When dark days lead to depression, what happens to your relationship?
We tend to think of depression as a difficult experience for the depressed person, and forget that depression has an effect on both members of a couple, and may place a great strain on the relationship. Of course, it’s widely understood that the long, dark winter days can cause SAD, and it’s important to think about how to manage this for the person who is affected; but it’s also important to consider how depression is affecting a relationship.
It may be more effective to treat the relationship rather than the individual. It’s important to look at the situations from all angles to – it may be that there were already problems in the relationship, and is it the problems that have caused the depression rather than the other way round? This is something to be considered particularly at this time of year because of all the extra stress that Christmas can place on our relationships.
When the relationship is under stress it’s very easy to get into looking negatively at the present situation, whereas it’s actually a lot more helpful to think right back to the beginning to when you first met. If you are still able to communicate well with each other you can ask each other questions like “what first drew us together?”, “what was it like when it was good?”, “how did we manage to cope with the stressful situations that we have already faced?” In this way, you begin to reminisce about the good times and the times when you have pulled together, and this can have the positive effect of strengthening the foundations of your relationship.
Another important thing to consider is “how are we communicating with each other?” When the relationship is under stress we often fall into the trap of finding fault with everything that our partner does, and making generalised statements (using words like always and never). If you find that your communications with your partner tend to begin with the word ‘you’ as in “you never do...”, “you are always doing...”, “you make me feel...”, try adapting the same sentence so that it begins with the word ‘I’ instead, and include some specific information to help your partner understand what it is you are finding difficult. So “you never listen to me” might become “I feel as though you aren’t listening to me when you look at your iPhone instead of at me.”
In the last few years the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships has been training established couple therapists in a new model of couple therapy – couple therapy for depression. Therapists are trained amongst other things to help the couple to build on the good things about their relationship, to understand what makes them ‘fit together’ as a couple, how their different strengths and weaknesses complement each other, how to recognise their pattern of relating and learning how their difficulties can be viewed through this lens, how to really listen to each other, and the role of depression within the relationship.
Facing the difficulties in your relationship can be really tough but the therapist is there to guide you through the minefield of discussing difficult issues with each other. For those who come through this challenging process, the reward is a stronger, richer relationship.
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