What to Do with a Depressed Spouse
Introduction: This week's subject is related to an earlier subject entitled, "Emotional and Physical
Disabilities" (June 3rd). You may want to read it along with this week's column. Since the
letter this week is longer than usual, and my answer is also long, my column includes
only one letter.
Dear Dr. Harley,
I have been married to my husband for two and a half years, and we've been together for
four years. Throughout almost our entire relationship, my husband has been either mildly
or severely depressed. His job creates so much stress for him that it affects his entire life,
but I fear it's not his job that makes him miserable. He has a lot of emotional baggage from
his past that he denies affects him, including his adoption at birth and the murder of his
sister ten years ago, neither of which he has dealt with, and to sum it all up, he feels he has
no value as a person.
On the other hand, I have learned, by spending most of last year in therapy, to reclaim my
self-worth and value my needs as I once did before I met him. He has grown quite
resentful as I have come to these realizations, because when I married my husband, I was
in denial about the significant problems that already existed between us. I thought that
my love could fix all of his past hurt and make him truly happy at the same time. (It was
his challenge to me when we married that since everyone in his life has always left him,
I would too someday, and I was determined to break that pattern for him.) Well, my
"love" has fixed nothing, obviously, and all I have gotten for my efforts is resentment that
I have changed. My change is that I now value my own needs as much or maybe more
than I do his, and I only want him to reciprocate for all the attention and love I've given
We tried marriage counseling together last year, and he resented our therapist for
constantly "blaming him" for our problems. I never interpreted that she did that, but it
was what he chose to see, so nothing was accomplished in the effort. We stopped going
when we moved away, and never resumed in our new city.
I seem to have a need to stay with this selfish, disturbed man. I do want to make him
happy and myself happy, but when I try and explain my needs and what I want, he is
defensive and doesn't listen. He demands, "What do you want from me?" and calls me
names (moron, stupid, idiot). He is a control freak, and I have just about reached the end
of my rope. As I'm sure you realize, he has to learn to love himself before he can be an
equal partner to me, and I am going to try one last time to get us into therapy. I don't have
much hope, and I just want to know if you perceive that I am doing something wrong. He
says that I only pick fights and complain constantly; that my problem is that I just don't
understand men. He generalizes that all women are annoying and that men really want
to be with other men, with few exceptions. He values his male friends and treats them like
gold, but I don't receive the same priority, I feel. He says that I am wrong, but I say actions
speak louder than words.
What have I not done? I am tired of being expected to put him first, and he is resentful of
how I now ask for my needs to be met rather than automatically meeting his, and have
mine eventually fall into place like before. I feel that he has years of self-analysis ahead
of him before he can be at the same level of self-love and self-knowledge that I am, and
that I am married to a man that feels more like a child to me than a husband. He wants
me to "mommy" him frequently, and that has killed my physical reactions to him, about
which he is also resentful on the rare occasion that he has a sex drive. So, what do I do?
I really have so much doubt that I fear any effort on my part or his part will net no great
returns. How do I overcome this doubt, or should I just cut my losses and chalk it up to
trying to change someone from the start? Please help, I could really use the guidance.
From your description, you married a man who has "used up" the love of many women.
I'm sure that others in his past have come to many of the same conclusions as you have.
Your husband probably has a serious depressive disorder, and he's probably been that
way, off and on, most of his life. It's certainly no fun living with someone who's
depressed, and I would imagine that if he doesn't overcome his depression soon, your
name will be added to the list of women who've left him. However, there are proven ways to
help him out of his depression that may save your marriage.
Apparently, you lived with him before you were married, and you probably had a better
relationship then. You may have met him when he was in a more energetic part of his
cycle, and since you married him, his cycle has turned to a less energetic form of
depression. He may have periods of temporary recovery that last days or even weeks, but
the recoveries are less frequent and don't last as long as they used to. His depression
doesn't keep him from his job, but it makes his work miserable. When he comes home
from work, he may try to relieve his suffering with alcohol.
