Like so many others, I am the partner of someone with depression and I am trying to learn how to deal with it when he slides into a depressed state. My question has to do with how I should respond to his withdrawal and isolation. He simply shuts down -- no communication at all. It's been about 3 weeks now. We do not live together, and while in years past when he isolated himself this way I would call/text/IM him, asking all kinds of questions ('what is wrong?' 'don't you love me?' 'why won't you talk to me?' 'what have I done?') until both of us were really upset, this time I am not doing that (outside of a few brief emails that expressed love & support). Part of it is for my own self-preservation (I am too familiar with the enormous ache that comes from his cold, frustrated responses to my calls) and part of it is for him: if his behavior indicates he needs space, I am going to respect that even if he's not being straightforward in telling me that's what he needs and why. It's so hard, though... while I know logically that I haven't done anything wrong to 'cause' his depression, it was impossible not to take these withdrawals personally and feel so hurt. How can he not turn to me when he's upset about something, especially when he has said time and again "You are the only person who has ever truly believed in me and loved me." Am I doing the right thing in letting him be? What else could I do right now?
Some background: We have been together 9 years; I am 41 and he is a few months away from 40. We come from very different formative backgrounds: he grew up with divorced parents who didn't get along, a mother who was emotionally & physically abusive and regularly told him how worthless he was, a burden, etc. She kicked him out of the house at 15 (he came home from school to find all of his things piled on the lawn with a note that said "You and this must be gone when I get home"). He went to live with his father, who treated him well but was more committed to his own 'swinging bachelorhood' than being a father. My partner spent a lot of time alone while growing up and a lot of time feeling bad about himself (not 'normal' as he says). In contrast, my parents have been married forever and I grew up in a home that, while not perfect, was safe and supportive. Communicating was a priority. My partner married at 20, in what he calls a blind attempt at having a 'normal life' (his now ex-wife came from a rather "Leave it to Beaver" background), and by 26 he had 2 children, a mortgage and a major breakdown. I met him 4 years later, after he had divorced and 'done work on himself' (his words) and we have been together ever since. Most of the time, we are utterly compatible -- both teachers, both intellects, same political views, same eco-minded approach to the world. We truly enjoy each other's company and love to take road trips for the reason that we get hours & hours of talking time in the car. But within the first two years of our relationship he had one of his 'episodes' of withdrawal and moodiness that came out of the blue. I was freaked out by it, panicked, certain he was trying to break up with me. Others followed, maybe one every other year, and every time I was caught by surprise and scared because he would shut down on me. He always 'came around' and we just resumed our lives together, but when he'd shut down the next time I never felt confident he'd return to me and I drove myself to distraction trying to figure out what I had done to drive him away. I used to regard his sudden withdrawals and moody, irritable behavior as isolated 'periods' that followed some upset (an issue at work or an argument we'd had) or trauma (the death of his hiking partner while they were on a hike). The latter happened in '07, and he went into a 6-month depression that was terrifying. He simply SHUT DOWN, barely talking except when he absolutely had to, and irritable all the time. Any suggestion of therapy was met with anger. I got myself into therapy and the therapist said my partner had PTSD and, based on my anecdotes about his life, depression in general. We were living together and ended up separating homes; about 3 weeks after we got our own places, he 'woke up' and came around, as he always had before. He felt guilty about everything he had put me through, said he realized that his withdrawing was what he had learned to do as a boy to survive and that he couldn't do it as an adult. He was open to therapy, but I didn't want to push, and I honestly thought he had turned a huge corner. He kept saying "It won't happen again; I've learned that I can't retreat into myself." I believed him and we moved ahead with our life together and all had been very, very good. Sometimes I said I was worried about how we would handle the next time, and he said there wouldn't be a next time. I suppose I wanted to believe. Then this past December we had a run-of-the-mill argument one night, and he's been "in his cave" ever since. Our ordinary argument came not long after my partner had decided to drop out of a Ph.D. program he'd been in for a year. He dropped out for very practical reasons, and was already looking into other programs and seemed OK with it all. But my partner teaches at a prestigious private school where 1/2 the faculty has Ph.D.'s and the other 1/2 has Masters from top-notch schools. My partner has 'only' a B.A. and I know that he feels rather insecure about that. Indeed, what I know about my partner is that his esteem rests on his leadership roles, his expertise, etc. in connection with work. He is never more himself than when he is "leading" and it often seems like he feels he needs to prove himself. Indeed, he is constantly busy at work and seems to put on a happy face for the people there. I am wondering now if that is the 'existential' trigger that has brought his latest depressed episode -- a feeling of inadequacy, failure, not succeeding. My partner said a few weeks ago in response to my frantic questioning about what was wrong, "The thing that happened in December is weighing on me and I just need to work it through in my head..." But when I then asked "Exactly what 'thing'? What was so horrible about that argument that you can't communicate with me?" he brushed me off, saying in a frustrated tone "I don't want to have a conversation about that now..." But I don't think his behavior right now is the result of our argument...the reaction doesn't fit the cause. Does this make sense? It seems to be more internal, a frustration with himself. I am certainly his biggest fan and he knows this, he's said as much. I guess my heart just can't understand why he'd turn away from me if he knows I am a constant, true source of support. Some people think I am a masochist for not leaving him; but I deeply love my partner, and I know that at times like this I am not dealing with my partner but with his depression, which overtakes him. I am hopeful that he will 'come out' of it again and we can begin the work we probably should have started years ago.
If you have read all of this, thank you!! I really appreciate ANY insight & advice & feedback anyone can offer. My heart goes out to everyone struggling with depression, whichever side of it we fall on. I wish love was enough to combat this.