcoholic, a generous spirited woman instead of an egocentric depressed one. Still, though, the influence is inescapable – choosing the opposite instead of the same type relates to the same need. My parents also married opposites of their parents – in culture as well as personality. They were both rebels, but that motive didn’t keep them going.

      Thanks for this thoughtful comment –

      John

  6. Karen says:

    I truly do not know how my husband has been able to live with me for 31 years. I have had times when I lost control and screamed at him, blaming him for my distress, or he has held me for hours as I sobbed and told him of the crises of past and present. Medication and therapy have eliminated the screaming, and much of the crying. Still, I feel bad that he does all the cooking, shopping, and vacuuming because I am just too tired. He has to look at the face of depression every day. He has found his own space with his music, and has kept his distance from my inner state. Finally last year I realized that I was constantly trying to explain how it felt to have bipolar disorder to create some empathy, and that he was never going to understand. It’s helped a lot. When I need support, I can call my sisters, who were there in our terrifying home with a bipolar (undiagnosed), alcoholic (a word we never used) father, and a distracted codependent mother.

    There relationship was much more enmeshed and toxic. No one understood that depression and anger were symptoms of a medical disorder and my father could only see that you could be sane or insane and he wasn’t crazy. My mother didn’t know how it felt, but did all she could to go along with his wishes and needs. The result was a family system that was sick. Now I know that some of my sisters were suffering from depression, as was I, and it was impossible for my mother to deal with such a crazy situation. She used denial to survive.

    So there’s a contrast of husband-wife relationships when one is sick and the other is not.

    • john says:

      Hi, Karen -

      I too don’t know how my wife managed to stay with me for so long, but I think that she, like your husband, just has a deep bond that can survive a lot of punishment. You’re very fortunate to have someone who can find a way to take care of himself while being so responsive to you. It’s great that you’ve worked out a good system for support.

      So many families of people our age had no social support or knowledge to help them recognize these problems and get treatment. I lived with a similar situation and that surely had a lot to do with depression – that started long before I left home.

      It’s great you didn’t get into a similar situation as an adult – a lot of people haven’t been able to get away from it.

      I hope things keep getting better for you –

      John

  7. liz says:

    Hi John — you discuss in a number of your blogs on how critical it was for you to put yourself at the center of your recovery. Can you elaborate on that a bit further? I don’t have a sense of clarity on that issue from you and I think it’s really important for me to understand this. Your blog has been so instrumental in helping me to comprehend my ex-partners battle with depression. Right now, we are still very much a part of each other’s lives and he listens to what I have to say. Thank you so much for your response.

    • john says:

      Hi, Liz

      That’s a great question. I’ve touched on parts of it in a number of posts, but I need to put them all together. I’ll do a post about that soon.

      Thanks for this helpful comment.

      John

  8. I am extremely blessed with a fabulous husband who understands and at the same time is learning to take care of himself. Although I am unable, he continues to participate in activies that we once shared. He also sees my therapist every other week for his support and to understand what I am going through. I count myself very blessed.

    I am saddened that it wasn’t the same for you. However, I have learned who my true friends are.

    • john says:

      Hi, Clinically Clueless -

      It’s wonderful to hear that your husband is so supportive and has such balanced understanding. After all you’ve been through and still struggle with, that’s truly a great blessing.

      All my best to you -

      John

  9. Lynn says:

    No spouse should have to cope with the rejection and chaos of dealing with a depressed partner alone. After living for 10 years with a Bipolar husband, I have recently found the “Family to Family” Education Program sponsored by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) to be a life saver. I am a physician and my husband and I have gone to numerous psychologists, psychiatrists, and marital cousellors for help, but none of them were anywhere near as valuable as this group (and it is free!) It is a 12 week intensive course and support group for family members and friends of people with depression and other mental illnesses. It is extemely professional, organized, and references the most up-to-date data on treatment. They have groups throughout the country and I advise everyone to give it a try. Go to http://www.nami.org.

