So, as a loving husband or wife, what do you do if you feel like your spouse is being swallowed up by depression? What do you do if they weep for hours of the day, or when they lock you out of the room, or storm out of the house and don’t tell you where they have gone? What do you do if the slightest word or phrase said in just the wrong way sets them off in a negative spiral? What do you do when your best friend and confidant screams uncontrollably into a pillow or expresses feelings that they are worthless and that you’d be better off without them? Every life is different and what works for some may not work for others. I certainly learned plenty of things that I SHOULDN’T do when my wife felt that way. However, I give a few major themes here that, at least for us, seemed to improve the situation and our relationship most as we battled with depression.
During Depression, Be loving and kind – ALWAYS
My first two suggestions are to “be loving and kind” and “be patient” – always. I kept them separate since I think they are important enough to merit their own space, but the two often do go hand in hand. At first glance it’s easy to dismiss them and say “Yeah. Anybody should do that in any relationship – especially in a marriage.” True. However, if you were to answer honestly, when was the last time you were around someone that reacted quite negatively towards you or even said things to deliberately get under your skin? Did you feel like giving them a piece of your mind? Did you feel like arguing and showing them that they are wrong? Did you feel like you just wanted to get away and not associate yourself with them anymore? At least give them a little silent treatment perhaps?
No matter how justified you may feel in any of these or similar types of responses they do not help. When my wife became her Mr. Hyde-like self under those negative waves of depression, I learned over time, and it did take time, that it didn’t matter what negative or completely irrational thing she said – I needed to respond to her with love and kindness. Sometimes the fruit of that significant effort in self-control wouldn’t be apparent until hours or even days later, but it always helped. Eventually when the real Eve would bubble up, however briefly, from underneath all of that negative emotion she was swimming in, she would always thank me for loving and supporting her and for treating her with patience and kindness. She also mentioned, on more than one occasion, that she felt like a horrified observer about how she acted or what she said while depressed, but was also so happy and grateful for how I responded to her – after I learned my lesson anyway – when she felt so negative and out of control.
It may be that your acts and words of kindness are met with more verbal daggers – be loving and kind anyway. Be loving and kind again and again and again. Choose to be loving and kind no matter what they say or how they act. There may be times when it takes tremendous self-restraint or control – do it anyway. You may feel after dealing for days or even weeks with constant negative emotions from your spouse that it doesn’t help – be loving and kind anyway. Your words and acts of kindness will serve as a healing balm and rock solid support to your spouse as they grapple with what may be the most difficult challenge they have ever faced. Your love and kindness could be all they are holding onto when they are at their lowest. You’ll notice over time that even though your spouse is still going through depression you will feel generally happier if you respond this way and the lows for your spouse won’t be quite as low or quite as frequent. Harvesting the fruit of your efforts, both to develop the capacity to consistently respond with kindness and to notice any improvement in your day and relationship, may take time.
A man I admire very much once said “Of course, some days are going to be more difficult than others, but if you leave the escape hatch in the airplane open because you think even before takeoff you may want to bail out in mid-flight, then I can promise you it’s going to be a pretty chilly trip less than fifteen minutes after leaving the ground. Close the door, strap on those seat belts, and give it full throttle. That’s the only way to make a marriage fly.” True words to live by in a marriage, and critical to live by when either spouse is afflicted with depression.
When supporting a spouse dealing with depression, there are going to be days that are more difficult than others. You may be having a particularly bad day yourself or maybe that love and kindness you have been trying to practice doesn’t appear to be paying off. In these moments, choose to be patient. Think of your favorite story or idea that teaches patience. For me, the visual idea of harvest time is powerful and instructive. I can’t make the final harvest come any faster by my efforts, but I can choose along the way to nourish my crop and provide the best environment I can for it to grow. The harvest could represent getting past the worst of depression. Part of the essential nourishment for your marriage (crop) along the way is the love, kindness, and patience that you practiced prior to the harvest.
Find an idea, story, or quote that helps you practice patience. Accept that you and your spouse may be in for a bumpy ride and that it might last a while, but with time things will get better so “Close the door. Strap on your seat belts, and give it full throttle.” It will likely take time to get the counseling, or medication, or other treatment that are right for your spouse but hold fast to the hope that it will come as you persistently work at it. You may also need to be patient with yourself when you feel like you fall short of who you want to be while supporting your spouse during depression. Hold onto hope. Hold onto the idea that things can and will get better even if it has been a particularly rough set of days, weeks, or even months. Sometimes you just need a good meal and a hot shower or perhaps just a new morning to help you feel renewed. As with striving to be consistently kind and loving, I found that as I deliberately tried to be patient in both day-to-day difficulties and over the long run of our relationship, I felt genuinely happier and saw that it strengthened our relationship even during bouts of depression.
