Roseann Bennett, LFMT, Talks Marital Depression: How to Cope with the Pain and Stay Together

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For nearly seventy years, mental care health affiliates across the country have observed May as Mental Health Month. They have reached millions of people through the media, local events and offering screenings. For me, as a marriage and family therapist with over a decade of experience, I’ve been fortunate to be responsible for treatment planning, case management, and crisis management for hundreds of clients.  “Mental health” issues can be scary, and they can have an even larger impact in the contact of a romantic relationship.  A large percentage of the people I work with are married couples who find themselves at the crossroads of separation or divorce.  Often times when navigating these issues during a session, I discover one of the root causes for the unhappiness:  chronic, untreated depression.

My goal has been to help people through life’s struggles, both internal and external, within their control and exceeding it, horrific and commonplace.  It is my hope that today’s resources – this this article – are educational and wide-reaching to individuals seeking more information depression within the context of marriage.  To play a small role in my clients’ larger success stories gives me a great sense of achievement and enhances my role as a therapist.  My contact information is below, and I welcome the opportunity to visit further with another you has questions.

The sad statistics. Depression that affects one partner has an effect on the other partner, the relationship and ultimately the entire family. By my estimate, nearly 15 million American adults, or about 7% of the U.S. population, is affected with a major depression in a given year.

But depression itself doesn’t lead directly to divorce. Instead, it is the consequences of not addressing the depression that can be problematic.  In my work, I don’t normally hear “I got a divorce because my wife was depressed.”  No. More typical is that “my wife became sad, distant, and I had an affair because I felt lonely and unfulfilled.” Or in other situations, one partner may get so depressed he stops working, and that can lead to a cascade of other problems, most notably financial insecurity.  This can be especially difficult for females who left careers to raise a family.

Not all mental health issues are created equal.  Some depression is transient or situational, such as when a partner loses a parent or other family member. Within a few weeks, typically, the person feels a bit better. Other times, the depression might continue or reoccur several times. Having a history of depression makes it more likely to have another episode.  In my experience, with the first depression we can usually link it to some event, such as job loss, or a serious medical problem. I can identify a trigger, address it, and we can move on.  But the more depressive episodes a client has, the less likely it is linked to an event and more due to an underlying brain change.  And that’s when depression can pose more long-term consequences to a marriage, and a stigma develops that “something” is wrong.

Any angry marriage. Depending on the extent of the illness, the depressed spouse often tunes out and gives up on life. It is well-understood that a depressed person may sleep too much, or too little. The other partner feels compelled to pick up the slack, especially if there are children. Depressed people often stop eating, or overeat, and may have difficulty concentrating and conversing. That really tragic part is the depressed person often feels responsible, but they feel like they can’t do anything about it – many (rather, most) of them don’t even know why they are depressed.

The healthier partner may be understanding and even sympathetic at first, but this slowly begins to change. If a partner has never been depressed (or doesn’t have a loved one with mental illness), then he or she may have a hard time understanding the mood disorder. As exhaustion and frustration increase, the feelings of the unaffected partner may evolve into anger or resentment. And if the depressed partner no longer engages in activities the couple used to do together, that’s another source of irritation. The other partner either has to do things on their own or stay home, too.  He may also feel cheated because the depressed partner is typically not much fun to be around. There is often a loss of interest in sex by the depressed person, which further strains the relationship.

If the depression persists for months, or years, both partners can feel the distance between them widening. The non-depressed spouse will often think: “How can he be depressed? We have a happy marriage.” But sometimes, one has nothing to do with the other. Mental illness can rise independent of one’s circumstances.  Other times, the depression is due to marital dissatisfaction.  The important thing is when depression lingers, together as a society we must understand that it’s okay to get help.  It’s one of the most loving things you can do for yourself and your family.

How to get help. If a couple decides that professional counseling is needed, then the depressed partner may want to go alone first. Or, in my work I’ve found that some non-depressed partners try to persuade the depressed person to get help and the partner won’t go. Making the appointment is the first, brave step. Showing this article to the depressed partner can start the conversation.

Because seeing a therapist together can give a couple valuable perspective.  I’d like to convey to the suffering spouse that the therapist is more like a mediator and not a judge.  In other words, therapy is not a blaming session, but rather the therapist helps the depressed person recognize how they are contributing to the problem. Acceptance and ownership is the first step and if they improve the depression, they could improve the marriage. And often, talking about the depression — whether alone or with a partner in therapy — brings up other issues in a marriage that, when addressed, help ease the secondary issue.

How to stay together.  Sometimes, the partner of a person with depression will feel responsible, and stick with the marriage even if they’ve become more of a caretaker than a spouse. But more often, if the depression continues for years, the partner does get tired of it and seeks divorce.

Which couples are most likely to stay together? Those who acknowledge depression as a problem, try to understand it, and keep talking with each other.  Those who are honest and open with each other.  Those who admit their role in the situation.  And those who which to take control of their mental health and change the things that they can.  It’s not an easy journey.  A large mission of Mental Health Month is to address the stigma associated with depression and other illnesses one cannot visibly see. But for the committed couple, family therapy and counseling can make their marriage even stronger. It’s not easy to admit there is a problem.  And I can help you make the first step toward better wellbeing.

Roseann Bennett is an accomplished marriage and family therapist with over 10 years of experience working with individuals off all walks of life, helping them through life’s many challenges. Over the course of her career, Roseann has proven herself to be a compassionate therapist with a diverse background in assessment and therapy as well as an effective, forward-thinking business leader. In 2009, Roseann Bennett set out to help establish Center for Assessment and Treatment, a 501 c(3) charitable organization, that is devoted to treating and advocating for individuals and families of all backgrounds, especially those who are disenfranchised or marginalized by the community. She can be reached at https://www.roseannbennett.net/.

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