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My Wife Is Depressed. Should I Help Her To Toughen Up Or Just Be There For Her?

Question:

I just got married to my wife, and I love her to death. She’s the answer to my life, and in complete perspective, we are both very happy. However, she’s been getting quite depressed lately. There are two factors contributing to it: 1) she suffers from psoriasis, and 2) she gave her first child up for adoption about 9 months ago. Here are the two different factors from each of our perspectives:

Psoriasis.

Her: She is embarrassed and feels unattractive. She also feels helpless and is worried the psoriasis won’t ever go away (she is currently experiencing the worst outbreak she’s ever had). We are newlyweds and don’t have sex as much because she feels so gross.

Me: I love her just as much with the psoriasis. I truly hardly even notice it when I am touching and/or looking at her. She’s just as beautiful as ever. I would be able to move on and accept the skin condition if it so happens that it’ll never go away. Should I expect her to be embarrassed about it? Or should she toughen up and realize there’s nothing she can do about it?

The adoption.

Her: She feels the sensitivity to the subject will never go away. At nights, she often cries out loud when she hears (from the adoptive parents) how Ellie (the baby’s name) is growing up and learning to do all these new things. It hurts her to see other people around us have babies and have so much joy with it. She knows the adoption was the right choice, but she still strongly longs for her daughter. She breaks down about once or twice a week. She feels she should vent away when she’s feeling down and just let it all out – that there’s a grieving process that she needs to continually go through – that if she doesn’t let it out, one day it’ll explode.

Me: I’m not Ellie’s father, but she is the cutest little thing ever. She lives several hours away, but I’ve been able to meet her and the adoptive parents (who, both my wife and I agree, are absolutely wonderful). I can understand my wife’s feelings – I can’t imagine what it’s like to give up a child (let alone your first). However, I think she should be trying to get over it instead of dwelling on her feelings (trying to promote the grieving process). Is it good to try to distance herself from things that are going to bring back the memories? Or should she embrace her memories and continue grieving? For example, Ellie’s birthday is in a couple months, and my wife wants to take a couple days off for it. Shouldn’t she just try and move on with her life? Or is she ok doing that? Anyways, I don’t want to go on the show or anything. I’m just looking for answers. It hurts me to see her cry and not be able to cope with this. She’s a happy person. That’s one reason I love her. I want to tell her to toughen up on it all so she doesn’t cry and dwell on the sad feelings. But maybe I should just be there for her and allow her to continue in her depression… What do you think?

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Answer:

What you’re asking here is whether there is a right way (or a better way) to cope with very stressful circumstances. Your wife is coping by being very expressive of her pain and suffering. She is crying out loud and wailing and acting out her fear of being disfigured by her Psoriasis by pulling away from you, for instance. Your own coping style is to be more stoic about things and less expressive I expect. And consequently, it is hard for you to relate to what your wife is going through or at least how she is handling it. You want to know if it is okay to recommend your own more stoic approach to your wife, or whether this will cause problems.

I’m glad you’re asking third parties about this issue because it shows some sensitivity on your part and a willingness to accept interpersonal differences. A lessor (less mature) man might just criticize his wife for coping differently than himself and fail in the process to recognize that there is more than one way to cope that can be legitimate. I’m not sure actually that you’ve come to this realization fully, just yet, but it does sound like you’re on the verge of it and that is a good thing.

The thing is, it isn’t really useful to attempt the sort of categorization process you’re thinking about. Sure, some varieties of coping are better or more effective than others, but that only is true when everyone can agree on what the desirable outcome of coping is. If your goal is to get on with your life, it probably is better overall to see how well you can detach yourself from your grief and move on, but it is presumptuous to think that everyone’s coping goal is the same. Your wife’s goal may not be to get on with her life. It may be to punish herself, instead. Or, it may be to test you to see if you really love her by acting in a way that would drive off a lessor man. Granted, these are not necessarily rational goals, but sometimes these are the sorts of goals people unconsciously set for themselves when they are distraught. We might, you and I, agree that making an ongoing display of your hurting feelings serves to inflame them more than calm them down. However, if calming down isn’t want your wife is interested in accomplishing, then pointing this out to her won’t help things.

I understand how frustrating it can be to be around someone who is suffering and to not know how to help them. Rather than trying to impose a right way to cope on your wife, my recommendation is that you and she talk about the meaning of all of these recent stressful events with the goal of helping her and you to understand what it is she is trying to accomplish. Is she trying to self-punish, for instance? Would she feel okay if she were to become less emotional and more detached, or would that signal to her that she was becoming more of a bad person in some manner? Is the display of emotion something that leaves her feeling better emotionally or intellectually in some way or does it leave her feeling worse, and is that a good or bad thing? The more clarity you both can come to with regard to what she’s trying to accomplish, the more you can know how to advise her.

In as much as some of your wife’s behavior is being driven by irrational fears (such as fears that conditions will never change), it may be helpful for her to see a cognitive behavioral therapist and work a while on learning how to evaluate beliefs so that the irrational ones don’t drive behavior. Cognitive behavioral therapy is known to be highly useful in helping to resolve depressions.

In sum, don’t jump to tell your wife how to be, but rather spend some time talking and listening to her so as to develop a more sensitive understanding of what her coping behavior is designed to accomplish and what her actual goals are. Have the discussion about whether it is a good idea to act out in emotional ways or not after you’ve gotten her to buy into the idea that she actually wants to feel better. Therapy might be helpful for your wife, so suggest it, and look into cognitive behavioral therapy for depression if she’s interested, as this therapy is specifically designed to help people evaluate the impact of irrational beliefs and goals on mood. Good luck.

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