How to Respond to Depression as a Spouse

More than 12years ago, I read a touching post on a popular blog about everything the writer had done wrong when he first responded to his wife’s depression. Tom and his wife had been married only five years when he wrote the article, but it was filled with insight, hope, and positivity. Among the things he says he got wrong:

“Early in our marriage I was attached to the idea that happiness is a choice. Unhappiness, I thought, could be cured by adjusting attitude and seeking the Spirit. This way of thinking worked for me (and it mostly still does) and I saw no reason that it shouldn’t work for my wife. So when she had problems I explained to her the way that I thought and expected her to just choose to be better. When she didn’t, I saw it as a character flaw (I blamed her). I don’t think I ever told her this, but she sensed it. This attitude of mine made her feel worse. Rather than being understanding and compassionate I ended up being obtuse and accusatory. Also unhelpful was pointing out to her that her feelings were irrational. She already knew that.”1

Ironically, but surprisingly common in relationships, Tom’s second “wrong” was the counterpoint of his first. “I blamed myself. Any time my wife broke down and told me about the kinds of thoughts she was having it made me feel like a complete failure,” he wrote. “She told me many times that I wasn’t the source of her problems. But when she told me that she had suicidal thoughts, it was difficult not to think that it was because I was making her life miserable. I resented her sometimes for telling me these things because it made me feel like I couldn’t make any mistakes without sending her over the edge, like I had to constantly walk on eggshells.”

I tracked Tom down while researching this book to ask for his impressions now, how his wife is doing, and how things have changed in the dozen years since he’d written the article. Today, Tom and his wife have four children and have been married more than 17 years. Tom says he wouldn’t change anything about the blog post; the advice he gave—and the things he did wrong—remain the same. His wife still deals with depression and anxiety, but they’ve learned techniques together to help manage it and endure the rough spots.

He explains how his blaming his wife’s attitude early on aggravated her depression: “When I was judging her . . . it made her feel that she was not living up to some gospel standard. Part of the problem was she already had this . . . fear that the bad thoughts that she was having were sins in and of themselves and therefore made her unworthy of God’s love, of the celestial kingdom, of the Spirit. My judgment added on top of that just validated what she was already feeling, her negative feelings and her negative fears about herself. It was really compounding the problem rather than solving it.”

He’s learned to resist the trap of self-blame when his wife isn’t well. “It is important for loved ones on the outside looking in to not take a loved one’s struggles with depression as a sign of your own failure. When your spouse is depressed, it’s hard not to think that you are a cause of the unhappiness, that you are failing in some way to make them happy. I have sometimes reflexively felt defensive when my wife has shared her struggles with me, as if she was accusing me of not being loving enough or supportive enough. When that happens, I have to remind myself that her illness is not my fault, just as it is not her fault.”

Today, Tom blames depression—not people—when things go awry. This behavior took a while to learn, but it helps tremendously, as does simply loving the depressed person. As you’ll see from Tom’s story (and the others in this chapter), the decisive variable in relationship survival is love. Andrew Solomon writes, “Depression is a disease of loneliness”; love is an essential remedy in its treatment. Not, he adds, because it “ameliorates the symptoms of depression (it does not), but because it gives people evidence that life may be worth living if they can only get better. It gives them a place to admit to their illness, and admitting it is the first step toward resolving it.”2

Tom and I discussed many things, but this point is most important: “Marriage to a person with mental illness is not doomed to be miserable.” Tom and his wife make their marriage work despite her depression. “We have had struggles, especially early on when I was not as understanding and supportive as I should have been. But I have what I consider to be a happy marriage, and I’m glad for the choice I made. I wouldn’t say I’m glad my wife sometimes struggles with anxiety and depression, but I am grateful for the experiences we’ve shared and for the chance I’ve had to become more understanding and compassionate. When both spouses are committed to love and care for one another, it is possible to build something great together.”

The responses to Tom’s blog post more than 10 years ago were also instructive. Some readers commented on the agony and isolation that can encompass a caregiving spouse. Others suggested approaches that help them ride out the rough times with spouses who have depression. This anonymous comment echoes many of the sentiments expressed by those I interviewed: “When things first started really going south for us, I got what I believe is the best advice for any caregiver—spouse, friend, priesthood leader, anyone. That was to not let my wife’s struggles destroy my life. Do everything I can to make my personal life as normal as I can. Keep my same interests, hobbies, etc. The better shape I am in, the better I can help my wife.

“The advantage to that is, when it works, it helps my wife keep her morale up. She tells me often that she thinks she is ruining my life. If I can point out to her all the good things that I have held on to, I can talk her out of that notion. On the other hand, when I let it get to me, she takes full blame for my bad days.”3

Depression can—and often does—seem like a mask overlying your loved one’s true and former self. Feeling that “this is not the person I know” is typical, but depression shouldn’t be allowed to also subvert a caregiver’s authentic self.

Lead image from Shutterstock

1. “Early in our marriage,” “Mormons and Mental Illness: Spousal Support,” bycommonconsent.com, December 7, 2005, https://bycommonconsent.com/2005/12/07/mormons-and-mental-illness-spousal-support/. Accessed December 19, 2017.

2. “Depression is a disease,” Andrew Solomon, “Depression is a disease of loneliness,” andrewsolomon.com, August 16, 2014, http://andrewsolomon.com/articles/depression-is-a-disease-of-loneliness/. Accessed December 19, 2017.

3. “When things first started,” “Mormons and Mental Illness: Spousal Support.”

Image titleThrough the power of story, nationally recognized journalist Jane Clayson Johnson shines a light on the desperate, dark, and lonely reality faced by those who struggle with clinical depression. At once hopeful and heart-wrenching, Silent Souls Weeping examines the stigma and isolation associated with depression, as well as the dangers of perfectionistic tendencies and suicidal ideation. Available now at Deseret Book stores and deseretbook.com

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