If I'm right about this man, his problem may be almost entirely biochemical. The juices
that flow through his brain make him depressed. Lots of people are that way, and without
medication that stops depression, there's not much they can do about it.
Granted, he's probably done plenty to make himself even more depressed. The way he has
treated the women in his life has caused them to leave him. That's pretty depressing. He's
probably done all sorts of things in a state of depression that has made his life pure hell
for himself and anyone around him. After someone's been depressed a while, it's hard to
know what causes the depression, biochemistry or the behavior of the depressed person,
because his behavior also makes him depressed.
I won't lay all of his problems (or even the majority of his problems) at the feet of his
depression, however. He probably has a lot to learn about caring for a woman, but his
depression has given him a handicap that makes him socially disabled, at least when it
comes to marriage. Regardless of how hard he tries to please you, his depression makes
him a miserable man to be with. He simply cannot meet your emotional needs while he's
Depression is the most common of all emotional disorders. Everyone knows what it's like
to be depressed from time to time, but that's not what depression, the emotional disorder,
is all about. It is not the sorrow we feel at the time of an important loss, but rather, it is an
irrational feeling of hopelessness when there is evidence for hope. The emotional disorder,
depression, leaves a person blinded to his opportunities, unaware of his potential. The
longer he is depressed, the more opportunities he misses until his life becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy -- he always thought he was worthless, and finally he proves it because
he stops doing anything that's productive.
Whenever a spouse I counsel for marital problems suffers from severe depression, my first
item of business is to treat the depression, not the marital problems. The treatment,
however, is much simpler than most people think. Anti-depressant medication is the
ticket. It greatly relieves, if not eliminates entirely, a depressive state so that the spouse
I counsel can succeed in meeting the other spouse's emotional needs. As his depression
is lifted, he seizes opportunities both in his marriage and at his job, that makes him more
successful. In the end, his self-esteem is restored because he finds himself successful in
achieving his life's ambitions. I do not believe that counseling to improve self-esteem,
apart from showing people how to be successful, ever really improves self-esteem.
The approach that I use to save marriages looks at the present and future for solutions. I
encourage you not to worry about your husband's past, his self-esteem or whether or not
he loves himself. After he is treated medically for depression, focus your attention on the
way you treat each other in the here and now.
Your biggest hurdle will be to follow my Policy of Joint Agreement (Never do anything
without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). His depression has
made it impossible for him to follow that policy, and by failing to follow it, you have both
been developing habits that make you increasingly incompatible. You are coming to a
point in your relationship where you will be so incompatible that you will not be able to
live together anymore, and you will end the relationship. When his depression lifts,
he will be in an emotional position to learn new habits, habits that will restore
compatibility to your relationship. By following the Policy of Joint Agreement you will
eliminate all the things you're doing that grate on each other, and you will substitute
behavior and activities that make both of you comfortable.
If either of you feels you cannot follow that Policy, it means that you are willing to gain
at the other's expense, and that will eventually ruin your relationship. When you follow
the Policy of Joint Agreement you create compatibility by taking each other's feelings into
account, especially when you don't feel like it. When you feel the most self-centered, that's
when you need it the most. If you cared about each other all the time, you would follow
the policy instinctively, but in every relationship, there are times that we care far more
about ourselves than we care about our spouses. So by following this rule day in and day
out, you keep your relationship healthy when your instincts would tend to ruin it.
You and every other couple can have a terrific relationship regardless of your past.
Granted, your spouse's depression must be treated, and, in my judgment, anti-depressant
medication should do the trick. But his past has left him with all sorts of unpleasant habits
which must change before you can have a happy marriage. If you follow the Policy of
Joint Agreement as soon as his depression lifts, you will have that relationship.
If anyone reading this column is suffering from the disabling condition, depression, help
is already available to you. Medical science has found an incredible cure that should leave
you free to solve your marital problems intelligently and completely. Don't ignore it, take
care of it now.