Depressed Men Behaving Badly Can Stop

Frowning Man in Dark Glasses

There’s a story on this site that never, unfortunately, gets old. It’s about depressed men breaking up their relationships as a misguided way to get well and find fulfillment. The psychotherapist, David Wexler, has good ideas about how men can change the experience of their closest relationships without leaving.

He looks at the problems of men in crisis from a broader perspective than that of depression, but his thoughts are also helpful when mood disorder is the cause of crisis.

When Good Men Behave Badly is directed to men running off the tracks as a result of midlife crisis. It’s a companion piece to his Is He Depressed or What?, which is aimed at women trying to live with depressed men. (I discussed his ideas about male depression in a recent newsletter.)

He paints an interesting portrait of the “unconscious man,” one who is focused solely on what is missing from his life and what he does not get from his partner. He can think only of what his life should be, not what it is – what he wants, not what he has.

In contrast, the conscious man is able to look at his life without illusions. He can accept it for what it is, with all its good things and all its limitations. Instead of being consumed with urges to turn his life upside down to get what he wants, he is attentive to experience as he lives it.

Wexler’s book is intended to serve as a guide to help men move from crisis into a more conscious awareness of who they are and the lives they lead. The crisis Wexler describes can be triggered in various ways.

  • The Dream Unfulfilled. Perhaps a man has been living with a dream about what he will be or the kind of life he wants. He might wake up one day and realize that he will never achieve that dream and has to settle for what he has. No longer able to focus on the promise of the dream, he might now think only about the ways his life falls short of what he had hoped for.

  • Crisis of Meaning. Perhaps he was able to have the career, the marriage, the family he always wanted but suddenly feels none of it has any meaning. It no longer feels worthwhile. There must be something more.

  • Regaining Vitality. He may be afraid of growing old, in the sense of losing his potential to grow and fulfill his ambitions. He may panic about losing the vitality that makes him feel alive. He wants to rejuvenate his life, to feel young again.

However he perceives the course of his life, he takes the frustration or sense of loss at face value and comes to think in absolute terms. His present life and especially his partner will never meet his needs. He must have someone new who really understands, who responds in just the way he wants, who shares his likes and dislikes. If nothing turns him off that path, he can cause irrevocable damage to the present relationship, either through an affair, public humiliation of his partner, rage or violence.

If he can stop before reaching that point, there are several methods that can bring about a basic change of attitude. I found that Wexler’s ideas closely matched the experience I went through with my wife. The end result can be a basic change in the relationship. For us, it was like falling in love all over again. That is exactly the outcome that seems unimaginable to a man in the midst of this kind of crisis.

Feeling the need to change or revitalize your life is not necessarily a bad thing. Wexler respects the drive to make life more coherent and meaningful but puts the emphasis on making choices when self-aware rather than when feeling driven by irresistible urges.

Those urges, he points out, are temporary states that will pass if you can hold off from action when they are at their most intense. Part of preparing yourself to deal with powerful moments of need is knowing ahead of time that you do have the ability to choose to act or not when those urges feel overwhelming.

If you need relief from the confusion of inner pain, then a decision not to act, as Wexler says, can be a bold, informed choice.

He talks about taking responsibility for your moods as one of the crucial steps in gaining more insight into what you are going through. In his view, moods are not feelings but the rigid states of mind you enter when you are ignoring emotions. Acknowledging and expressing feelings of hurt or need as they arise is the important step that many men miss.

I often felt a need to feel validated by my partner by having her recognize and respond to my feelings without my having to say anything about them. That desire arose from a legacy of shame and broken self-esteem, I’m sure, but I seem to share that desire with many men, according to Wexler.

In this strange state of mind, a woman’s reaching out to take care of your needs without your having to say anything is a way of demonstrating love. You feel that your emotional needs are being taken care of. It sounds strange and childish, but I believe a similar dynamic underlies the sudden estrangement that partners of depressed men describe.

The men never said anything was wrong, but silently they were compiling a record of unmet needs, a sort of emotional score-card, and their partners failed the test. The men felt misunderstood, rejected, unloved and believed that the relationship could never change. The first thing their partners may have noticed was anger, blame and withdrawal that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Wexler, as a psychotherapist, wants his male clients to face the reality that no wife or partner would ever be able to satisfy all their needs. He tries to get them to think realistically about what they are imagining. When this works, it is a relief to his clients to realize that their partners don’t have to be everything for them. That would be an impossible burden on any woman and would mean she would have no life or needs of her own.

