Having a depressed spouse and parent in the family creates a difficult problem. The parents are supposed to be the leaders, the example setters, the encouragers both to each other and to their children. When one of the adults has big mental health problems, this changes the balance and affects everyone.
Here’s how the dynamic can go:
You spouse has found themselves in a deep hole from circumstances beyond their control. This could be health problems, job issues, financial responsibilities that have gone badly, fallouts with friends of family, etc. These circumstances leave them depressed and not functioning well.
You see they are in the hole and try to help without falling in yourself. Up around the edge of the hole, you find a few things that look useful. There’s a map of how other people have gotten out of similar holes, showing footholds and good ways to make the climb up. You find a long rope with knots, which looks like it could hold your spouse’s weight. You also find a few shovels that they could use to change the shape of the hole and more easily climb out themselves. It seems there are other possibly useful things around the hole as you keep looking, but you are sure one of these will work.
You tell your spouse about all these solutions up here at the top of the hole, hoping to provide some encouragement. It is dark down there and they are feeling lonely.
You throw the rope down and tell them how you think they could use it to climb up. You assure them that you and others will hold it tightly as they climb up the knots.
Your spouse tosses the rope back up. Says there’s no way.
Confused but undetered, you toss down the map of how others have climbed there way out of holes like this. You explain that the directions are thorough and they just need to follow them. You will be up at the top making sure the way stays clear of any falling rocks or dirt, and will be ready to grab their hand when they get to the top.
Your spouse tosses the map back up. Says that won’t work.
You are feeling a little scared now, but also more confused. Even a little angry. How do they expect to get up if they won’t try something? You finally toss down the last thing in your hands – the shovel. You say that the dirt looks pretty soft in some places and they could probably scoop it in such a way that they could climb on top of it and get out.
Your spouse tosses the shovel back. Says they won’t do that.
The only solutions that would have worked were if the hole didn’t exist in the first place, or if the ground shifted and made the hole shallower. They can’t possibly do anything to get out themselves.
Well, now what? If your spouse won’t come out, do you and your family just try to live close to the hole now? Do you keep throwing things down hoping something will work eventually? You don’t want to abandon them down there. But you feel torn. Your and your kids want to do things that require you to move away from the hole, things your spouse would have done, too. Except now they won’t come out unless a very unlikely or impossible solution comes along.
This isn’t pretty, but it is a problem many people with depressed spouses or partners face. Depression and other personality traits can trap a person in their own prison. Outside influence seems to have little effect on them coming out. It’s frustrating and can be even depressing for the healthy spouse. They are losing their life partner right in front of their eyes and can do nothing about it.
What about you? Have you had experiences like this, either as the spouse in the hole or the spouse trying to help? What solutions have made the situation better?
For additional help, I’m posting some suggestions for helping your spouse get treatment. The reality is that some depressed people are resistant to getting treatment. Here are some ways to work around this.
1. Go to a counseling appointment together, say that them going will help you feel better (take the direct focus off them)
2. If your spouse has some physical ailments, go with them to their doctor. Send a letter or make a call ahead of time saying that your spouse is depressed and you need to get them some help. Bribe your spouse with dinner out or doing something they like, whatever it takes to get them to go. It may take more than one doctor’s visit or conversation for your spouse to take any action. It may feel deceitful, but you might need to take direct action to make something happen.
3. Encourage them to be physically active. Even though this isn’t a formal depression therapy, exercise is proven to lift a person’s mood and help with depression recovery.
4. Have empathy for their situation but don’t blindly go along with all their negative comments and beliefs. Describe the symptoms of depression and remind them that it’s an illness with treatments. Most people who seek some form of help (medication, therapy, or both) find relief. Treatment may not solve all of their problems, but it will help them feel better and start functioning again.
5. No matter how your spouse is responding to your urges to get help, you need to take care of yourself. Being with a depressed spouse increases your own chances of developing depression. Depression isn’t “catchy” like a cold. But the stress of dealing with someone else’s untreated depression can be very draining and scary, making your mental health more vulnerable. Be physically active, stay in touch with friends, keep up your family routines.
6. Join a NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) support group in your area. They are for family members of people with mental illnesses. You’ll find many people in your shoes, which may be particularly helpful if your spouse’s depression is chronic or they haven’t gotten treatment yet. You may also hear good ideas for helping your spouse recover by listening to other people’s stories.
I hope this gives you some hope for your situation. Don’t give up!
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From Psych Central's website:
PsychCentral (June 1, 2009)
drkcbugg (June 4, 2009)
K.C. Bugg, Psy.D. (June 4, 2009)
tips for making up (June 28, 2009)
From Psych Central's website:
When It’s Not Just “A Bad Day”: Understanding Your Partner’s Depression | Partners in Wellness (April 18, 2011)
From Psych Central's Erika Krull, MS:
Spouse of a Depressed Person - Facing Tough Reality | Family Mental Health (August 25, 2011)
How Depression Can Threaten Your Marriage | Depression Killer (October 25, 2011)
Last reviewed: 29 Mar 2011