How to Avoid Getting Sucked into Your Mate’s Depression


Depression happens. Unless you’re Amish, it very likely you know someone in its grip right now. You may even know firsthand what a major depressive episode or chronic depression feels like.
When it hits the person you love and pledged your life to, it can be so very frustrating. You want to help, but to date no one has demonstrated that cajoling or entertaining reduces the duration or depth of depression or that spousal whining increases motivation to do something about a depression. Even if you’re trained in treating this miserable mental illness, the shift in roles is likely to screw up your marriage.
So don’t focus on the illness.
What you can do instead is to take extra care of your marriage while your husband, wife, or life partner deals with the depression. Make a list of the valuable things you get from your marriage and work on ways to keep getting them while your spouse is unable to provide them.
For example, if your spouse temporarily has no enthusiasm for being your tennis partner, movie date, idea person, or editor, find others to fill in. Make it clear to them and your spouse that they are temporary, and don’t choose anyone with whom your mate might feel competitive. But by all means, keep doing what fills you up and makes you smile.
Or bring a favorite shared activity home. Invite friends over to watch rented movies or rehearse a performance. Let your spouse join you or retreat to a quiet part of the house. Worry about enjoying yourself. Your smiles, energy, and laughter are a welcoming beacon back to the world of the non-depressed.
If your spouse stops cooking, buy ready-made meals or start doing the cooking. Just be sure they are good, nourishing meals you will enjoy. If your mate stops mowing the lawn or cleaning the living room, hire someone to help you keep up with the work well before your resentment sets in.
Take care of your needs. If your spouse stops collecting bonus and overtime pay, supplement your income well before becoming fearful of having too little money. It’s your job to protect hope, as depressed people lose their grip on it.
Protect pleasure, too. Be the one to initiate sex and get creative in building up to it more slowly and deliciously than usual.
And Expect Love. Let go of all your usual expectations about how it might appear. Instead, watch your suffering spouse for every sign of love for you. Celebrate it. Amplify it. Return it fivefold. Protect your relationship and you protect your mate’s most important resource.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • My wife went back into the hospital yesterday for the 9th time in like 4 mounts. She told me shortly after I got home from work that she had taken a bucnch of pills. She suffers from ptsd, bi~bolar, and panic attack. I work two jobs 12 hours a day and we have 6 kidos ages 3 to 11 kind of feeling over whelmed.

  • Ouch! That really is overwhelming, Jasen. I remember how I would handle those feelings of overwhelm when my husband was rushed to the emergency room and after he died. I would try to take as much as possible on myself instead of asking for help. Then I would crumble under the weight of it.
    It took me a while to realize I needed to carve out part of the day for myself, even if it meant sending my 11 year old to bed earlier than his friends or asking a babysitter to stay longer than the time I absolutely needed to be out of the house.
    I hope the two of you find more help with your overwhelming circumstances soon and that you don’t follow your wife into depression.

  • This is such a wonderfully inspiring article about really taking advantage of the well that is our empathy and compassion. When we say for better or worse, sometimes we forget the worse part of it. This was a great reminder of why its important to keep that vow. -PsychedinSF

  • Don’t know if you can avoid completely getting affected by your partner’s depression but you can certainly must do whatever it takes to help him/her get overcome it.

  • Ideally, we should put our partner in touch with a specialized therapist. In addition, we need to support our partner by having ourselves a positive attitude.

  • Good advice to take care of self first … depression can’t be “filled up” by anyone else although it often demands that kind of filling. What to do when spouse decides he has been depressed for decades because he’s not living his “true” identity — he’s a “woman in a man’s body” — now that’s a bigger one to sort through. But I definitely know I need to take care of myself first in this situation.

  • That IS a big one, Katie. Fortunately, many have gone before you and therapists have gotten a lot more skilled at helping people and their spouses find their way through this one.
    One woman I knew invited her husband to move elsewhere without her and the kids during the pre-surgical living as a woman phase, but she welcomed him back when heart problems ruled out going through with the surgery. Another stayed married for a year post-surgery before deciding it was not for her. And another woman married a pre-surgical male living happily as a woman, in a state where marrying a woman born female would not be legal.
    Take your time with this one. It’s a big change. And I have a theory about it that might help you through it. I am a woman who went to MIT when very few women did. All of a sudden, the interests and thoughts that had made people around me uncomfortable in middle school and high school were completely socially acceptable, and I thrived.
    What had been seen as oddities were now viewed as strengths. And when I got involved with the Values in Action (VIA) study, which measures character strengths, they were confirmed as strengths that are less common in women than men. Most importantly, I excelled at none of the strengths that so many women excel at — and that the men I know who feel trapped in their bodies all seem to excel at.
    I don’t think we have any environment yet for straight men with those strengths that is anything like MIT was for me. I wonder if knowing they are, indeed, character strengths would make life in the “real world” less frustrating.
    What I do know is that using one’s character strengths leads to more engagement with life, more flow, more satisfaction. And the rest of us need everyone’s true strengths.
    There is a map of the strengths that makes it clear possessing and developing one strength reduces our opportunities to develop some others. When a spouse is not strong at one you expect or desire, recognizing the strength that led to this might help. A non-gender-related one is Gratitude. People who are extremely Open-Minded are much less likely to score high on Gratitude. My guess is that they can always see too many causes for any good thing to find one source to be grateful to. People who are unusually inclined toward Kindness are not likely to also be highly Optimistic (and therefore usually free of depression) or Prudent. But we need kind, generous, helpful people in this world every bit as much as we need optimistic ones and prudent, cautious ones.
    If you and your depressed husband are interested in looking into this, I recommend the website. You can take the VIA Strengths Survey for free elsewhere, but this site also explains your strengths and plots them on the map for a small fee.
    I could be entirely wrong about this theory, but I believe being aware of one’s strengths is a good thing in any case.

  • Agree that allowing men to experience their strengths as designers, musicians, artists, without having it become a gender identity issue would be a great help. My husband feels like there are “no men” he can talk to or befriend; that his “only real friends” are the women he knows in Second Life, where he spends many late-night hours every night.
    Interestingly enough, since my own work has put me under great pressure recently, I’ve had to hand the keys to a family company I started over to my husband — and suddenly, he’s hard at work as an artisan jewelry maker, asking my advice as someone familiar with what women are wearing but turning out large quantities of unique and beautiful product. He was barely engaged in the business as long as I “owned” the company, which I started mostly because he kept pressuring me to. (I had way too many other irons in the fire even then and now things are seriously pressurized …) So anyhow, even his first experimental pieces were getting rave reviews from professionals (“Nobody is doing it that way — you need to be in this show next year.”) I’ve told him many times that there really are straight guys out there doing incredible artisan crafts but he doesn’t believe me. It’s the “art” world where gender gets bent. Craft is very traditional. Guys can make jewelry; girls can turn wood. Anyone with enough skill can go to Penland (our best regional craft school). You’re judged on your product, not your gender. I just hope that this process and project helps him find a more appropriate version of himself. Otherwise … well, I’m really not in this to be married to a girl. Just not my thing.

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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