5 Things You Need to Know about Your Spouse Who Struggles with Depression
Editor’s Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to [email protected].
The couple arrived at our cottage late, having flown in from Tennessee to participate in a Marriage Intensive. I arrived the next morning to begin our work. After greeting and breaking the ice with small conversation, we began our work. As we began to talk I quickly noticed how far apart they sat.
Kathy, a thirty-five year old woman, sat stiffly in a single chair, while Jess, her burly husband, hugged the edge of a large sofa. I wondered if it had simply been a long flight and perhaps they were tired. Or had their years of conflict taken such a huge toll on their intimacy?
Our work began much the same as most Intensives—we began to talk about the process leading to their seeking depth marriage counseling. But this Intensive was a bit different, and I couldn’t put my finger on it right away. Kathy seemed pensive, reluctant to share. It took her several moments to answer questions. I attributed it to their emotional distance, and possibly the awkwardness she felt in sharing with someone she didn’t know well.
Finally, in the middle of our third session, Jess blurted it out.
“Are you going to talk about your depression?” he asked angrily, looking over at Kathy. “Are you going to tell him how you close up for days and don’t talk to me?”
Kathy seemed to slump further into her chair, her eyes turning away from us. My mind started racing. I had never asked about depression. I hadn’t considered the possible additional issues, contributing to the relational ones we had been focusing on.
I watched Kathy, her eyes hollow, her cheeks sunken, tears welling up. While Jess seemed annoyed, Kathy wanted to retreat.
“Kathy, please don’t retreat,” Jess implored. “I can’t talk to you if you clam up, and the doctor can’t help us if you won’t talk to him.”
“Well,” she began slowly. “I don’t know what to say. I haven’t been happy for years. I’ve lost fifteen pounds,” she said, pulling at her pants to illustrate the weight she had lost. I can’t talk to him, so I retreat. Our kids are nearly grown and I gave up my job ten years ago to be with our kids. I’m lost.”
“And I can’t reach her,” Jess said, obviously irritated. “She withdraws from me, her friends at church, our kids. Everyone has noticed it.”
“I feel ashamed of how I’ve let things get,” she said softly. “He tells me to look on the many blessings we have—and we have a lot. Two wonderful kids, a nice home, enough money. What’s the matter with me?”
“Do you think it’s possible you might be depressed, Kathy?” I asked questions to determine if she was suffering from clinical depression—persistent sadness, anxiety, guilt, irritability, loss of energy, lessened interest in sex, difficulty concentrating, sleep and appetite disturbance. She had them all.
“Kathy,” I said slowly, “and Jess, you’ve been battling more than each other. Clinicial depression is a whole-body experience, affecting every part of your life, including your marriage. More than 17 million people suffer from depression, with nearly two-thirds not getting help for it. It is a very treatable problem. Women are almost twice as likely as men to experience depression. Have you gotten help?”
Both shook their heads slowly. “I’ve been living with it alone,” she said. “He thinks I should snap out of it, choosing to have a good mood. But, I can’t. I feel like I’m so alone.”
Kathy put her head in her hands, lowered her head and began to sob. Jess reached out and touched her hand.
“How long has this been going on?” I asked.
“Years,” Jess said softly. “She won’t get help. She went to the doctor once, and they just gave her some samples of an antidepressant but she never went back.”
“I almost hate to ask this question folks, but I’m going to. ‘What effect do you think this has had on your marriage?'”
“She’s not here,” Jess said sympathetically. “When anything happens in the family, she retreats. We call it ‘clamming up.’ She won’t share her pain with me, so I’ve gotten busy with other things and other people.”
“And there’s been no joy in your marriage?” I asked.
“Are you kidding?” Jess asked. “I’ve been waiting for joy for years. I am an optimist who finds joy in lots of little things. But, I can’t enjoy them with her. She’s in her own world.”
Kathy continued to cry while Jess continued to stroke her hands. She received his touch and seemed to welcome the contact. We began to talk about her depression, the anger she suppressed about an affair he had earlier in their marriage, the disappointment she had over giving up her career to raise their children, the frustration she had about his work hours. She felt Jess didn’t have time, or real interest in hearing her pain, and so she stuffed it, creating an even larger chasm between them.
“You folks have not only been battling each other, but an unseen enemy—depression,” I said. Both looked surprised.
“Consider the distance you have both felt from each other,” I said. “Jess, you’ve undoubtedly taken her distance personally.” He nodded his head. “And Kathy, you’ve been feeling guilty and inadequate for your depression. You’ve pushed away from others as a way to cope.” She nodded her head. “There is effective treatment for this, and I suspect it is going to make a radical difference in your marriage.”
We continued to talk about finding a doctor who understood depression, the likelihood of getting on the right medication, and finding ways to infuse their marriage with joy.
Kathy looked over at Jess, who now looked attentively at his wife, tears filling his eyes. He held his arms open as she moved over to sit next to him on the couch.
“I’ll help you with this, babe,” he said. “I’ll help you find a good doctor. I’ll support you going to counseling. I’ll look at my part in this mess.”
“So, folks. Let me give you clear, direct counsel.”
First, depression is a whole-body problem. It affects our thoughts, actions, feelings, relationships and even our faith-walk. It can literally take over and distort every aspect of our life.
Second, people don’t ask to get this problem and they can’t simply will it away. While treatment of depression is very effective, it often requires individual counseling, couples counseling as well as medications. Most people experience relief when they are willing to aggressively tackle the problem.
Third, depression impacts marriages. It steals joy and life. It robs not only the person suffering from it, but their mate, their children, their friends and family. This compounds the problem, creating even more distance, and more abandonment and isolation.
Fourth, depression is treatable. If you are willing to seek treatment through individual, couples and medication intervention, most recover. Communication in marriage improves, helping the individual rise out of their depression.
Finally, seeking God’s help is critical. He is the ultimate source of our joy and promises to give to us life in abundance. Faith in God often leads to seeking wise counsel in these other areas of our lives. Developing a comprehensive treatment plan includes looking at the way we think, dealing effectively with the concrete problems in our lives, obtaining the support of our family as well as enriching our faith-life.
Finding joy is possible, though this may have been missing in your life for some time. Consider whether or not depression has been a secret part of your relationship struggles and if so, seek professional help.
Please share your thoughts on this topic of depression and finding joy in your marriage.
March 23, 2010
Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He’ll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.