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.
Despite all that, she may be convinced that there must be a way she can help get rid of this nightmare. She asks over and over again: Is there any hope? What can I do? Even if there is no response from him, she tries to assure the lost partner of her support - she’ll always be there. She gets desperate as everything she tries seems to backfire. Yet she clings to the hope that the wonderful person she used to know will return.
My wife’s reaction was very different from those of many anguished women who are seeking help online. She never had any doubt that the problems were mine and that I was imposing a lot of pain on her and our children. She knew - and told me many times - that it was up to me to get treatment. Then I’d usually wake up to what I was doing, be full of remorse and suddenly become a loving partner again - for a while.
I’d also explain that, when these feelings came over me, what I did wasn’t about her, it was about depression. But she’d remind me of a basic truth. It didn’t matter what caused the behavior. Abuse is abuse, and it hurts. She couldn’t take it forever and needed to know that I would take action to deal with my problems. She would support me as long as I was working hard to fight depression and also working hard to restore our relationship.
I think one sign that depression is the basic problem is the shifting back and forth that I experienced. Depression often comes in episodes, and behavior can change dramatically from abusive to loving, then back again. A true abuser will not let up on the blaming and manipulative behavior. He simply doesn’t have any other side to his personality. Whether he’s loving or depressed, charming or hateful, he’s using these moods - perhaps quite unconsciously - to assert control.
There is hope that a depressed man who is acting abusively may eventually realize his need for help and start on a road to recovery. An abuser, on the other hand, will rarely change, and can become more menacing and physically violent as time goes on. Over time, this difference can become clear, but by then a woman will have been through a terrible emotional battering that leaves permanent scars.
When I’m asked for advice by a woman agonizing in the midst of emotional abuse that’s linked to depression in some way, my first thought is for her. She needs all the help and support she can get. The focus needs to move from the man, who has to make his own decision to change, to the woman, who needs to think more of her own wellbeing.
Often, I can’t tell anymore than she can whether she’s dealing with a depressive who might be able to change or an abuser who never will. But protecting herself has to come first, especially if the situation feels menacing. It’s time to get out, no matter how painful or unthinkable that action must be.