Shifting attention to the realities of the present takes away the inner pressure to compensate for a sense of shame or inadequacy by holding onto a dream of perfection. If you can stop focusing on what you imagine your life could be and look at what you have, then it is possible to take some of the power out of the fantasy.

I have felt that shift from fantasy to reality, and the relief that it brings. Wexler is one of the few writers who has tried to account for the sudden change that follows. The need to fulfill an unquenchable longing and the bitter disappointment at not being able to do so disappear. In their place is a sense of rediscovery of your partner – a shared feeling that leads to a renewed intimacy.

The very thing that seemed so impossible – that you could find fulfillment in your existing relationship – is actually happening.

You have a completely different experience of being with your partner. Frustration and angry silence are replaced with responsiveness and the ability to talk through whatever problem has come between you. Everything is not perfect – you are no longer expecting perfection. Instead, the relationship feels real and present emotionally.

Wexler puts it this way: “…as Buddhists know, pain stems from the gap between expectations and reality. … [When] the expectations genuinely change, the opportunity for freedom from pain appears.”

As he summarizes the process: The pathway out of crisis leads to authenticity and intimacy.

13 Responses to “Depressed Men Behaving Badly Can Stop”

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  1. soyma says:

    Hi my husband is 36 and i am 33,we have two kids.All we came to forien,in recent past he is very depressive and thinks always about money as he had not saved any thing till now,and worrying about to look after all the family,parents..etc.we are from poor family,my self is not so literate and my husband has a moderate only.In recent past in the work environment the managers probed to fall his moods,Now i did not understand that always he says that he is immature,it goes even more sick to him.ideally he is not talking anything in home or outside and become very can i re-gain him,kindly help me.

  2. JM says:

    Hi, my husband has been suffering a depressive episode for 8 months, he takes medication and had counselling when diagnosed.. We both feel he is not recovering as still experiencing the anger, extreme fatigue, hopelessness, negative feelings and so on.He is 29 and I am 39, we have been married 18 months but together 11 years. He has a female best friend she is also married and suffering with depression.. he shares everything with this woman – he tells her her loves her many times a day (via social network), how she has ‘saved him’, he misses her, she is beautiful and amazing. He has a photo of her in his wallet and has bought her special gifts for Xmas and birthday.They talk/text every day and see eachother once a week. I have known about this for about 4 months. After a few discussions/rows about her, requests from me to tone it down, take photo out of wallet, have a bit more respect for my feelings etc resulting in threats from my husband to leave if I ‘gave him any more s***’ I have avoided the subject. When a good friend recently said was I aware of that my husband was telling another woman he loves her etc.. I feel I have got to speak up and let my husband know this is unacceptable. I love him and have offered my support throughout this whole time, he told me his depression was my fault, I am too controlling, treat him like a child, do this and that wrong etc – I know that is not true and it is not my fault – I also know it is not his fault. I do feel, however, that we have both used his depression as an excuse for his bad behavior. I do not believe his depression is making him tell another woman he loves her when he claims he not to be able to feel anything for me. Is it time for him to face the music? I feel I will be pushing him away, I am sure he will leave and pick his friendship with her over me if I make him choose. I so want our marriage to work, I can live with his depression and would like him to be able to come to me for support – to see our relationship as fulfiilling, like John says in this article. At the moment, I am struggling to be supportive as I feel that ‘someone else’ always beats me to it with exactly the right words of comfort!!

    • K says:

      Hi JM, I’m sorry to hear what you’re going through. You say that the other woman is married; does her husband know what’s going on? Have you thought about speaking to him? I feel maybe it’s time to get tough with him!

      All the best, K

  3. Galen says:

    I am a 59 year old male blessed with a wonderful marriage but have seen several depressed male friends bail out of relationships that might have been saved. Shame is a particularly potent ingredient in male depression and it is very tempting to attribute one’s condition to outside factors. Close relationships tend to deteriorate under the impact of depression and the affirming lure of another woman hard to resist.

    The alternative to shame is a “this is who I am” self-acceptance and it is a relief of sorts to no longer put energy into trying to appear normal. It took me many years to understand that my most effective antidotes to depression lie within myself. This was not initially so happy a realization since it requires me to mobalize resources and take action when I would rather sit in a big, soft chair and contemplate my misfortune. This can feel soothing in the short term but over time it feeds and reinforces the depression and its voice at my ear- “Give it up.”

