How do I help my husband?

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

My husband has recently discovered (with the help of his therapist) that he is severely depressed and suffers social anxiety. He realized that he has been “holding in” all of his emotional baggage for years and that all at once something triggered these feelings to surface causing what seems like a nervous breakdown in his life. He was always the gentle giant that “owned the room” without having to do much. He was always outgoing, a great conversationalist and loved by everyone.

Over the last few years I have watched him become more introverted, less willing to do things and overall just unhappy. We have two small children ages two and a half and 10 months. He has been to a therapist once and plans to go back again, but not for another month. Medication did not come up in their discussion, but he can hardly make it through the day without fits of rage, anger, sadness and/or hopelessness. I’m not sure that even if his therapist had suggested it, that he would take it – as he sees that as a weakness. In the meantime, he hardly speaks to me and has been travelling more to avoid being home. He says he needs some space, but it’s almost impossible to do that when I see him falling apart day after day. I feel like he is pushing me away and will eventually leave us. He has not been able to say to me that divorce is out of the question. I want to discuss his depression and what’s going on, but he literally starts to have (what seems to me) like anxiety attacks every time it comes up. I want to help him and I am trying my best to balance his illness, our children’s needs and my needs but I feel like I’m not going to be able to last much longer like this. To put it plainly, what do I do?
Thank you,

A: It must be very, very difficult to watch the man you love be in such emotional pain. I couldn’t help but notice that he started to decline somewhere around the birth of your first child. It makes me wonder if something about the responsibilities of fatherhood is overwhelming to him.

It’s unusual for someone in this much distress to have to wait a month to see his therapist again. Generally, I would want to see him at least weekly in order to help him open up about what is bothering him and help him learn some new ways to cope. Talk therapy has the most impact in the first month. Medication usually takes a month to reach therapeutic levels. That’s why weekly therapy during the first month is generally advised. If your husband refuses to consider medication, it is even more important that he get engaged in therapy.

Ideally, your husband would invite you to join him in a session or two with the therapist. You can help the therapist understand how your husband behaves at home. The therapist can help you learn new ways to support him – and can help your husband sort out how much of the problem is inside of him and how much of it has to do with how the two of you interact.

If your husband were seeing me, I would suggest to him that “having space” isn’t likely to be helpful. Wherever he goes, he’ll be there with himself. Talking about his feelings with you may make him feel hopeless because he doesn’t know how to do it in a way that gets him to a better place. A therapist can help him figure out ways to make changes that will help him feel less trapped and more able to manage the responsibilities of being a husband and a dad.

I hope he will consider calling the therapist to request another appointment soon and that he will be willing to have you join him for part or all of a session. The two of you loved each other enough to marry and have two children. If you are both willing to give it an honest try, the odds are you can find ways to be a family that is satisfying and happy.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 10 Dec 2010

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2010). How do I help my husband?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 2, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2010/12/10/how-do-i-help-my-husband/

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