Reconnecting Depressed Partners Despite Fear and Shame

Tense Couple Talking

Men and women have the same need and longing to connect with each other, but they also have different ways of reacting to stress that can drive them apart. Psychotherapist Patricia Love believes that these instinctive coping strategies can trigger the fear and shame that isolate partners from each other. Depression makes the disconnection that much worse.

These coping strategies can come up in relationships as a typically male sensitivity to shame and a typically female sensitivity to fear.

It’s always touchy to talk about gender differences, but Love and her colleagues approach this with the idea that differing male and female patterns are coping strategies, not fixed genetic traits. They recognize that individual men and women can exhibit behaviors across a broad spectrum.

There are no stereotypes that limit the roles of men and women, nor is there is a difference in their desire or need for feeling and relationships. But different styles of reacting to stress often lead to behaviors that create problems.

Fight-or-Flight or Tend-and-Befriend?

The differences that researchers have found relate to the ways in which humans have evolved to respond to threats and danger. For decades, scientists described the classic stress response of fight or flight as the basis for a lonely world of constant struggle for survival. It wasn’t until the 1990s that a group of social psychologists led by Shelley E. Taylor realized that all these observations had been based on human and animal studies that used mostly male subjects.

When they broadened research to include women in studies of stress, they identified another coping mechanism that was collaborative rather than competitive. Taylor summarized this research in her classic book, The Tending Instinct.

This alternative coping strategy is known as “tend and befriend.” In times of distress, women take care of those close to them while seeking the support of others for protection of the group. It’s a highly social way of dealing with danger that depends on bonds of trust and connection. Researchers found that this pattern, like the fight or flight response, was rooted in neurobiology as well as behavior.

Patricia Love and other psychotherapists have found that these distinctively male and female reactions to stress can contribute to the problems of couples, especially in the presence of depression. Here is a nutshell version of what can happen.

The Fear-Shame Dynamic

For men, the important thing is to demonstrate their ability to remove a danger or solve a problem through action and reasoning. Words and feelings can get in the way and don’t get the job done. The almost instinctive response is to do something on their own, without seeking help. If their ability to handle a situation is called into question, men tend to feel shame.

Rather than take action on their own, women often need to feel connected to others to feel safe. Isolation triggers fear. Expressing their worries to their partners is a way of reassuring themselves that the connection for support is there. Talking and expressing feelings are part of the process of connecting and handling stress.

Hearing about his partner’s worries, however, can also trigger a man’s vulnerability to shame. Instead of understanding a woman’s concerns as the need for connection, he can hear them as criticism that he has failed to do his job of providing and protecting. Her distress comes across to him as an accusation that it’s his fault.

Instead of reaching out to connect, he reacts defensively and angrily pushes his partner away. She is left alone with her fear, which is now intensified by the withdrawal of her primary source of support.

Each keeps triggering the main vulnerability of the other. The man looks for the respect and praise he needs to feel he’s fulfilled his male role but gets only a response he experiences as shaming. As he pulls away in anger, the woman feels more alone and fearful than ever.

How Depression Makes It Worse

Depression adds the perfect storm of isolation and emotional withdrawal. Many men see depression itself as a source of shame, a weakness and sign of their inability to perform. In the majority of cases, they refuse to get treatment or even to acknowledge it. That leaves the woman alone and excluded from the relationship during the crisis of illness.

When a man hears from his wife that he is depressed, that may sound to him like “you are a failure.” Anger is the typical response rather than feeling supported by his partner’s attentiveness. It’s very hard to get around the initial reaction that he’s hearing her words of concern as a criticism.

In depression, the man whom the woman looks to for reassurance and support can become himself the greatest threat to safety. This realization triggers an especially deep fear and vulnerability. She has to live in a constant state of alertness and easily gets angry. The stress level is high and can’t be relieved by the comfort of connection.

Connection Comes Before Communication

According to Pat Love and recent research, the fear-shame dynamic is an instantaneous reaction that begins well outside of our awareness through a process of emotional attunement. This is the reading of nonverbal signals in body language, facial expression and tone of voice. These communicate much faster than words. This nonverbal language comprised our primary method of evaluating and communicating the safety of situations, long before language and reasoning become so prominent in human development.

Because it is tied into neuro-circuitry, the dynamic of reactions is almost impossible to deflect simply by talking. Fear and shame keep you from hearing each other no matter how much mirroring and active listening you try to do.

It’s a lack of connection rather than a lack of communication that is the problem. Reconnecting on a non-verbal level is as important as finding the right words to get back together. This perception is behind the title of the book Love wrote with Steven Stosny, How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It.

