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?