Published on December 2nd, 2013 | by Jo Swinney
Your Marriage Can Survive Depression—Here’s How
Depression is hard on relationships, and it is particularly hard on a marriage. In other relationships, you can create more space—you can decide how often you see your friends, ditto with your wider family, and your work colleagues can avoid you (plus they get weekends and vacation time).
But your spouse is Committed. He or she is officially stuck with you. And while that is hard, it is also the greatest gift you could ask for, and a chance for your spouse to discover the height and depth of love in action. Mike Mason, in his book The Mystery of Marriage writes this:
Marriage is a relationship far more engrossing than we want it to be. It always turns out to be more than we bargained for. It is disturbingly intense, disruptively involving…it is supposed to be more, almost, than we can handle.
For better, for worse
I had depression on and off from the time I was 13 years old. I happened to meet my American husband, Shawn, in a relatively stable period in my early twenties while I was studying in Canada. Around then, I started therapy for the first time, knowing that the depression would keep reoccurring if I didn’t get help.
I hesitantly explained to Shawn that I had this other side to me, a version that wasn’t quite so fun to hang out with, that might cry rather a lot. I was worried he might think I was a risky investment and bail out, but he wasn’t fazed, and seven months after meeting, we got engaged at the top of Sulphur Mountain. I am English by nationality, and we got married in England.
Things went really well until the first day of our honeymoon. After the ceremony and a big, lovely party, I said “Goodbye and see you who knows when?” to all my nearest and dearest and headed off to be married on the other side of the world. The first day of our honeymoon, I began to cry, and I didn’t stop for about six months. It was a dark, dark period, and I was desperately afraid that Shawn wouldn’t be able to cope with me.
What I discovered was that with the exchanging of the vows, something bigger than us had come into being. Our marriage held us in place, sometimes feeling like a refuge, sometimes like a cage. Our resolve to love each other was tested in ways I would have hoped to avoid, but ten years on, and several episodes of depression later, we are still married.
How your marriage can survive depression
Here are some things we have learnt:
1. Don’t expect your spouse to be able to make it all better
Once, Shawn came home to find me in our dark bedroom, under the covers, unable to climb out. He lay down beside me and held me for a while, then started tickling me, pulled me off the bed by my ankles, and dragged me out for a walk. He made things better. That occasion stands out like a beacon in my mind, because more often he’ll just avoid me, or perhaps say a bit insincerely, “Sorry you’re having a bad day.” I have learnt not to expect him to have the skills of a therapist, the patience of a saint, or the professionalism of a paid caregiver. He’s there—I’m grateful for that. And there are a whole lot of other people carrying me as well as him.
2. You might have to teach your spouse what helps and what doesn’t
I thought Shawn would instinctively know how to reach me when I fell into dark holes, because he loved me. When he didn’t, I felt let down, resentful, misunderstood. But I have come to see I needed to coach him a bit. He was out of his depth, and he had no clue what to do with me. These days he knows a hug, a cup of tea, and some well- chosen words of encouragement go a long way.
3. Resist the instinct to hide how you really are
There’s a lot of fear in depression. When I am low, I am terrified I will be too much for Shawn, that I will drag him down with me, that he will one day just have enough. It is very tempting to pretend things are other than they are. Doing this might make for an easier life, but it comes at the expense of an honest relationship.
4. Encourage your spouse to get support
The truth is, it can be hard work living with someone who has depression, and it can be contagious. So give your spouse permission to moan about it to a good friend and plenty of chances to do things that make him or her happy.
5. Don’t always give your spouse the dregs
Do you ever find you can manage to be upbeat for short periods even when you are properly depressed? It takes a huge effort, but you can engage in conversation, smile, and be relatively good company until CRASH…you’ve overdone it. Then you go home and your spouse gets the very worst of you that day. That used to happen all the time with me, but now I really try to make the effort to pull myself out of the hole for him too sometimes.
6. Stay physically engaged
That’s a euphemism for “keep having sex.” It really is the last thing you feel like—I know that—but you need to keep intimacy between you alive, you need to show your spouse your love, and it is often better than you think it will be.
Not all marriages survive—the divorce stats speak for themselves. Marriage needs to be fought for, even or especially when hard times come.
You might also like to read about marriage and mental illness from the perspective of the other spouse: Surviving Your Partner’s Depression
Photo by Stephanie Berghaeuser via StockXchng