Their strategies for improving relationships include plenty of talking, but the words are secondary in importance to the level of interest and concern partners show each other through touch, looks and facial expressions.

Retraining to Reconnect

Love emphasizes that men and women are equally in need of love and intimacy and equally capable of experiencing it. Her approach is to train couples to be sensitive to their differing vulnerabilities and to practice ways of connecting without triggering fear or shame.

For example, she urges women to understand that for men relationship during a time of stress may not feel like a place of safety. Instead, it may seem more like a testing ground for their ability to perform and protect. If they feel they will face judgment about how well they’re doing their jobs as men, they might well try to avoid relationship when dealing with hard problems.

Men don’t realize that a woman’s fear of isolation and deprivation can be triggered by leaving her out of the important parts of his life. Men abandon their wives to manage their own dread of failure and inadequacy, leaving them alone with their needs. As Love and Stosny put it, “A man needs to value the longing of a woman’s heart, or he will leave her alone in her dreams and become the failure he dreads.”

The key is to understand the core vulnerabilities and avoid setting them off while also offering assurance in response to the underlying fear or shame.

I’ll cover some of the specific strategies in another post. In the meantime, I’d like to know if you have found these general ideas about the ways men and women react to stress to be accurate in the context of your own relationship. Do you think they have added to the problems of depression?

18 Responses to “Reconnecting Depressed Partners Despite Fear and Shame”

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  1. K says:

    Funny part is that sometimes all of this works the other way around, probably has something to do with family roles, influences and childhood drama.
    In my relation the experiences are on the other side of the scale, the depressed partner (girlfriend) acts like a man, shutting down, running away from “heavy” commitment of a serious relationship and tries to amuse her depression with the presence of other depressed friends (mostly female).
    I as a man, since I am longing for a more intimate relation (that’s who I am), I am left stunned, alone and isolated, offering words of support, yet the other side always fails to make the final connection and get back though, even if depressed, I can hear her cries, I offer my hand only to see the other hand slowly withdrawing again and disappearing into isolation.
    This has a high toll, it doesn’t matter how much I try to protect myself, there is always the feeling of incomplete, the feeling of a relation that was wonderful and now gone, the on going process of appearing and then disappearing is just draining power from my system no matter how much I try to protect myself. It is a very emotional draining task, since love is described only through one feeling, the feeling of intimacy and communication, when those are not present nothing can protect your soul from the draining effect of loss and pain, it can only be minimized but not erased, erasing would mean erasing all feelings or working as a switch.
    What I found helpful in my situation, in order to minimize the pain, was to think of the future, that would give me a safe space to rest for a while before struggling again, the future with a depressed partner is like a roller coaster and especially when you think about a serious relationship, how would a serious relationship last when your partner runs away from his feelings, logic comes into the game, and that is the key part of maintaining your stability and sanity, logic tells you that the way you are now following is a roller coaster, a future with only little reassurance of your sanity and ability to maintain your healthy balance and the inner pain.
    This is what allows me to suppress the urge of wanting to try more that needed in this relationship and probably this will be the key factor if I will need to decide about my future, because only you decide about your future, not anyone else, same goes about the depressed partner, it doesn’t matter how much you try, they are the only ones who can help their own entities.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, K -

      You’ve expressed this quite eloquently, and I’m afraid it’s sadly true. You remind me of the years my wife put in waiting for me to come around. She often gave up hope, though she ultimately stayed with me. I’m afraid some of the losses can’t be made up, but a new relationship has to be created. You don’t mention treatment – it is hard to sustain things if your partner is not committed to getting better. You mention in your other comment that she is getting treatment, but it doesn’t sound like it’s working. I think it takes a lot more than medication when the problem runs deep and continues for a long time.

      My best to you –

      John

      • K says:

        Unfortunately it does take a great time, although she is getting treatment I have the feeling she does not want to confront the problems.
        Problems? yes, family, has raised this person inside a balloon or even better a jar glass, she knows the issues yet I never feel a struggle from her side to change, there are times I wonder if I should be more harsh in my communication, to put more pressure on this, but I always end up wondering if I should follow that path.
        She tries to signal a few emotions, but always in a girly manner, yet she is older than me, yet I find nothing assuring, I see no light into the tunnel, she has changed a few thing in her life, but I see no future no more, how could I possibly create a family with this person? It’s been a few months she closed her feelings only to herself, not even a small effort for this relation, she only comes up when I get to see her, yes then she is all around me, once I am gone…well if I wouldn’t make contact she would never contact me!
        Thanks John, you are a great helpful hand…especially for the other side…wish I could be a small God and change things…

  2. Velma says:

    Hey just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The words in your post seem to be running off the screen in
    Internet explorer. I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with web browser compatibility but I figured I’d post to let
    you know. The design look great though! Hope you get the issue solved soon.
    Thanks

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thanks for letting me know. I’m doing a cross-browser test now. Which version of IE are you using – I assume you’re on Windows?