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Galen -

      Well put. I think you’ve captured beautifully the difficulty of trying to deal with shame and the need for self-acceptance. Overcoming the inertia – yes, the comfort – of inaction is so hard, but that is the key to feeling like you have a life again of your own choosing.

      Thanks so much for your comment.


  4. Rebecca says:

    I have been with my husband for almost 8 years now, although only married for soon to be 3 years. We have had issues throughout our entire relationship, such as me feeling insecure, jealous, needing to plan things and be in control, etc. We have fought often about these things and I have always said that I would work on them, but have not done it quite to the extent that he would like. He always feels as though we are having the same fight repeatedly, and nothing is being addressed.

    He has always been kind of a withdrawn person, and a deep thinker, who seems to be in his own head a lot of the time, always thinking about new ideas or theories that he would like to write about or explore. He doesn’t have a lot of close friends and the ones that we do hang out with more often are my friends. He isn’t very emotionally connected to his family either.

    He is 32 and in his last year of college. It took him a long time to decide what he wanted to do with his life and to get through school, and he’s still not even sure how he wants to use his English degree. I received my MSW 4 years ago, and am kind of waiting for him to finish school so that we can get going on the next chapter of our lives.

    Well, in the last 6-8 months, he has become increasingly withdrawn and isolated and unhappy. It wasn’t too apparent for a while, I attributed it to his going to school full-time and working full-time with difficult work hours, and not having time for homework, sleep or relaxation. He would sometimes tell me that he was overwhelmed, tired, and angry with his classmates for being young and immature or co-workers for not doing a good job. I would also ask him to do things with me sometimes on the weekends, to socialize with friends or go out on dates, when he was needing to do homework; he would often do it because he knew it made me happy or he needed a break, but ask me for time and support later on to get his work done. I thought I was doing just that, by leaving him alone at other times, or trying to talk to him about how his frustrations with school and work. But he just kept seeming more upset. Finally, about 4 months ago, he told me that he had started connecting with a young girl from work, a 20 year old whom he knew had a crush on him, because she was the first person to really ask him how he was doing and to say that he looked upset. He had started talking to her a lot and opening up to her about his frustrations with school and work, never talking about us or our marriage issues, and that he was starting to get confusing feelings about her. He couldn’t understand how he could feel so supported by her, and so un-supported by me, his wife, and he was beginning to be confused about his love for me, and that maybe he loved her. Because he thought it was going to go to an inappropriate place, he told me about her. Well, I freaked out, thinking that he had stopped loving me for a bit. We talked it through and came to the conclusion that he did still love me, he just needed me to be more supportive and understanding of him. He stopped talking to her as much for a bit, but I was still wary of their close working relationship, and expressed my concerns to him several times. We would fight about her often. They then started reconnecting and being friends again, and we fought some more about her. He kept telling me that he was keeping the boundaries of friendship in place, but that she was the only one who understood him and he had no friends and needed to be supported by her. He would also cry a lot during this time, telling me that he felt like dying and that he had no support system and that I had really hurt him by not supporting and understanding him. Every time we would fight about her I think it would push him further and further down into despair. He was acknowledging that he was in pain, but was trying to determine if it was due to his difficult semester or maybe his unaddressed past family issues. But during this time he was still loving and caring of me, and we were still doing well in our relationship.

    Well, 2 weeks ago he woke up in the morning and told me that he finally made the connection that all the pain and hurt he was feeling was due to me and our relationship, and that he didn’t think he could be in it any longer. He said he realized that I had “subtly coerced” him into living a life and being a person, over the past 8 years, that he doesn’t want to live or be. He said that I neglected our relationship, ignored him and took advantage of his feelings, by not addressing the issues we had. He also believes I drove away all his friends and support system and now he is trying to build that back up, starting with this girl, whom he has been spending a lot of time outside of work with and texting all the time, in the last 2 weeks. He still says they are just friends, but I’m afraid it has formed into an emotional affair. He says he doesn’t know who he wants to be or what type of life he wants to lead, but that he knows that it is not the one that we have been creating. He has been willing to start couples counseling, and we both just started individual therapy, but he says it’s too late and the only reasons I’m doing it now is because he said he wants us to end. He is blaming all of his pain and anguish on me, and is so hurtful in the way that he talks to me and about our relationship, saying that the last 8 years have had their good times, but that it wasn’t really him experiencing them. He just seems so angry and resentful toward me, and won’t really look at me and hasn’t touched me in 2 weeks, not even a hug. He doesn’t want to talk to me or do things with me, so the only times we talk are when I bring up our relationship and try to reason with him, which just ends with me crying and him sitting there blankly.

