When Your Spouse is Depressed


I received two great suggestions for blog posts in the past 24 hours. Let’s start with how to handle chronic depression in a spouse. I just saw stats yesterday saying depressed people end up divorced in even greater percentages than those with narcissistic personality disorder. It has to be pretty difficult to be married to someone suffering from depression.
Here was the request:

I can’t thank you enough for your website. Your archives have been my nightly companion for several weeks now. You are spreading good in the world.
I found one post about depression, but I wonder about assuming love vs. the effects of a parent’s clinical depression on children. My husband works a crazy work schedule. He is either at work, sleeping, or watching Tv most of the time. He is clinically depressed and has difficulty socializing. He doesnt have much to give emotionally to any of us. Most days he’s pretty flat, or else critical. We have 2 school age daughters and raising them feels like a solo journey most days. In many ways I function as a single mom, though I know I can’t compare it to truly being single. In any event, i worry that they are basically being taught how to be depressed and I fear the model of marriage (dad never around or in bed) they are seeing is unhealthy. Both my husbands parents are depressed, so the girls already have the genetic predisposition. They don’t need a depressing environment too. I try hard to model happiness and to be the emotional stability in their lives, but I feel so worn out. Its not a good thing for them to be witnessing. Help me apply your principles to this challenge!! Could you do a post about assuming love through mental illness please?
Please only use my first name if you need to. Thanks for being a calming beacon in the night…

Let’s omit the name altogether. First, can she Assume Love when dealing with his depression-driven behaviors? Of course. Here is what it means to Assume Love. Your spouse does something that upsets you. Your wonderfully self-protective brain automatically focuses on the threats around you, including the threat of your children suffering from depression and every little thing your husband has neglected because of his brain-induced shortage of energy or hope. He looks pretty awful.
So you Assume Love. You ask yourself, “What could make a man who loves me dearly do what just upset me? What other explanation is there for this behavior that does not put me and the kids in danger?” Just this question frees you to recall things you won’t recall while in that automatic response. That’s when you recognize that perhaps he had to prioritize earning the money to keep the kids fed vs. staying awake to do things with them. Or that he might recognize his mood is contagious and think he’s doing them a favor not sharing it. Or that he might love that you’re planning a vacation but be prevented by his depression from hoping it will go well.
You don’t have to sweep anything bad under the rug. But before you act on your initial response of sadness or anger or anxiety, you just stop the frantic threat assessment (this man did promise to love you and hasn’t done anything harmful over many years, after all, but your threat assessor treats all threats alike) by checking whether there might be a better explanation than the one that upset you.
And you might want to Expect Love, too. If your expectations of what a husband does don’t fit with the illness he must deal with because of his genetic inheritance, they are going to make you feel very cheated. But if you receive the love he’s able to offer with open arms, you may find you get even more of it than you expected. It will just be very different. When my husband died and I recognized all he had been doing instead of what I has been expecting, it felt like I had been using a rain gauge with a cover over it that had just a few pinholes to let the rain in. In one terrible moment, I suddenly saw all the rain that had run off onto the ground and realized I had a false measure of how much he had cared.
When I began working for Dr. Martin Seligman, I learned my technique of Assuming Love is actually a version of what he and other cognitive psychologists call self-disputing, one attuned specifically to situations involving a spouse. Self-disputing is one of the biggest tools in their arsenal to prevent depression. He grew up with a badly depressed father (the sort who sleeps instead of going to work), so his early research was all about preventing depression and anxiety. (These days, he’s known as the Father of Positive Psychology.)
He wrote a bestselling book you definitely need to read: Learned Optimism. It’s the antidote to learned helplessness. Then he and some of his grad students decided to trying applying these concepts to children. They chose middle-school kids in the U.S. and China who were at high risk for depression: kids who had lost a sibling to gang violence, who had a fatally ill parent, kids in awful circumstances. And they taught half of them self-disputing and several other tools and watched them into high school. They cut the number who became depressed by something like 60%. And they wrote a book about it: The Optimistic Child.
One of his students and a co-author of that book, Karen Reivich, went on to be a psychology professor, too. She’s the brains behind FishfulThinking.com, which has grown into GoldfishSmiles.com. I mention the earlier site, because Karen has a companion site for that portion at nasponline.org/families/fishful. Both are magnificent resources for helping inoculate your kids against depression.
A lot of us fall into the trap of thinking we’re doing so much of the parenting that we might as well be single parents. Having been there and become a single parent, let me tell you they are not the same. You lose whatever your spouse has been doing (even if it’s just staying in the car with them so you can run an errand quickly) or giving them a ride to karate lessons. You lose a lot of time with them, because you must earn money and the amount you need increases as they get older. And you are suddenly dealing not with the kids you have today but kids who have been through a traumatic event.
My first husband was badly depressed before his death. His therapist thought this was a natural consequence of being ill. (I no longer agree.) He offered me no hope the depression would go away. But my husband’s depression overshadowed my own, which was less severe. You might find everything easier to deal with if you read Learned Optimism and start using the tools in there yourself. If you prefer, Karen Reivich later co-wrote a book, The Resilience Factor that offers more of the how-to (after the team had experimented with more tools) and fewer of the research results.
Since fathering the field of Positive Psychology, Marty Seligman has written two great books on how to get well beyond just undepressed. They are Authentic Happiness and Flourish. You will find lots more in there to teach your daughters.
But start with The Optimistic Child. There is no research yet on the impact of optimistic children on depressed parents, but there is one bit of really great anecdotal evidence that your daughters just might help your husband. Marty Seligman was gardening when his five-year-old daughter noticed his mood and ask him why, if she had been able to use his tools to stop whining from her fifth birthday, he couldn’t stop being a grouch. He marks that moment in 1995 as the beginning of the Positive Psychology movement.
And for your own relationship with him, start thinking about Third Alternatives. Working so hard obviously does not bring him pleasure. What could you change in your lives that would relieve him of the need to work so hard and give you more of what you really want, instead of what the money he earns is buying to compensate for what you’re not getting?