      John

  3. biglove says:

    Yep, that would be the first rate mistake my partner and I made with each other – the more I tried to help and open up to our problems (not knowing it was depression to begin with), the harder he fought my invasion, thus the more insecure I became and in turn he pushed further away and of course I would ask for explanations which weren’t forthcoming because what more could he add to ‘I feel nothing about anything’, doesn’t come more plain, but of course that was beyond my logic and so I continued to dig for reason and explanation.
    Although living on opposite sides of the planet currently, we’re still communicating, interestingly last week when I spoke to him and said “I won’t be calling you any more, it’s too painful constantly begging for your attention” he replied with “I kiss you” – I know it doesn’t sound like much but it’s the first affectionate response in 3 months, so do I surmise that my releasing him from emotional explanations actually allowed him to express a feeling?
    My partner is usually an affectionate; caring; sensitive man with all the hallmarks of an self-made independent male and he has made comment HE needs to work it out, however, I gleaned over that and went into the role of pseudo nurse/therapist/depression-repairer, after all in my mind we’re partners we share responsibility for each other….yep, I’m a classic study for the above post – but I keep learning thanks to the honest information that a site like this provides.

  4. Anna says:

    This website has been a breath of fresh air and a real relief to me so thank you. This article hit the nail on the head for me. My ex boyfriend left me last year very suddenly by announcing we didn’t get on. I was totally confused as we had a fun and happy relationship up until a year or so before when he began to withdraw from me, we lost all intimacy despite my efforts (which was hurtful and humiliating) and he became very selfish. In turn I felt so lonely in the relationship. He left me as he wanted to be “entirely selfish and alone”. I was devastated and confused believing he might have another woman in the wings or just have fallen out of love. I think he thinks he’s fallen out if love because he can’t feel anything but I hear he is still miserable and he has sent a few strange texts saying he doesnt understand why he’s on the planet or what the point is. I have told his family I think he’s depressed but can’t interfere anymore as i sometimes think they just believe he’s left me because he wanted to leave me and that I’m making up an excuse. He has managed to hold down a job but it is working v late hours which I can’t see would help him. Today I received a text saying he was bored with life. We had a lovely life before he ended it with far reaching possibilites but now are both alone with neither happy. Thanks John fir your brilliant website.

  5. DragonGirl says:

    Very insightful. Thanks John. Every word you said was beautifully written. It was like rereading what happened to me and my ex. I wanted to help and protect him so bad but he withdrew and preferred to do things by himself. His ultimately led to him leaving me. I hope all the couples who are experiencing this could read this. It could help them understand that they are not alone and that they can overcome whatever it is that they are experiencing.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Dragongirl -

      I’m sorry things didn’t work out between you. There’s often an imbalance in a couple in their willingness to look at themselves. There are so many partners who just refuse to believe that things can change dramatically within the same relationship – without having to go off and find a new one.

      All my best to you –

      John

  6. Jocelyn says:

    Dear Jon: Yes. You are totally right. I felt you were describing my life. I am the one who was depressed but my husband acted very much the way you described. I think it was depressed too. Thank you so much for describing so accurately the experiences of millions of people who suffer from this terrible illness and the impact it has on our relationships and the role that gender differences play in all of this. I am going to print this article and see if I can convince my husband to read it with me. He might decline because as he puts it,”I don’t like to live in the past.” He avoids the pain of the past and even the present. But the beauty is that his behavior and ways no longer depress me. I don’t agree with him but I have learned to understand that his responses are not an indication of failures or inadequacies from my part; it is jus the way he is and the way he choses to see life. Men and women: we both want connection and love but we go about different ways to get them. Always inspiring and uplifting to read your words. They are true representations of moments in my life. Thank you.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Jocelyn -

      Thanks for your kind words, but do remember that I’m only summarizing the work of others here. I’m been learning a lot from Pat Love, Sue Johnson, John Gottman, David Wexler, Esther Perel and many other great psychotherapists. They’ve been helping me a lot in rethinking relationships and how depression further complicates them. I admire the sense of involved separateness you have with your husband, if I can put it that way. The hardest thing is to appreciate your own individuality, see what’s happening in your partner in a non-threatened way and also enjoy the bond that you share. I think that’s what good relationships are all about.

