There’s a proverb that goes, "the trouble with women is they trouble men". There’s another that goes, "the trouble with women is men". The issue of trouble seems to feature large when it comes to relationships and but attempts to care for a depressed husband can, I believe, account for one of the most difficult and stressful times for any wife or partner.
It may seem insensitive to consider the care of a depressed husband as troublesome but actually it very often is. When I wrote about How Men & Women Experience Depression, I said that depressed men turn their emotions outwards. For example, the average male will explain their emotional discomfort by blaming others. They will exert greater efforts to stay in control, to maintain a strong male image and to see their situation as a problem that can be fixed. They become more irritable and hostile. They turn more to external distractions, won’t confront their emotions and feel ashamed by them. In a nutshell, these are just a few of the issues a wife or partner is confronted with, and something they may have to live with for years.
I’ve also mentioned that men have more trouble in identifying and disclosing emotions. A big part of this is due to the way men are socialized into what it means to be a man. It’s important to note these same socialization issues affect women too. Even though a modern marriage is based on partnership there’s no point pretending our gender roles have disappeared. I can’t think of any wives I’ve met who actually wanted to care for a depressed husband. It’s not just the fact that it’s hard living with a depressed person, it’s the fact that the role relationship changes so dramatically that many wives struggle to resolve the dependence that comes with depression.
Gloves off. A depressed man is invariably sullen, moody, negative, sometimes hostile, monosyllabic and self-absorbed. They can become picky, finding reasons to see fault in everything and everyone. Their wife usually bears the brunt of their verbal assaults and/or misery. Most wives find it frustrating, stressful and emotionally draining that no matter what they say or try, nothing seems to help. They begin to feel guilty and perplexed at what they perceive as their own failure to get through. Not surprisingly some feel their husband is unhappy in the marriage or may even be seeing someone else.
The essential ingredients in caring for a depressed husband are threefold. First, the treatment of depression may not be what he wants or even recognizes he needs, but it is important. If through persuasion, friends or relatives you can get him to the doctor, you’ve jumped a significant hurdle. Secondly, treatment can be supported through nurturing and love. Remember, he hasn’t asked for this: it’s uncomfortable, embarrassing, energy sapping and humiliating. He won’t want to connect, but gentle reassurances from time to time that it will pass always helps. If he talks, just listen. He might go all around the houses or describe his problems in oblique or very black-and-white ways. The good news is that he is talking - to you. If you challenge too directly it can have the effect of shutting him down and reinforcing ideas that nobody (not even you) cares or understands.
Depression is a highly sensitive period. All the good things you’ve done can be undermined by some casual throw away comment that cuts deep. Where possible, let his therapist or doctor challenge the negative thinking, for one thing they can provide structures to help him think in alternative ways.
My third essential is to look after yourself. There is such a thing as being too nurturing and helpful. You could inadvertently find yourself reinforcing his dependence on you, so a balance needs to be struck. The voice of depression can be manipulative. This and the associated behavior can infect the whole family, so you need to look after yourself and your family too. Maintain your friendships, take time out and don’t be concerned that you are doing this.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.