    I guess my questions are- while I acknowledge that I could have been more supportive and less demanding, etc. and worked on my issues throughout our relationship, is this a normal response to just being fed up with it and not seeing that it will work out? I keep talking to friends and family (which he has yet to do) and we are all just so confused because this is definitely not like him. While I understand what depression looks like, I don’t want to presume that that’s what’s happening here, because then I think I’ll get my hopes up that he’ll get treatment and our relationship will be able to be saved, with a lot of work. If it’s not that, then I will have to see that maybe it’s just that I drove him to feeling like there is nothing good in our relationship and that we made a bad choice in getting married and we’ll end up divorced. Which is devastating to think about, since I still love him so much and know that things can turn around, with work on both of our parts. However, in reading through a lot of these blog posts, our situation sounds similar to the feelings that you and others were experiencing when in the midst of depression and only seeing leaving as the way to get your life back on track. Any insight would be greatly appreciated.


    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Rebecca -

      I’m sorry this is such a hard time for you. It is always difficult to sort out what’s happening in a relationship where things have been rough for a while. Your husband could be depressed, but that’s a judgment that a therapist or psychiatrist would have to make based on a full evaluation. He shows all the signs that I had for many years – it sounds like he feels lost, without a purpose he feels sure of, unable to make friends, isolating himself, feeling a lot of anger and blaming others for his own pain, showing blunted feelings or depressed mood. It is very common for depressed men to mistake their inability to feel for a lack of love in their relationship. But even if it is depression, he has to recognize that the pain is internal – it’s not caused by you and won’t magically go away through a new relationship. If it’s not a diagnosable case of depression, he still has to recognize a set of problems that he needs to work on, and hopefully he could do that in therapy. In any case, what he does about his unhappiness isn’t something you can control. I would hope you wouldn’t blame yourself for not having handled the relationship well – it sounds like you’ve been trying very hard to look at problems of your own, in the relationship and in him and have a fairly balanced view of what’s been happening. If it’s any comfort, you should know that most couples have “irreconcilable differences” and argue about the same things over and over again. Many still do well together, however, because they wind up listening to each other and learn how to repair the hurt feelings. But to do that, they need to turn to each other, rather than blame and turn away. He has to be willing to work with you. Until that happens, I hope you can take care of your own needs through your supportive friends and individual therapy.


  5. lookingforanswers says:

    This sort of sums up what’s going on with my husband who, at only 35 – and quite a few years younger than me – suddenly walked out 4 months ago. No explanation, no discussion. He was playing up for some time, staying out ’til very late, becoming angrier with me at every turn (even smashed the TV screen one day in a fit of pique), threatening to leave, being irresponsible and selfish, etc. Soon after, he began dating. But, since leaving, he’s been living in a small room in a house of 13 people, paying unafordable rent. Recently, he’s had to move further away from work to a cheaper room in another houseshare. I know he’s not happy with this lifestyle. His choice, though. He gave up hearth and home in search of “freedom”. But, instead, he’s broke, always overdrawn and still in a job he doesn’t like. And now he lives like a student in digs. He’s 35, for goodness sake! Who knows if the relationship he’s in will last. No money, no fun. Again, his choice.

  6. NeedsAnonimity says:

    Hi John,

    This describes my husband throughout our marriage. Most recently, though, what he longs for are body parts that were taken from me surgically. Any advice for him on how to get past his grief over the loss?

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, NeedsAnonymity -

      I have to say that when I had some cancerous parts removed surgically, my wife was glad to have me alive, whatever I might be missing. Given his history, depression can be part of the grief he is feeling at this loss, and he should work on it with a therapist. Perhaps you could see a therapist together if it comes between you as a couple. Hundreds of thousands of couples have faced this problem.

      My best to you –


  7. Evan says:

    Here’s my take. Persons make meaning, or, ‘awareness can be curative of itself’. (Although the “awareness” referred to is more than cerebral.)

  8. Hello John. Grateful as always for the priceless articles …


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