*Important disclaimer to following article- the tips below address non-suicidal depressed mood. If your partner is showing signs of suicidal ideation or talking about wanting to die, get them to emergency MEDICAL help immediately. At that point it is about life saving measures, and a spouse cannot provide that help.
Hard work and compromise are necessary to keep any marriage alive and well, even during the “up” times of life. But what happens when the stress becomes overwhelming, and emotional challenges get thrown in the marriage mix? What happens when one of the partners can’t give as much because they feel, just… down? How does a marriage whether a storm of mental health challenges?
I’m going to get very personal, with the permission (and help) of my husband. We agree that depression, and its effects on the loved ones of those suffering, is a prevalent and important issue and we are willing to share our own experience. We both have families with histories of mental illness, and have had minor bouts with “the blues” ourselves at different times when life was stressful. Over the last year, however, things got serious emotionally for my husband. His “blues” hit symptomatic levels that made daily activities and participation in family life difficult to manage. Stress from work became oppressive, and soon hopelessness and exhaustion were about the only thing he was feeling. We’ve struggled together to get through this storm and return positive, hopeful feelings to our home.
Now, as my husband is really pulling out of the dark clouds, he has offered to share some things that I did that helped, and things that didn’t help (!) as he struggled to feel himself again. The hope is that we can give some practical advice and hope for those of you who are trying to figure out how to manage life with a spouse who is struggling with emotional health issues. Here are our viewpoints:
- My husband: Don’t’ try and solve your spouse’s problems, give advice, or start any sentence with, “You just need to….” I just needed to be heard and feel compassion without worrying that I will be invalidated. I don’t want a therapist in bed with me.
From me: Ah! Let’s set aside that I literally am a therapist, so lying in a bed with someone who is depressed, well that’s hard to not want to “start session.” But even if you’re not a therapist, we all with the best of intentions, want to help! We want to comfort, to give ideas, to solve problems! But my husband is right; the best way to help is to listen and let a person feel safe and loved even when they feel flawed. An empathetic nod and silence let’s your spouse know that you are there, you don’t need them to be perfect, and they are safe. That is the most healing conversation you can have.
- My husband: In helping the depressed person get medical and therapeutic help, be firm but understanding of how hard it is for the person. Explain in terms that don’t sound fearful but talk about it in terms of relief, that depression is normal at times, and that chemically things could be off.
From me: This was such a delicate balance for me, as I’m sure with any spouse. I absolutely needed my husband to seek both medical and psychotherapeutic help to have hope that he’d be on the path to wellness and not get “worse”. Once when I talked to him about it the response was, “what’s the point?” That worried me! I found he was so comforted, though, by hearing that it wasn’t his fault, how many people have depression, and how treatable it actually is. Plus, I said YOU HAVE TO! And was willing to let him be a little mad at me for the greater good.
- My husband: Getting me out of the house and away from my worries was really helpful; especially in the outdoors. Diversions and going to movies have been really good. I just don’t want to always talk about how I’m “doing”. I just wanted to take a load off.
From me: This was great advice from the therapist: KEEP IT LIGHT. That saved us both. As I was trying to be patient with the gloom, and hopeful that we’d feel like “us” again, the lightness might have even been more for my benefit than his. It gave me permission to not worry, and let the interventions take their course. For my husband, I realized that talking about his feelings was making him focus on the depressed feelings too much. It needed to be done in small doses, usually contained to a five-minute chat here and there and then in weekly therapy. Over time it did the trick.
Emotional health challenges can be overwhelming. But the truth is, very few of us don’t experience times of increased anxiety or depression. These conditions are HIGHLY treatable and no one is immune. Take the steps to get help for yourself or help your loved one get help, and be patient and hopeful. I learned in this experience that both the ups and downs of life can be powerful connection tools in marriage depending on how we handle them.