Trying to Save Relationships Despite Depression's Impact

by John Folk-Williams Patient Expert

Aside from what it's done to me, recurring depression has inflicted the greatest hurt on my wife and children. Most people dealing with depression say the same thing - that their closest relationships are hit hard, and often don't survive a long crisis or repeated episodes.

Many I talk to online feel that depression has been driving people away for years and that because of it they've never been able to hold a relationship together, or even get into one. That was true for me until my late 20s. The strategy I developed in childhood to get close to people was really a perfect way to keep them at a distance.

Instead of reaching out to anyone, I assumed that if they observed how depressed I was, they would respond sympathetically and reach out to me. That was pretty perverse. It must have started in childhood as one of many messages to Mom: "Please pay attention and love me." It was a sort of acting in instead of acting out. It didn't work with her or with anyone else, ever. Of course, it wasn't a conscious strategy, just the way I was.

After I "grew up" and had some emotional awareness of how distorted my behavior and moods had become, I did have a conscious strategy. It was the same one almost everyone has. Get help, cure the depression, and then you'll be ready to reach out and get close to people. Most of the therapies assume that too. They focus on the one with depression and try to help change and resolve inner issues before anything else. Relationships come into it, of course, but they're next on the list.

It's hard to imagine it could be any other way. I assume that I have to resolve the problem of depression on my own. I take my meds, go to my psychotherapy sessions, practice meditation, work at adapting my life to relieve stress, and a lot more. My symptoms should fade as I change and heal. Then I can rebuild my relationships.

The trouble with that approach is that it can take years, and in the meantime my family is taking the brunt of my worst behavior, my friends don't know what to do and stay away, my colleagues at work can't depend on me. If recovery ever comes - and I've been fortunate that it has come to me - it could be too late to rebuild any relationship.

I've come to believe that recovery depends as much on staying close to loved ones and learning to heal with them as it does on individual therapies. The two can't be separated but have to go hand-in-hand.

But how can that be possible when I can't face anyone when I'm in the depths of depression, much less talk to them?
I could never relate to anyone for support when I was that lost. No one can. But depression doesn't keep on with that intensity forever - or if it does, the person may be lost for good.

For most people, there are many degrees of depression, some days better than others. I'd often experience a complete rebound and feel perfectly fine for a limited period, only to fall flat again in a few days or weeks or months. Depression has these ups and downs.

It's possible to do a lot during those better times when you can see friends, talk to loved ones and reach out to them for support. But it's not easy to take the first step when things have already turned sour.

For me the most important thing to do in those better moments might sound simple, but it's been terribly hard.

Tell them the truth about what I've been feeling.

Being honest about what I've been feeling has always been the key to building trust with anyone, whether depressed or not. People need to feel they're making contact with real feelings and worries, not just looking at a mask. Being honest about what I'm going through is the only way I know to set people straight and help dispel any negative assumptions they've formed about me - because they have made assumptions.

Everyone you're close to is affected by what you do or don't do. If you don't talk to them from your heart or don't even want to see them, they naturally feel your behavior is aimed at them personally. They might assume that they've done something wrong, that it's their fault. They might blame you rather than themselves and assume you've become arrogant, snobbish, insensitive, punishing - take your pick, something bad.

Even when you're avoiding others to "spare" them, they're experiencing just the opposite, that you want to hurt to them - or that they've pushed you away. In either case, the trust you've had with them is broken.

I've seen suspicion, distance, anger, hurt all melt away as I've talked honestly to my partner and close friends. As soon as they hear my real emotions coming through, it"�s possible for them to understand and sympathize. Their worst fears about what my behavior might mean can be set aside as they hear about the struggle I've been having.

But it's a two way street. When I try to say that my behavior was about depression, that it "wasn't about you," that's insensitive to what they've been through. They can only take it personally when they don't really know what's happening. So the other side of honest talking is listening closely to what they've experienced and the real hurt they've felt as a result of my depressed behavior.

Heartfelt communication isn't easy. There's the risk that it will meet a cool response or worse. I've learned by trial and error how to get better at this, and there are several other methods I've depended on. I want to do justice to those, so I'll take them up in the next post.

In the meantime, perhaps you could describe what you've tried to do in order to hold onto close relationships in spite of depression.

John Folk-Williams
Meet Our Writer
John Folk-Williams

John wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Depression.