    • john says:

      Thank you, Lynn -

      I’m glad to know about this program and that it’s worked so well for you. I’ll look into it right away. Everyone needs support like that, and it’s so hard – as you’ve found – to find an approach that’s really effective.

      John

  10. Evan says:

    Hi John,

    I don’t know if you have heard of a Catholic writer of devotional books called Henri Nouwen. He was persuaded to publish his first book when he read; if someone doesn’t practice what they preach, perhaps their preaching while shame them into practicing it.

    Some things I’m good at practicing. And I try to open about my failures but I don’t think I’d like to be quizzed on how much I live out each of my blog posts!

    • john says:

      Hi, Evan -

      I’ve been deeply moved by some of Nouwen’s writing – especially the book about his period of depression. And I hear you about being quizzed. The most embarrassing thing for me is writing all sorts of honest and probing things in these posts – and then blowing it completely when trying to talk to my wife!

      John

  11. liz says:

    Thank you for addressing this topic because I have yet to find anything that truly states how I feel being the partner (as of today officially the ex-partner) of a depressed man for 2 years. For me, I have a few issues that I battle with…so much so that I am now in therapy to help me cope. I know I’m not depressed but I do know I have had depressed moments trying to deal with his emotional withdrawal then seemingly wanting me back only to withdraw again when he felt I was getting too close and the “walls” were coming in on him. Relationships bring people together because there is a shared need. For me it was wanting to feel passionate again. For him, he wanted to heal and believed that us being together could do that. Of course, I had no idea he suffered from depression when we first got together but once I did realize I chose to stay b/c I was already in love w/him and didn’t want to judge him on an illness he had no control over. But now here I am and I feel rejected which is the most difficult feeling for me to handle…rejected by someone who would prefer to be alone and isolated as oppose to being with me. I am the only friend he has in the city we live in…he moved here from the west coast to start a new life and I was part of that. I am a successful professional business woman and I wonder how I could have lost my sense of self in order to make him happy. In a way our relationship ending has lifted a burden for me as I don’t have to wake up every morning trying to figure out how I am going to make this relationship last and make him happy—forgetting my happiness. I will always love him and I wish we could get to a place where we understand our boundaries and continue a loving relationship but as you have said, that is rare. I could go on and on but I thank you, John, for allowing me to express.

  12. Marie says:

    Hi, John -

    I think I have avoided relationships because of the fear of dragging down the other or being drug down . . . I feel “safer” having to only be responsible for myself (and not a husband, not a marriage, not kids, etc.)

    The trade off is that I often find myself very lonely.

    I’m still looking for a healthy way to see all of this . . .

    Thanks for the great post!

    - Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

  13. Evan says:

    I’m unusual – I’m male and it is my partner who battled the depression: it looks like she was largely won the battle (there may be little skirmishes in the future I guess but it does look like she has won the battle).

    This is a huge relief. Living with her misery was far from easy. Much to her credit she did her best to care for me even when depressed and appreciated my care for her.

    For me: I did learn lessons about being detached and caring at the same time; about how to care for myself so I could care for another.

    On a philosophical note: I think we are social individuals rather than isolated individuals. Our relationships are not only exterior to who we are but form part of us. I’m not sure we have a very well developed language to talk about this but I think it’s very important.

    • john says:

      Hello, Evan -

      That’s a great point about our being social rather than isolated individuals. It’s very hard to unlearn all the cultural messages and imperatives about being a self-sufficient, self-made individual – as if everything we know and do has no context with other people at all. One of the prevailing myths!

      I’m glad your partner has won her battle. I’ve found it a severe test of any relationship when that misery starts dominating a partner’s life. It’s fortunate you found the right balance of care and detachment – and could take care of yourself. It sounds like you’re able to practice what you preach – how I wish I could do that as well.

      Thanks for coming by –

      John