Our resident therapist answers your queries about life and relationships
Q My wife has recently been diagnosed with depression. She has been suffering for a while and it was a relief to her to get a diagnosis.
I love her very much and want to be there for her but she is treating me very badly. I do everything I can to make her life easier but it is never enough. She never says thanks or asks nicely, she behaves like a truculent teenager and she calls me useless, a waste of space etc.
I understand she has an illness, but does it explain this behaviour? Do I have to put up with this for the rest of my life?
A I’m sorry to hear that you have also been having a really hard time. Depression doesn’t just steal the person, it can take their relationships, family and friends. Depression isolates the person experiencing it and builds walls around them and between the people involved.
How are you doing? Who can you or are you speaking with? Was it a relief for you to get her diagnosis as well? Did you feel that something can be done to ‘fix’ the problem?
This is a rational assumption to make as seeing your wife suffer is really painful for you, as well. Sit with that for a moment — this is also painful for you.
When you feel ready, write out how this whole experience has been for you. What do you miss, do you miss your wife, your relationship?
The pain of having the person you love sit next to you but to feel disconnected and disliked hurts.
It’s a pretty hard task to not take what is coming your way ‘personally’.
When she’s not angry, you need to calmly ask her to stop lashing out at you. Personal attacks will do more damage than the depression.
I know one is coming from the other but you need to create healthy and clear boundaries of what is OK and what is not.
Everyone has outbursts and arguments with their partner but with long-term depression it’s about future-proofing your own mental and emotional health and protecting the integrity of the relationship.
You can’t fix your wife’s depression; you need to tell her that and you are both contributing to the sense of blame and failure as you think nothing is ‘ever enough’. It isn’t and it won’t be.
You both need to take responsibility over what you can and can’t control and then sit beside each other in support and sometimes in silence. The value of that presence cannot be under-estimated.
You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t know how she feels and yet you can be by her side in full empathetic presence to listen, to hear her experience.
What can you do? It’s a dual response.
First you have to mind yourself. Keep the basics up and keep them consistent: sleep, exercise, rest, good food and getting support for yourself from family, friends, your GP or a mental health professional.
Have a conversation with your wife, letting her know how much you love her and that you know that she is hurting, but her hurt is also hurting you. Let her know that you don’t know what it is like for her and that perhaps you (and everyone else) are annoying or frustrating her and making her feel more annoyed, and that must also be very hard for her.
Ask what you can do that would help her feel supported. Ask what it is that you are doing or not doing that is causing her to lash out.
If this conversation becomes too intense or if either of you feel flooded by emotions, always remember to pause the conversation for a while until you can calm down.
Knowing how to self-soothe yourself and your partner and reading each other’s nervous systems honestly doesn’t sound romantic but it is key to being connected even when you feel disconnected from yourself and others.
Stepping away from a destructive argument, you could say ‘I am flooding, I can’t find the words to express how I really feel, I’m going to take a break for 20 minutes and if you’d like to keep talking when it suits you, we can come back to this.’
Learning how to down-regulate your emotions can start with a cognitive re-appraisal of the situation.
Step back if you find the same argument is being triggered and you already know how it will start and end.
Breaking well-established fight cycles or habits whereby you go straight into fight or flight mode is step one. Recognising that you heart is beating faster than usual and that you are struggling to express yourself or that neither partner is listening as both are trying to be heard is when the ‘pause’ button needs to be hit.
Going for a walk or writing out how you feel or listening to a self-compassion meditation will help you regulate your emotions.
Purposefully pay attention and direct it to other times when you have been insulted before and think about how you managed those situations well, or even what you did well this time.
These strategies to regulate your own emotions in a practical and emotional way will soften the harsh experiences you are having. Minding others starts by minding yourself.
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