Couples cope with depression together

For some couples Valentines Day means coping with depression together

By pieta woolley

Hallmark, the always-optimistic spin doctor for North America’s personal relationships, published a bumper crop of Valentine’s cards this year. “How did I get so lucky in love?” asks one, with a picture of two heart-embossed dice. On a big pastel heart, another card declares, “All the thoughtful things you do mean so much to me… and I only hope you know the special place you’ll always have within my heart.”

There’s no card that says something like this: “Honey, I love you, but you’re depressed and it’s driving me nuts. Please get it together.” But depression defines the relationships of an increasing number of couples, according to University of Ottawa psychology professor Valerie Whiffen. Since the Second World War, she said, recurring depression has increased sharply among both men and women. For those in their 20s and 30s, she said, it’s common to feel that the world is out of control, and feel hopeless about it—which are feelings that can trigger depression.

The increase in depression is taking a toll on our relationships, Whiffen said. And this week’s lovey-dovey Valentine’s propaganda can really highlight the pain of living with a depressed partner. “We can burble along for the rest of the year without really thinking too hard about your relationship,” Whiffen told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from her winter home in Powell River. “But when you’re reading these sentimental cards and they’re ringing hollow for you, it can bring into sharp relief what’s missing in your relationship.”

For 31 years, Vicki Rogers stuck with her husband in spite of what was missing. The education director of the Mood Disorders Association of B.C. told the Straight her depressed spouse would sometimes live in their bedroom for weeks on end, watching TV and sleeping while she took care of the children, cleaned the house, and worked. “I believe very strongly in marriage vows, and my husband didn’t choose to have a mental illness,” Rogers recalled. Despite feeling frustrated, busy, and angry, she stuck by him “because leaving was never really an option for me”.

Rogers coped by living one day at a time, and by taking care of herself. Every day, she remembers, she’d go for a walk on her own or with a friend, treat herself to a coffee out, or a bubble bath, or a trip to the library—just to keep her own sanity. In 1982, when her husband was diagnosed with depression, there weren’t many resources for partners of depressed people; now, she said, the association offers a family support group ( “You work at it one day at a time because you can’t manage more than that,” she advised. “It’s frustrating, though! You spend all night making a meal, and the person who is depressed couldn’t care less. I had to learn not to take it personally.”

Living with a depressed person means contextualizing a cornucopia of bad behaviour that most romantic partners would never ordinarily tolerate, according to Vancouver-based registered clinical counsellor Jaminie Hilton. He or she might sleep on the couch, refuse sex, not want to talk, stop showering or exercising, distance themselves emotionally, and lose interest in the world around them. Plus, they’ll likely seem “down” all the time. The worst thing the non-depressed partner can do is give up, though. “It takes a very strong person to hang in and provide the ego strength,” Hilton admitted. “The depressed person is borrowing strength from his or her partner. Be sure to say, ‘I love you…you won’t feel this forever…you’re a worthwhile person.’?”

As simple as these words are, the relationship between the two partners and the depression is usually complex, Whiffen believes. The professor has researched depression in relationships since the mid-1980s. In a paper she published in Personal Relationships journal last year, Whiffen argues that the non-depressed partner often contributes to their partner’s depression, by making him or her feel insecure in the relationship.

An insensitivity to one partner’s vulnerability can directly trigger depression, she found. If you’re with a depressed partner, she said, it’s worth evaluating your own behaviour. “It’s painful, but having a depressed partner can set up a system for a relationship,” Whiffen explained. “One partner is depressed, and the other one takes on the directive, critical role, and you fall into a pattern. That’s why depression can be so hard to treat.…Definitely look at your own behaviour. It may not have triggered your partner’s depression, but chances are it’s helping to maintain it.”

The trick for the non-depressed partner is to stop their own pattern; don’t get angry at your depressed partner, even if they are acting angry, because depressed people are so sensitive to rejection. At the same time, angry feelings are normal, and they need to be addressed, Whiffen said. “You can’t suppress those feelings because they will leak out,” she warned. “The non- depressed person has to find a non-angry way to talk about those things.”

So for both partners, Whiffen believes the answer is counselling. And, possibly, medication for the depressed person. However, because fewer than five percent of depressed people seek help for their illness, according to Whiffen, she believes a partner’s self-help is vital. She said that when a man is depressed in a heterosexual relationship, the woman is often sucked into his negativity. When a woman is depressed, however, the man will distance himself emotionally, and help the woman spin deeper into depression.

For couples caught in that cycle on February 14, Hallmark can’t help yet. But Whiffen, Rogers, and Hilton agree: for everyone’s mental health, it’s important to stand by your depressed man (or woman)—maybe even by giving them a lovey-dovey card.