      JOhn

  7. Renee says:

    Hi John,

    Again, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I definitely think that these ideas are accurate and have experienced these dynamics in my current relationship frequently. I feel like I want to help him and even protect him. I WANT the relationship to be a safe place for him AND for me. But what you say about it seeming like a ‘testing ground’ makes so much sense: when I ‘try’ too hard to ‘help’ or ‘talk’ or ‘console’ him, it probably really does make him feel inadequate. It often makes things worse. This is hard for me to understand, but I think I’m getting it, and this post very much clarifies things for me.

    I also just realized now that I have been assuming (via necessity – -he has been out of work) the role of ‘provider’ and ‘protector’ for the most part — wow, this has got to take a toll on the way he feels as a man! I want so much for him to feel empowered and more confident in all ways. But, sometimes NOT ‘trying’ to help him is actually the best thing, in part so that I can take better care of myself too. And then he can learn how to better manage his stress and depression on his own, which is in itself empowering.

    In light of the issues discussed in this article, I’m letting go of that urge to ‘tend’. I’m committed to leaving a ton more space, focussing less on ‘us’ as a couple and more on my (our) individual needs. Maybe he needs to feel like he can ‘provide’ and ‘protect’ better, and I just realized that I need that from him too.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Renee -

      I’ve also learned a lot from these ideas – though I certainly can’t take credit for coming up with them. There’s something about the role differences and tendencies for men and women to interpret things in differing patterns that goes deep into everyday awareness. I’m always haunted by sense of inadequacy or nervousness that I won’t measure up, even in trivial ways. It’s remarkable how tiny moments can symbolize very powerful inner needs and fears. Depressive thinking plays into the most negative associations. The other side of it is feeling good or strong when I get something right. The word power comes up so often in all this, and that is one of the inner needs I want to explore more deeply.

      Thanks for your comment.

      John

  8. Mary Kay says:

    Wow! This is exactly what we went through before my husband left. I was worried and stressed about our son who was experiencing a myriad of issues at school thanks to his ADHD; trying to find balance and success for him and his teachers. Your description of the differences between men and women is spot on — I worked through my son’s issues the way women typically do, and my husband exhibited the male behavior pattern, plus he was struggling with depression (but refused to acknowledge). In trying to help our son, I have read a lot on personality traits and other psychological/behavioral differences, but I wish I had come across this. Very insightful and helpful, John! You manage to provide insight at exactly the times I need it!

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Mary Kay -

      I’m glad you found this at the right time. The insights from Pat Love and Shelley Taylor are helping me enormously just now, and I’m glad if I can help lead you to them. I think there is a lot of great work of the last decade that’s coming into wider circulation now. It makes me more hopeful about the possibilities for people to manage depression more effectively, especially in terms of their relationships.

      John

  9. Judy says:

    Do I find these ideas to be accurate in my own relationship? Totally! Making depression worse? Ditto. John, you’ve managed to condense all of this into something that is so on the mark – I wish every couple with a depressed partner (or two) could somehow be required to read it. My husband was experiencing depression for a time, as well, and luckily we were already in couples therapy so that helped a lot. But what you describe about the shame and fear….it feels sad to me that these can destroy an otherwise working relationship. As a female, I have to say that I go through both of these and sometimes the shame I feel about being depressed is a result of my husband’s reaction, which is to “fix” it, making me feel like I should just be able to get over it. Of course, I know it’s not that simple, but it does feel like abandonment – if I am depressed, then there is something wrong with me and we can’t talk about it, which means I’m left alone. And THAT really helps – NOT! I’m thinking that how I’ve worked this out is to lower my expectations and be thankful that he’s learned to not give me the third degree about it because that only raises his anxiety levels when I can’t give logical explanations for it. It’s maybe not the ideal way of coping and involves a lot of avoidance, but it at least feels more peaceful.

    I have to continue working on managing my own depression, with or without him, and some days I just get really sick of it and even angry that it’s a constant thorn in my side and that it’s mostly a lonely job, but if I give up, the result I imagine would be even worse.

    Thanks so much for this particular piece – it really spoke to me.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Judy -

      I’m glad this spoke to you. The difficulties you describe are so familiar – alas! It would be so nice if a couple could resolve all this, have done with it and get on with each other “happily ever after.” I keep running into “ghosts” of depression in patterns of things I say or think and ways I behave with my wife. I seem to be especially receptive now to learning new ideas and strategies for dealing with this legacy, and it helps to get confirmation that it is relevant to others as well.

      John

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