I’m writing this blog as the 2nd in a 3-part series about how to assess, cope with and navigate a relationship where depression is present in you or your spouse. In my last blog, I shared how couples can discern if they are dealing with chronic, bigger issues of clinical depression versus less severe, more temporary periods of feeling down or depressed. In this blog, I want to think about how couples can begin to identify how depression might be fueling their relationship struggles. How might depression be eroding intimacy, connection, and trust, perhaps similar to the impact of an affair or infidelity?
I’m a psychotherapist in Washington DC and nearby Bethesda, MD, and I treat couples in relationship distress through a form of couples counseling called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy [EFT]. In this approach, I help couples identify their negative cycle and their individualized “go to” coping style that often causes them to disconnect rather than achieve their desired connection. I walk couples through 9 steps and 3 stages of identifying their triggers, noticing their action tendencies, labeling their outside expressed feelings, discovering their underlying core feelings, and expressing their deeper wants/desires to their partner, all of which can get t lost in “the fight” within their negative pattern of relating.
Recently, I’m noticing many more couples who are coming to me with the added challenge of finding their connection with each other while struggling with their own disconnection, which is fueled by the impact of clinical depression in one or both partners. I find myself wondering, how do partners connect within a very real process of disconnection? How do they find each other when their identities, emotions and thoughts are often shrouded by the cloak of depression?
First, I help them decide if they are dealing with a clinical depression (Big D) or a situational depression (little d), which was discussed in more detail in the last blog post. Then I work with them to consider the negative pattern of relating that has developed over time–Does one person seek and approach and the other person hide or avoid? Does one partner fight and the other flees? Does one spouse shut down while the other persists until he/she eventually closes down? As we sort through this cycle, I often find that we need to decide what role Depression has in their relationship. How is Depression fueling their negative cycle? How is it leaving both of them feeling disconnected from or fighting for connection? How is it depleting each of them? How is Depression acting as the 3rd Player in the relationship?
A central shift in the process of EFT treatment is when a couple can shift from fighting with each other and when they can begin to team up against their negative pattern together. For instance, if a couple gets stuck in the pattern of one partner demanding more (connection) and the other partner withdrawing more (from connection due to feeling too much), then one partner could invite the other to try to notice “that same old fight”, or negative pattern, and catch his/her typical negative coping style. One partner could also choose to change his/her typical “go to” response and put a pause on the cycle by responding differently.
This same process could apply to resituating depression as the 3rd player in the relationship. Both partners can begin to team up against the depression together in order to refrain from blaming or isolating further the depressed partner. This process of engaging to work on the problem together could dually empower the depressed partner and relieve some anxiety and worry (which often ends in resentment, anger and burn-out) of the caregiving partner.
Stay tuned next week for the 3rd blog in this series–Loving Your Way Through Depression.