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Living with a depressed spouse

by Kip Zirkel, Ph.D., Family & Children’s Center Supervising Psychologist

depressed spouseWhen you find a married person who is depressed, chances are pretty good you’ll also find an unhappy marriage. According to a study at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a spouse’s level of depression is a good indication of marital satisfaction, and the burden of living with someone who has mental health problems takes a toll on both partners.

Depression is widely misunderstood

Major depression is a widely misunderstood illness. It is a biologically based disorder that appears in a variety of disguises before being diagnosed. It can appear as irritability, moodiness or changes in personality and may manifest itself differently in men and women. In men, depression often includes increased anger, irritability and alcohol and drug use. In women, symptoms may include withdrawal, tearfulness, lack of energy and an inability to concentrate.

Many of the behaviors associated with depression aren’t under the sufferers’ direct control. You can’t tell them to snap out of it any more than you can people with diabetes or other biological illnesses.

A depressed spouse can challenge a marriage

But when these kinds of behaviors enter a marriage, healthy spouses tend to take it personally. They may question whether they are part of the problem. They may wonder if it’s their fault, that their partners would be happier if they were more helpful around the house or more attractive.

Additionally, a hallmark of major depression is a loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable. Combine that with a victim’s social withdrawal, and physical affection diminishes as well. Understandably, spouses of depressed people often experience their own depression.

What you can do to help a depressed spouse

Seek diagnoses and treatment

If you suspect your spouse may be depressed, the most important action you can take is to help him or her get proper diagnosis and treatment. That can be difficult, though, since one of the factors of depression is hopelessness; depressed people tend to believe nothing will help. That’s why it’s important that you be persistent.

You can begin with listening to your spouse and showing empathy. You can indicate that you’ve noticed a change in behavior and are concerned for your partner’s happiness and well-being. You can also say that you wonder if depression may be the cause.

It doesn’t matter whether you begin with a counselor or your family doctor. Either one can help in the diagnosis and refer you to the other for additional treatment.

Take care of yourself

If your partner refuses to seek help, you should treat the illness the same way you would an alcohol or drug problem and step up the intervention. You may need to go so far as to threaten to move out if your partner doesn’t get help. That’s especially appropriate if you have children, since research has shown that one of the most significant factors in raising mentally healthy children is to have mentally healthy parents. Often, that understanding alone can compel a spouse to get help.

Another important step along the way is to take care of yourself. Be sure to get enough sleep, exercise and eat healthfully. If you detect you may be suffering some symptoms of depression yourself, follow the same advice you would offer your spouse:  seek help from your family physician or a counselor.

You may also benefit from reading some good self-help books. Feeling Good by David Burns is particularly helpful. It focuses on changing thought processes and patterns that accompany depression, such as avoiding all-or-nothing thinking, perfectionism, taking things too personally, dwelling on negative things from the past and overgeneralizing.

Prognosis for depressed spouse is promising

The prognosis for depression is good, once it’s diagnosed. Though it can take three to six months to achieve significant improvement, 80 to 90 percent of cases can be effectively treated, usually with a combination of medication and counseling.

As you and your spouse confront depression, remember your vows and understand mental illness is among the ‘worse.’  Take comfort in knowing that with treatment, ‘better’ is just around the bend.