Betty sits alone in the kitchen late at night, tearfully reviewing the current state of her life and marriage. Things looked so promising when she married Arthur after meeting at school! A modest home in the suburbs, two beautiful children, a small circle of friends, meaningful work as a school administrator, church picnics and potlucks—what more could she want?
And yet, unbeknownst to even her closest friends, Betty has suffered for nine years as a result of Arthur’s longstanding depression. At first, she attempted to utilize her naturally cheery disposition to “jolly” Arthur out of his dark moods, but came to realize that Arthur’s gloom could not be so easily dismissed. With the help of their family physician, she was able to persuade Arthur to seek treatment. After a number of false starts, he is now taking his medication “fairly” regularly and seeing a therapist “almost” every other week in a nearby town.
Over the years, Betty has had to make excuses for Arthur’s absence from community functions. Often, she herself has been reluctant to leave him at home alone with the children, since he seemed incapable of providing the kind of supervision she believed was necessary given his low energy level and seeming preoccupation with matters that might have best been put behind him.
As she dries her eyes and begins to prepare tomorrow’s school lunches for her children, she has difficulty recalling the last time she and Arthur shared the kind of “quiet exhilaration” she knew with him when they first met.
As this example illustrates, the harmful effects of depression are not limited to the person diagnosed with that disorder. Clearly, depression in one marital partner can affect that person’s spouse. In fact, depression in a marriage often disrupts communication and social patterns and can even contribute to depressed mood in the “non-depressed” spouse.
What Can I Do?
The first and most important thing you can do is to find ways to remind yourself that your spouse or partner is ill—not hostile, not stupid, not out to get you, not stubborn, not any of a dozen unfriendly things you might feel like calling him or her when you are at your wit’s end. Diagnosed depression is much like diabetes or heart disease from the perspective that it is a chronic illness that requires special attention and considerable patience.
Patience of this magnitude is a tall order. It will help if you have a good friend, a supportive family member, a pastor, a therapist, or some other caring person in your life to listen to you and help to shore you up during the hard times. Recovery from depression often takes longer than the ill person or the people surrounding him or her think they can stand. You need someone to be in your corner!
Taking Care of Your Partner
Perhaps the single most important action you can take is to assist your spouse in getting proper diagnosis and treatment for his or her depression from a health care professional.
This is not the time to try to make him or her take responsibility. Not going for treatment is generally not a reflection of irresponsibility. It’s part of the illness. A sense of hopelessness is common to all depressive illnesses and may be the very thing that keeps your spouse from getting needed help! You can gradually turn responsibility back over to him or her when he or she has accepted the diagnosis and is actively working on getting better. In the meantime,
- If you have to be the one to schedule the appointment with your spouse’s doctor or therapist, do it!
- If you want to ensure that your spouse gets to the appointment, arrange the necessary transportation or provide it yourself.
- If medication is prescribed, remind your spouse that it will take several weeks for the effects of medication to be experienced. Remain patient, supportive, and reassuring about the eventual success of treatment.
- Offer to assist in monitoring the pill-taking and refill process to ensure that the medication schedule is followed closely to ensure the maximum benefit.
Once the depressed person is under a professional’s care, you can add other kinds of supports:
- Encourage, but do not “push,” activities, hobbies, sports, and games that gave your spouse pleasure in the past. Inactivity is common during depressive episodes and can prolong the depressive cycle.
- Encourage him or her to be physically active. You can start with something as simple as taking walks together. As your spouse feels a bit better, you can encourage him or her to get to a gym, to get on a bike, to exercise to a video—anything that gets him or her moving.
- Make an effort to find things that will make him or her laugh. Rent a comedy video, share a joke, do some gentle teasing, draw on your own sense of the absurd. Laughter is the enemy of depression.
- Don’t ignore or make light of suicidal talk. There is a risk for suicide at all phases of depressive illness. Be sure to alert your spouse’s doctor or therapist to suicidal talk— it is likely to be a request for help!
Taking Care of Yourself
If your spouse is unwilling or unable to follow through on social engagements, remember that it is not your job to make excuses for your spouse to family or friends. Letting those you are closest to know that your spouse has been seriously depressed will not only put the issue squarely on the table, but will open up the potential for you to receive the support anyone in your circumstances would need.
Whatever you do, try not to take the depression on as something you can personally “fix.” Although your support, encouragement, and caring are clearly needed, you can’t “love” this particular problem away. Treatment is the answer and the services of a professional are required.
Take care of yourself. You won’t be of much help to yourself or others if you allow your spouse’s depression to envelop you as well. Eat well. Get enough sleep. Stay in contact with your friends. Continue your work and social commitments to the greatest extent possible.
As stated above, don’t hesitate to get some professional help for yourself if you need it. It’s okay to need a private place to deal with your feelings of anger, disappointment, and upset.
Spouses of depressed people often benefit from couples’ work or family therapy involving the depressed partner. A mental health professional can assist the couple or family to recognize and change destructive patterns of relating that often accompany depression in the family. For example, a couple might renegotiate their approach to shared activities and agree to the benefit of time apart. This may remedy disruptions to the social life of the non-depressed spouse and ease marital discord.
Marriage and commitment are for better or worse. Depression is definitely one of the “worse.” It can be trying to maintain one’s own optimism and joy in life when someone you love is under a constant cloud. But with good treatment, encouragement, and caring, most depressed people do recover. With good support, most spouses break through the silence and make it as well.
Benazon, N.R., & Coyne, J.C. (2000). Living with a depressed spouse. Journal of Family Psychology, 14(1), 71-79.
Depression.com (2000). Living with a depressed person [Article]. South San Francisco, CA: Author. Retrieved July 25, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.depression.com/health_library/living/index.html
Johnson, S.L., & Jacob, T. (2000). Sequential interactions in the marital communication of depressed men and women. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68(1), 4-12.
National Institute of Mental Health (1994). Helpful facts about depressive illnesses [Pamphlet]. Rockville, MD: Author. Retrieved July 25, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/helpful.cfm