Reader Question: How Can a Marriage Heal from Depression?

Recently, I received a question from Stacey about how a marriage can recover after her depression traumatized both her and her husband.

Stacey writes:

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.

Your Healing

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.

Marriage’s 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!

Concluding Thoughts

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.

10 Comments

  1. Laurie

    I feel for Stacey. My hub was extremely depressed. This brought about very hurtful behavior and sent me into hiding. I then became depressed. I don’t know how we made it through. I went to a counselor and then he started coming with me. We went together for a few months. Then I went alone again to work on me. We are now in a great place. I found that when I made changes in me, he made changes in him. It was more of a response to my changes but they were positive nevertheless. Now he is managing his depression and I am out of hiding. I still have my moments but I am able to work through them with the help of my friend.

    1. Hi Laurie,

      Thanks for sharing your personal stories. Glad to hear your husband and you got help you needed. So many people struggle with depression. There can’t be never enough stories about healing and triumph.

      ari

  2. Thanks for sharing Stacey’s story. In fact, I ‘personally’ believe that the depression is a ‘women’ thing when it comes to after marriage depressions (or for that matter, the period befoer marriage as well if they have a prolonged spinster life). I haven’t seen any men getting depressed post marriage, some of them do feel that they lost their freedom but sooner sense takes over such haste thoughts.

    If at all somebody was already going through depression, marriage can be a definite healer as long as both husband and wife has listening and feeling-for-each-other built into them.

    I would like to hear from other readers on what they feel about my theory 🙂

    Cheers,
    Ajith

    Ajith Edassery´s last blog post..Compete.com – Traffic and site analytics solution

    1. Hey Ajith,

      That’s an interesting observation. It does appear that so far all the people suffering from post-wedding depression I know of are women. Obviously, it doesn’t mean that women are the only people who suffer from depression, but I wonder if there is a cultural conditioning that we aren’t aware of that make women “relax” (as in not holding themselves up) after getting married, which leads to depression?

      As you know, depression doesn’t simply spring up when it manifests itself. It’s built up through long periods of emotional pain — and a lot of us hide it, bury it, very well. It only surfaces when we let down our guards. So perhaps women see marriage as a situation safe enough to let their hair down, in a manner of speaking.

      I am curious as to what other women have to say about this. I’m sure they’ll be by shortly. 😉

      ari

  3. Ari,

    You have said it very well. (I just wrote a long comment here and pressed the back button by mistake!)

    Thanks to you and Stacey for sharing this.

    I do not think I was ever too depressed after my marriage but I had my episodes. My husband surely knew how bad it could be from earlier experiences and he was constantly scared for me. He ALWAYS wanted to help but depression can be so powerfully negative that he would often retreat into himself out of a strange fear…

    My husband and I quickly learned 2 things:
    1. Treat our marriage like a little baby that needs a lot of gentle caring and
    2. We need to take care of ourselves – my husband and I.
    When I had my episodes, my husband responded mostly out of fear that he would not be able to help me appropriately ….but then he would try his hardest because he wanted to make sure I was taken care of. In the end, he was exhausted and miserable and our marriage would suffer.

    Very soon, we started to use a coupld of really close family members and friends to help us in such times. As soon as my husband felt he was not able to help me, he would call one of them and “hand me over”. This really really helped him feel like he prevented me from getting any worse AND gave him some breathing space. It was hard for me to let someone else support me but I learned that it was the best thing for my husband, me and our marriage.

    You have done a great job of explaining things here Ari. But I just wanted to share my experiences.

    Thanks again, Stacey. I wish you only the very best!

    Maya´s last blog post..The key to happiness and balance is right with you, just learn to use it – Part 2 of the thinkmaya framework

    1. Hi Maya,

      Wow, your story sounds very familiar, too. It sounds like you have a good understanding of what went on, though. I’m glad to hear you had family and friends around in your time of needs! There is nothing wrong with seeking outside help. I tend to think that we expect too much from our spouses — we want them to be this powerful, super-being, always looking good, acting the way we want, and have the bottomless capacity for selfless love. I realized that it was simply unfair.

      Thanks so much for adding your insights to this post! As this kind of story is not rare, I’m sure many people will find comfort and understanding from your contribution.

      ari

  4. Ari —
    This is a tough thing to deal with. My process of coming out of chronic depression has been a long one, but it helps to embrace the reality that I can live depression-free. For me, it took a lot of Inner Work. My blog is part of the healing process, too.

    I like this man’s site on depression:
    http://walkingtheblackdog.com

    Lori

    SpaceAgeSage — Lori´s last blog post..Yes, I survived the week-long media fast — and learned lots!

    1. Hi Lori,

      Thanks for sharing your personal experience. Yes, progress seems unnoticeable when you’re in the midst — that’s one of the reasons why it is so hard to hold on to hope when you’re depressed. You can’t help but see the glass as mostly empty, even when the full portion is getting bigger!

      The depressed versions of ourselves don’t remember what it’s like to be normal, so all the more reason for the rest of us to shout loudly, reminding them of how they operate when they’re not depressed.

      I’ll check out that site. Thanks for the pointer!

      ari

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