Depression is like an unwelcome obnoxious guest at a party, the bully at the table next to you in school, the bad roommate you can’t kick out of your house. It’s overwhelming, saddening, frustrating, and imposing. When depression worms its way into a marriage, it can turn a good thing upside down in a short time.
Depression pushes its way between two spouses when it shows up. Maybe only one person is diagnosed, but depression puts its mark on both people. That’s the trickery of depression — the deception that if you even realize that’s what it is, you just think it is about the person with the symptoms.
If you get married in good faith believing that each of you are stable, solid people, depression can be a real surprise. It can come on after a difficult life adjustment, in the postpartum period for a woman, or seemingly out of nowhere. It can look like an anger problem, a social discomfort, overeating, sexual disinterest, or the more obvious appearance of sad mood and tears.
This person you know and love has changed so much, becoming a stranger in your own home. They can seem so far out of reach, either talking about deep dark feelings or not talking much at all. Well, then what? It’s not like sending them to the doctor when they have a terrible sore throat and a fever. That’s obvious and it makes sense. If you ask how you could help, or suggest that they talk to a counselor or psychologist, you might get the stiff-arm. It’s their thinking, their feelings, their participation in life — all intangible things. You can’t put a bandage on that. It’s both frustrating and worrisome.
Here are some examples of how a person might react after their spouse has been depressed for several months. By this point, it can get more difficult to be understanding, more difficult to hear the same problems again and again, more difficult to know where you fit into their life, more difficult to see hope.
“You used to do all these things with your friends, and you’ve just quit going for so long. I want to have people over, but you make excuses for why we can’t do it. And we don’t even go out anymore, nowhere — ever. I’m tired of it, and I’m not going to just have no life because you don’t like being social anymore. What in the world has happened to you?”
“It’s all about you now – everything that goes on with this family, it revolves somehow around you. What you’re ready for, comfortable with, don’t feel like, think is pointless. You don’t want to spend any time with me or the kids when we’re in the house, but you don’t like it when I leave to go see my friends out of town. And you worry too much to let the grandparents take the kids overnight. It’s a no-win situation!”
In both of these examples, the depressed person has overly sensitive emotions, low toleration for stress, and trouble being close with loved ones. This isn’t the two-way street that the spouse expected. It can look more like marital mutiny than a clinical mental health problem. When left long enough without treatment, depression can slowly erode relationships.
The depression warps things inside a person’s brain. Their perspective is off-kilter to the point that they don’t see any difference between the depression and their true self. They take on the depression’s influence as if it is completely based in truth. Things feel so bad, and the thoughts are so negative — it must be because things really ARE that bad. Depression sometimes comes on after something that might make anyone emotionally upset, like a death in the family or diagnosis of a serious illness. If they have short-term distress, the intensity of their emotions will fade over time and they will gradually rebound. Clinical depression makes nearly everything seem unmanageable and overwhelming with little sign of hope or improvement.
Thankfully, when a depressed person does eventually get help, it can be an enormous relief to the spouse. There may be skepticism and hope mixed together. It may even take years for the depressed person to understand the impact their problem had on the whole family. Marriage can be damaged by depression, sometimes beyond repair when it is chronic. But when a person gets help early on for their depression, chances are good that the marriage will improve too.