Recently, I received a question from Stacey about how a marriage can recover after her depression traumatized both her and her husband.
I have a history of depression. I have been treated through counseling and medication a number of times, but the weakness is still there.
For over four years I was in a committed relationship, and I was surprisingly stable for most of it. Immediately after getting married, I sunk into the most painful and unexplained depression I have experienced. I assumed it would pass in a few months, and when it didn’t I lost hope. “Unstable sobbing child” is a great description, to which you could add manic, screaming, irrational, destructive wretch.
Unfortunately, my husband, who was normally incredibly optimistic and happy, was quickly dumbfounded and deeply scarred.
Now, almost a year from the depths of my depression, he still scares easy. He pulls away from me quickly, clams up at the slightest change in tone. To protect himself, he disassociates with me when I am upset, and has no confidence in his ability to comfort me.
The experience has deeply shaken every aspect of our relationship. I actually feel like he is less happy of a person because of his relationship with me. I wish that I could take it all back, but it was out of my control as well.
I feel like we would benefit from counseling, but he notices that I am doing better, and feels that he just needs time to heal. I am trying to be patient in the healing process, but my moods can still become unstable at times. We have trouble communicating because he takes such great measures not to upset me that he can barely be honest with me. I try to be reassuring, but I know I was really volatile for so long that I can’t seem to be trusted.
What would you suggest for recovery? How would you recommend that I encourage deeper communication?
First of all, Stacey, thank you for trusting me with your personal story.
A marriage is a union of two people, so I’d like to address the two parts: 1) individuals, and 2) the relationship.
First, it doesn’t sound like you’re out of the woods completely. I’m sure I’m stating the obvious here, but your top priority is to heal yourself first.
I imagine it’s possible to process emotional pains without understanding the cause, but that understanding can help you identify the little steps you’re taking. Since you didn’t tell me about why you are depressed (and you say things like “unexplained”) I urge you to work with a therapist until you come to a clear understanding of what is going on. It will help you recognize healing, by doing this. You’ll know with confidence, when you take steps for the better.
This is a bit of oversimplifying, but let’s say that one of your causes was a traumatic event in your childhood. When you’re healed from the wound relating to that event, you’ll notice that you don’t need to think about that event any more — no more complaining, whining or crying about it. If the trauma was caused by someone, then you no longer feel angry toward that person. This indicates the healing, the resolution of that event — helps you see that you successfully healed one wound in your system.
How happy or stable do you want to be? And how important is your happiness? That’s a decision you need to make for yourself. But judging from your husband’s reaction, if you want your marriage to return to what it was, then you’ll need to become pretty stable. You’ll need to assure both you and your husband that your volatility is behind you.
It’s terrific that you feel that the worst is now behind you. Now, go on to commit yourself to complete recovery, and keep working at it! Find a counselor you like and together figure out what is next in your healing process. It’s not always easy to find a therapist who fits your needs — but if you feel that that’s your best bet in your healing, make it a priority and make it happen. As they say, there is a way where there is a will.
There are other forms of healing available also — acupuncture, homeopathy, herbal therapy, and nutritional therapy can make a big difference. Fire up multiple cylinders of healing to get not just your psyche but the whole being restored to balance.
I know your marriage is suffering, but focus on healing yourself first. You can’t heal your marriage until you’re well on the way.
Your Spouse’s Healing
Next, let’s talk about your husband. I’m afraid this is not exactly good news, but the truth is that you can’t make him heal. He has to do that on his own, out of his own will. In fact, it can be counter-productive for you to approach him about his healing.
Consider this metaphor. Let’s say you picked up a cute little puppy — and you take him home. He’s great — obedient, smart, friendly, and funny — and the two of you get close. Soon you’re sleeping on a same bed, cuddling together, sharing almost all your life together. The bond is deep and intimate. Then out of the blue, while you’re cuddled up sleeping, the puppy turns crazy and bites you, repeatedly, in your most vulnerable places. Not only it hurts like hell, but you’re completely bewildered. You took terrible damage both physically and emotionally, and don’t know what to do with your dog. On one hand, most of the time he still acts like the little harmless puppy you loved, and you want that cuddly relationship back. But when you take a chance and get cozy, he turns on you again and again, hurting you terribly.