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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  • Thank you Patty. This makes a lot of sense. Sure isn’t easy to do but I can see the wisdom. Looking forward to reading these books. I guess I struggle with identifying “harmful” behavior. My husband is not violent, rarely yells, tells us he loves us most days. But still, his biting criticism and sarcasm, his impatience and aloofness does damage that concerns me at times. I find myself always mentally questioning: would we be better off alone? In my heart I know the answer is no. Thank you for helping keep me on track!

  • Thank you so much for addressing the issue of depression in marriage. My husband fortunately has very good health & it is me who tends to suffer from bouts of clinical mental depression including anxiety & panic attacks.
    I was always an outgoing cheerful person but soon after we were married we experienced several major life traumas within a very short period of time. Consequently my body just ‘packed up & shut down’. Suffice to say, we both had a very steep learning-curve on depression & it took quite a while to ‘defeat’ (?) & master!
    Nowadays, my husband & myself have a much better understanding of depression & how it can affect your marriage & family life. I will be eternally grateful that *he chose to love me* despite the extreme angst I put him through (many instances of which I cannot even recall as my illness was so severe).
    I’m pleased to say that we will soon be celebrating our 17th anniversary! So, despite what the divorce ratings state – there is another way!
    If I get overloaded, stressed ~ yes, the depression can kick back in, but *as a team* we now recognise the signs a lot sooner & manage our lifestyle to hopefully prevent reoccurrences.
    At the alter & in love, you can so easily promise ‘in sickness & in health’ but in all honesty, you never get taught how to do that in wedding preparation lessons. In reality, there are times when you simply cannot prepare for what life throws your way, but I am so glad that my husband stuck to his promises. We love each other so much, have three wonderful boys & are very, very grateful for all of it!

  • Patty, I am so thankful you take readers’ requests and stories and then offer reasonable solutions and not false promises. I always appreciate the resources you offer. I love knowing I have resources to use myself or to offer a friend.

  • Some people don’t realize how much their words hurt, Jennifer. Their expectations are different. I first learned this when I moved north for college. I grew up in the NY City area, where almost everyone engaged in something then called “ranking,” cutting comments intended as wit. Since everyone did it, no one I knew took the comments as anything more than a game, like pulling your hand out from the bottom of a pile or the grip of a baseball bat and moving it to the top.
    At MIT, 1/3 of us were from the NY area, and we continued to play the game. I was really glad when one of my Massachusetts friends called me on my nasty comments, and I could really hear myself as she heard me. If she had said something nasty in return, I would have continued to assume the game was universal. Instead, she said what she had to say quietly and calmly, and I understood.
    In a relationship, it can help to have a code phrase or a hand signal to convey that you feel hurt. This way, you inform without putting down your partner for something probably not intended to cause any hurt.
    Criticism, including sarcasm, is one of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen heralding a divorce. Often, those dishing it out have no clue how much harm they are doing. The way to let them know is without criticism or sarcasm, gently, as if they are a New Yorker who just moved to Boston.

  • Great post.
    Depression becomes a family issue even though the depressed partner often feel terribly isolated.
    I read a very helpful book on men and depression:
    I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression Paperback
    by Terrence Real

  • What happens when a spouse’s depression turned into aggression. Bring physical, pushing and little ones witnessing it. If they refuse to get help….divorce can’t be worse than kids growing up with that example.

  • Kim, I am so sorry to hear what brings you to this blog.
    Depression does not turn into spouse abuse. Abuse comes from some really nasty beliefs that don’t bode well for a marriage or children and must be changed to stop the abuse. It’s not enough to stop the stress, alcohol, drugs, or depression (or anything you’re blamed for doing) that the abuser blames for the outrageous behavior.
    But there is help. I would suggest Lundy Bancroft’s book, “Why Does He Do That?” (http://www.lundybancroft.com/) and Steven Stosny’s Love Without Hurt Boot Camps (http://www.compassionpower.com/anger-or-emotional-abuse-boot-camp).
    I just got a notice today that Dr. Stosny’s next Boot Camp is scheduled for October 16-18, 2015 in Gaithersburg, Maryland. They usually sell out in advance. He has an excellent track record, which got him featured on the Oprah Show while it was still on the air. What’s great about the boot camps is that they are not counseling, there is no blaming or accusation, and they are intended for both of you (Dr. Bancroft’s approach focuses on the aggressor).
    I don’t have any relationship with either of them. I just keep looking for good resources in areas that require special expertise. I hope you find one or both of them helpful in your marriage.

By Patty Newbold

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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