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Talking with a Depressed Partner

John Folk-Williams has lived with major depressive disorder since boyhood and finally achieved full recovery just a few years ago. As a survivor of ...Read More

Many close relationships break under the impact of a partner’s depression. Even if things don’t go that far, two people still have to work hard to stay together. Depression can change a partner’s behavior so radically that intimacy can be impossible and the underlying trust of a relationship shaken.

You have to try to hold on to the bond, but you can’t wait until depression is gone. Given the recurrent nature of the illness, you may find that you’ll be dealing with periodic episodes for years. One of the most baffling and hurtful aspects of my depression was the unpredictable swing from the closeness of my “normal” self to the irritable distance of my hardly recognizable “down” version.

As my wife and I discovered, one of the first things you need to do is learn all over again how to communicate, how to be with each other. If we hadn’t done that, I doubt we could have kept going over the last 25 years.

A lot of the advice you hear about relating to a depressed partner is all about words. There are countless lists of the helpful things to say, and the things you should never say. The problem is that the words alone don’t express what you mean.

Communication comes through the total presence of a person. When you and your partner are talking, you’re much more attuned to facial expressions, physical signs and the tone of voice than to the bare words. Most of all, I think it’s the eyes that express feelings most spontaneously.

The words come last in this series of responses but still have an essential role to play. I think of them as both the confirmation of the genuine quality of the feeling and a kind of commitment that it will last. That’s the finishing touch in expression between two people who are on intimate terms.

In the midst of depression, all those signals you’ve gotten used to either disappear or take on different meanings. Neither partner can get through to the other. We learned a technique that helped us get behind those distorted signals and better understand what we needed from each other.

We had to practice the skill like any other, and we could best do that during the bright phase of my mood swings. As we got better at it, we could even use it during a bad episode.

The basic method idea is to interrupt the process the mind goes through to make the snap judgments that intensify misunderstanding. We hear an opinion or witness an action, make a quick assumption about the intention behind it, feel a surge of anger or hurt and react immediately.

The reaction to something one of you says seems instantaneous, but you can interrupt this sequence. It goes something like this.

First, you perceive something – hear a statement, see a facial expression, catch a glance from your partner. It’s a trigger that starts up the process.

Next your mind identifies what that perception is and interprets it. You assume you know what it’s meant to communicate.

Then comes an emotional response. If it’s a sensitive trigger in the context of depression, it’s likely to be negative. You feel angry, hurt, frustrated.

You form a judgment. You’re being attacked for no reason. Your partner refuses to listen, is angry and is blaming you for something you didn’t do.

Then you fire back and you’re off to serious argument.

This all happens in a split second, even though your mind is doing something quite complicated.

What you can learn to do, after a lot of practice, is to stop the process before making that final judgment and launching an attack. The key is to check things out with your partner. It’s really hard to catch what you’re doing in time. That’s why it takes a lot of practice.

When you can make that crucial pause, you say something like: “Here’s what I just saw, here’s how I’m interpreting it. Am I right? Is that what you meant?” You may find you’ve missed the mark completely – or you may find you were right.

Even if you read the message correctly, now you have a chance to probe what’s wrong. It’s amazing how that pause and questioning can stop the escalation of feelings into a fight.

We couldn’t have done this effectively without the help of a therapist. He guided us while we initially practiced during a session. We agreed to work on this every time we felt we were running into trouble.

It’s still hard to remember in time to stop. Even though we’ve used this basic tool for years, we can easily forget. When that happens, however, we both have the model as a reference point. There’s a good chance that one of us will realize what’s happening and try to take us back to where we went wrong.

Once you’ve been able to interrupt the rush to judgment, both of you can listen to one another’s concerns more easily. The hard part is to listen without trying to evaluate or judge. There’s a strong urge to interrupt, criticize, dismiss – all by making those quick judgments that you’re trying to be conscious of. The best thing is to listen silently and concentrate on what your partner is saying. They are describing how they see things, and that’s what you need to understand.

After listening, it’s helpful to mirror back what you’ve heard to show that you really do get what they’re saying. The feeling that you’re being heard and understood is a powerful one in any relationship. It’s an affirming and hopeful experience.

It’s easy to expect too much too soon from any method. You may try it for a while, but have trouble making the new techniques work. That happens with any kind of therapy and with the process of recovery as a whole. The onset of depression has changed everything, and you’re scrambling to make things better.

You need to be patient with yourself and your partner. Give yourselves plenty of time to internalize new ways of relating to each other.

Have you and your partner been able to work on relationship issues while treatment is underway? What are the key problems you’ve tried to work on? Which methods have been most effective?

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