Get Professional Help from a Counselor with Experience Treating Depression
Major depressive disorder can significantly affect your ability to function day-to-day and will likely require more than your own efforts to face. If you believe that you or your spouse may be experiencing depression please seek help from competent medical professionals – a good place to start could be with your family doctor who may recommend further avenues of treatment. I certainly don’t pretend to know everything about all types of depression, but for many, counseling, significant changes in diet or lifestyle, and/or changes in body chemistry as a result of medication may be required to treat it. For some, depression is like trying to bake a cake without proper ingredients. How would your cake turn out if you used only half of the sugar or eggs called for in the recipe? No matter how good your intentions, positive outlook, or determination, the cake would never be as good as when the ingredients are added in their proper proportions. For those with this type of depression – my wife included – being able to feel like themselves again requires treatment in the same way that someone with high blood pressure or with a hypo or hyperactive thyroid takes daily medication.
For us, getting the right help also required plenty of patience. It takes time to schedule doctor’s appointments. There can be a considerable wait between appointments or when scheduling with a new doctor or clinic. It may take time to find the right doctor whom you trust, is understanding, as well as competent in these matters. Because brain chemistry is complex and not perfectly well understood, finding the right medication – for those that need it – is often a very specific trial and error method for each individual regarding both the type of anti-depressant and its proper dosage. It can feel daunting or even overwhelming going through the process, but try as best you can to practice patience and to hold onto hope. I reemphasize the cake recipe analogy regarding anti-depressants. They do not produce an unnatural high or make someone artificially happy regardless of how they might feel otherwise. Rather, like using proper ratios of ingredients in a recipe, they can help someone simply feel like themselves again and to react normally to their day to day experiences.
Develop personal strength
This section is about you. Yes, if going through depression, your spouse needs plenty of support including unyielding love and kindness, patience, and probably some professional help, but having your spouse go through depression can definitely take a toll on you as well. Find a way, or perhaps multiple ways, to gain personal strength and rejuvenation. Some find it helpful to write a feelings journal just to conceptualize and express all the emotion they are experiencing. Maybe you really enjoy nature or just reading a good book. For me, two practices were particularly helpful. I am a man of faith so prayer was a rock solid support. It significantly helped me to express feelings, both highs and lows, to a loving Father and also served as a powerful reset for me at the start of a day before accomplishing what I needed to do as well as to lovingly support my wife.
It wasn’t as apparent then, but the other big help was actually just having a lot of work to do. I had very challenging college courses during much of this struggle and in some ways it was therapeutic to be forced to work and to focus my mind on something I had to get done rather than to ruminate over our challenges and get sad and down about it all. Again, because we all differ significantly, particularly in our tastes for things that we enjoy, your method of finding strength and rejuvenation may be quite different. Whatever your method is to feel strengthened and uplifted, be deliberate both about doing it and enjoying it. There is still much that is good, and fun, and uplifting in the world even when depression makes it feel like it is all out of reach.
A few final suggestions
There were also other smaller things that we did on a day-to-day basis that helped out quite a bit as well. The first was to just get out of the house. When Eve was depressed, the last thing she ever wanted to do was to get out of the house because she didn’t feel like it. If I stubbornly persisted enough though, she would usually let me talk her into at least going for a drive. Sometimes we would even go to a store or a park. We found that getting her out of the house (or in our case, a small apartment) lightened her mood a bit and helped her focus on things going on around her instead of inside of her.
Nighttime was usually when the depression was the worst for Eve. There were many nights when I would have to simply turn on the light so it wouldn’t be so dark. We also played a lot of board games at 2:00 and 3:00 AM in the morning to help Eve calm down if it was a particularly bad night.
One thing that we’ve had to be careful about is different medications. Although Eve hasn’t had any major bouts of depression for a few years, she has gotten depressed due to an antibiotic once, as well as from a medicine prescribed for headaches. If you or someone you are close to starts a new medication, be mindful that although depression is a less-experienced side effect, it still is one.
Like me, Eve finds great solace and personal strength in prayer. In her darkest hours she would pray fervently for comfort and peace. Although it didn’t cure her of her depression, it carried her through her sorrows, helped her get up out of bed every day, and it gave her hope that she would one day feel relieved of her heavy burden and trial.
Our story continues, but thankfully Eve hasn’t suffered a severe bout of depression for years now. We are happy, we think the world of each other, and we have also been blessed with three beautiful children. We look back on those years of depression now as an extremely difficult and trying time, but also as a time of great growth for each of us individually and as a couple. Depression is real. It is hard. It affects many lives, and not just those who are depressed themselves. Based my own experience, if you are supporting a spouse through depression I encourage you to choose to be loving and kind ALWAYS, choose to be patient and to have hope, get help as soon as possible, and remember to take care of yourself and find joy and rejuvenation in something meaningful to you. Both you and your spouse can get through these dark days. Your love, trust, and admiration for each other will deepen profoundly as you lovingly support each other through one of life’s deepest lows.