The Unacknowledged Intruder: Depression and The Coupledom: The New York Times Sunday Magazine featured a fascinating article on the research of Andy Thomson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia. The piece entitled “Depression’s Upside” by Jonah Lehrer discusses research into the adaptive components of depression. Fascinating as the research is, it deals mainly with situational depression, reactive to stressors such as loss or trauma, not “chronic depression” which can be life long and perhaps of a different derivation. Whatever the opinion of experts regarding the neurology or adaptive mechanisms of depression, often couples don’t realize that depression is playing a significant role in their relationship.
Unmasking Depression in Your Partnership: Depression can create an atmosphere that is as intangible and familiar as a low-grade fever, or a light fog seeping off the ocean at dusk. Not quite there, yet everywhere. Families adapt to a “depressive member” without ever identifying them or their influence as such. Yet, when these same families, or couples, come into therapy with the “relationship as the problem” or an acting out adolescent or a string of failures and disappointments, scratching the surface can reveal a chronic depressive family member, not infrequently the father/husband.
The Culprit Here Is Not The Depressive Sufferer but the misleading components of male depression, so unlike the traditional notions of depression, often characterized by females who are culturally permitted to be aware and articulate about their unhappiness. Male depression can appear as a grouchy, hostile-edged and critical presence, perhaps ruminating on slights or personal failures. This can be the husband or wife who sees the cup half empty, the kids as annoying or disappointing and their job as unsatisfying. They may exude a kind of flatness and chip on their shoulder that can be contagious. Children act out while the white elephant of depression slumbers peacefully, immutable and mute plopped on the family room rug. Someone wants to scream but doesn’t know exactly why.
Putting the Pieces of a Puzzle Together: The depressive partner may think that dissatisfaction stems from failures of others and is able to provide convincing arguments to substantiate this belief. Their partners, children, boss, other drivers, IRS are at the root of the problem. Spouses or other loved ones are persuaded over time that this is the case, and strive to be “better”, or make others better; but better never betters the relationship. It is never better enough. The depression sufferer remains displeased, dispirited, often hostile and quite capable of describing in detail who and what is at fault. The cloud never lifts for long. Because the depressed individual has spent years trying to explain their unhappiness to themselves, they are pretty good at it. It is up to their partners to begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together to see that the unhappiness resides inside their partner, not outside.
Tools to Unveiling Depression: Reality Testing Outside the Box. Go outside the “closed system” of the Coupledom or the family, to friends and relatives and inquire as to their impressions of your partner. Though this may seem disloyal or embarrassing, it is quite the opposite. It is pro active and courageous. This is quite different from complaining or venting. It is an intelligent fact-finding mission designed to inform not to condemn. Explore with others their perceptions, brainstorm and look for patterns. They may know your spouse’ history and can share observations formed over time. Removing the blinders of familiarity and replacing them with a fresh perspective is the first step towards unveiling the secret menace of depression in the Coupledom. Books, online information, google, Wikipedia, online mental health sites, are wonderfully useful sources when trying to make sense out of the behaviors, attitudes and moods of loved ones. That Aha moment of recognition will lift the fog and bring the relief of knowing.
How to Approach the Depressive Partner: Soon it will become clear that depression is playing a leading role in the Coupledom and the family. Approaching your partner becomes the challenge. They may feel blamed, accused or misunderstood and strike out at the “messenger”. There is no simple answer as to the best approach. Each one has to figure this out, perhaps with the help of an expert and/or other family members. Telling your partner that they seem unhappy and have seemed so for a while, is the beginning of that conversation. Starting to see that you are not the cause or should provide the cure, is a huge step away from “enabling depression”. Showing a sincere interest in their feelings may assist the depression sufferer to embark on their own journey of self examination.
Depressive Individuals Can Be Intimidating: After years together, a partner who has been criticized, invalidated and belittled for their concern or efforts to appease or improve their partners spirits, may be cowed and scared off easily. That is when it is time to get help. With expert help, choices will be clearer, steps easier and courage to effect needed change in the relationship and the family life, will be found. Though the depressed partner may refuse help, it is the spouse who now needs to break the spell. Depression embraces all in its reach with the same heavy cloak of misery.
The Unacceptable Life: Sharing a life with hidden depression is unacceptable and unhealthy for all involved. Breaking down the barriers to acknowledge the white elephant in the room, is the first step. No one can force someone to seek help, but everyone can seek help for themselves. In the end, we only control ourselves, but giving ourselves choices is powerful and empowering. Taking off the familiar blinders, and taping into personal courage is an awesome process never regretted.
©jill edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.2010