I’ve written here about periods in my life when I was emotionally abusive to my family. It’s painful to look back on those times, harder still to bring it out publicly. But it’s one of the things I’ve had to do as part of recovery from depression. Women are capable of this same behavior, but judging by reports from therapists and the thousands of requests from women for help online, it’s far more common in men.
Because of my experience, I’m often asked for advice from the partners of depressed men on what they can do to help change this behavior and save their relationships. Those questions can pose a difficult problem. How can you tell the difference between a depressed man who is acting abusively and a man who may be depressed but is primarily an emotional and psychological abuser? That may sound like quibbling, but this isn’t about words and definitions. For the partner, it can push a hurtful situation into a physically dangerous one.
Last year, Merely Me wrote two excellent posts, one on how to recognize the signs of an emotionally abusive relationship and one on how to escape it. She makes it clear that an abuser can eventually turn violent. The relationship is a serious threat to both psychological and physical safety. What can be confusing is that the patterns of relationships with depressives and abusers can be surprisingly similar.
The emotional anguish and self-doubt that a woman experiences is also similar in both cases. And the questions I try to respond to come from women in the midst of turmoil and pain, not after the fact when feelings are less intense and they can see more clearly the sort of man they’ve been dealing with. They’re looking for help at exactly the time of the worst hurt and confusion when saving the relationship is all that matters.
The stories I most often hear go like this. A woman meets and falls in love with a man who is incredibly caring, attentive and responsive. It may feel like she’s found the ideal partner. But after a glorious period, things start to change. The once loving man turns into an angry and abusive stranger. This may happen very gradually. He might at first become laughingly insulting, but the words get more and more cutting. He claims that her behavior is starting to upset a great relationship. Before long, the woman is blamed for everything. She’s the cause of everything going wrong in his life, especially his depression.
The level of anger escalates, and he threatens to leave unless she changes. There’s so much pressure on her that she wonders if her behavior might really have contributed to this breakdown. Under constant attack, she may be fearful of losing the security of the relationship - though there is probably little left anyway. She might suppress her own anger for fear of making things worse and finally pushing him away forever. When her justifiable anger does come out, it may be explosive and “prove” to the man that she’s the irrational and destructive one. The man may not only withhold affection but also shut down communication, isolating himself, refusing to explain anything, barely tolerating her presence.