If this was literally a puppy, you’ll probably put him to sleep. But this is no puppy — it’s the person you trust the most in your life.
It’s a testament to his character and the strength of your relationship that he didn’t leave you. Without proper understanding of mental health, depression can be a marriage killer. I’m sure he still loves you and wants that old, safe relationship back, as much as you do.
But you are the puppy in that metaphor. Imagine what he feels like when you approach him. He backs away. He doesn’t know when you’re going to hurt him again. He is very afraid. This is very sad and hurtful, but wouldn’t you feel the same if the situation was reversed? I’m sure he’s not without a desire to be there for you in your darkest hours, but it’s simply too painful, the threat too great to handle.
I hate to say it, but you have to accept this.
And through accepting it, you’ll find hope for healing.
First, keep the distance between you two to where he feels comfortable. If you need somebody strong to be there for you in your depressive episodes and healing processes, you’ll have to find that elsewhere. It’s understandable if you resent him for not being strong, not being there for you as much as you’d like. Process that grief and anger with your therapist. It’s like asking an accountant to be a fire fighter. He simply didn’t sign up for this, he doesn’t have the capacity to. It’s not his fault, and it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love you. He’s just hurt and afraid. As much as we’d all like to think that we’d throw ourselves to be there for someone else, but the truth is, unless we find a source elsewhere to replenish our resources and gather our courage, nobody can sustain doing that, when we’re constantly getting hurt and threatened.
Secondly, tread very lightly with him about getting help. He should, but he needs to decide to himself. It’s counter-productive to hear that message from the very person he is afraid of. Focus instead on your own healing, and share the joys and triumphs of your journey with him, so that he can witness your recovery. That may inspire him to seek help, but don’t urge him to do so, except in a heart-to-heart talk once in a blue moon.
However, there is one thing that is worth communicating to him. And that is, time will not heal unprocessed emotional pain. It just digs deep inside and festers, eventually turning into illnesses and depression. When and how he goes about it, is up to him — he should do what feels right to him. But even if you get better, his scars will not, if he leaves it unhealed. He may eventually learn to be close to you when you’re not down, but whenever a similar crisis arises, he’ll react the same way.
A lot of healing can occur within himself, though it’s best when it’s guided or augmented by a healer. Just communicate with him that “time heals” doesn’t apply here, and other than that, let him be. It’s in everybody’s nature to want to heal — you’ll have to trust him to. The best thing you can do for him is to love and accept him for who he is, right now — not for who he was. I realize that is much to ask when you need his support, but the sooner you can accept this, the greater the potential for healing.
Going to a marriage therapist is a good idea, but only after both of you have made progress on your individual healing. You don’t need to be 100% healed to start, but you’ll want to be reasonably stable.
There are several things that need to happen in the healing of a marriage. First, both of you need to process your individual anger, frustration, and resentments that accumulated during the battle with depression. As I explained above, you’ll want to get to a place where neither of you are angry about it. Even better if you can get to a place where you feel almost grateful for the experience, for the lessons and growth it has taught you. That may be hard to imagine right now, but you can get there, at the end of your healing process.
After the feelings are processed, then you’ll want to work on unlearning bad habits you acquired from dealing with depression. Your husband recoiling when you become unstable is one such habit — he’ll need to recondition himself that there’s no need to do that, and that in fact the opposite is what’s desired. As you unlearn the bad habits, you’ll want to replace them with good ones — practices that are good for any marriages, like open communication, spending time together, having fun, and so on.
I hope you can see why this part has to wait until both of you are reasonably healed. It’s awfully hard to unlearn bad habits, when situations that created them keep occurring over and over!
I wish I could say that healing is near and will happen soon, but it takes hard work, patience, and a lot of efforts. But if you remember just one thing from everything I said, keep this one. Healing is possible. Trust in yourself, and trust in your husband. You will heal.
I’ll be thinking of you.
Disclaimer: This content is for educational/entertainment purposes only and should not be taken as a medical advise.