depressed spouse

How to Improve Your Relationship with an Anxious or Depressed Spouse

There is no need to wait for your anxious or depressed spouse to recover before working on your relationship. There are things that you can do to make your relationship better now.

depressed spouse
Even depressed and anxious spouses need connection and boundaries. It may be mostly what they need from you.

Loving your husband or wife means more than just committing to live in the same house and help with the chores. It means being a good partner and doing what you can to make the relationship better for both of you.

Many people have been taught that you have to work together as a couple to improve a marriage. That is a false teaching. The fact is that there are many changes that you can make that will improve your relationship, without ever having to even talk with your spouse about your relationship.

Waiting for your spouse to change or get help will not help

Every change that we make in ourselves changes the way that others feel about us and respond to us. Making changes in ourselves can make our spouses more attracted to us, enjoy being with us more, or respect and treat us better. If you have been waiting for your spouse to change so you can improve your relationship, it is time to stop that. Learn to do things that really work.

Helping too much or being too nice is harmful

When you have an anxious or depressed spouse, it can be hard to draw the lines between helping enough and helping too much. It can also be harder to use boundaries, for fear of adding to your spouse’s problems. However, it is just as important to use good boundaries when your spouse has anxiety or depression as when your spouse does not.

It’s also important to require your spouse participate in your relationship and the care of your household. Letting someone off the hook because of their anxiety or depression does not help them.

When you have an anxious or depressed spouse, it is important not to let his or her feelings drive your relationship. The emotionally stable partner needs to drive the relationship rather than the emotionally unstable one. You can’t let your spouse’s emotions drive your relationship any more than you would let your kid’s emotions drive your relationship.

Just as with diving a car, the most sober and stable person should be the one to drive.

Questions and Answers

I’m not happy and I want to leave my depressed spouse. But, I feel guilty because of his psychological problems. Do you have any advice?”

It seems that you have come to the conclusion that the reason you are not happy is because you are with your spouse. If you are right, then most likely you have a relationship problem. Working on that can improve your relationship. Your boundaries may be just the change that is needed for both you and your spouse to enjoy your marriage again.

Unless your spouse wants to divorce and end all contact with you, your relationship changes and boundaries can motivate your spouse. Many spouses don’t change because they don’t have to. You don’t start to become a good spouse until you get to the point where you are willing to do what it takes to make your marriage good for both of you.

On the other hand, if you are unhappy but don’t have a relationship problem, then your problems are internal and don’t have to do with your spouse. People who are unhappy in good relationships often have the wrong expectations about marriage.

Marriage is for sharing happiness, it isn’t for becoming happy. People who expect their partners to make them happy blame their partners when they are not happy. They give up responsibility and control over their own happiness. If this is your case, then I recommend working on learning how to take charge of your life and include essential elements so you don’t feel like something is missing.

Make sure that you:

Are healthy, eating and drinking wisely, exercising regularly, and sleeping enough. Not doing these essential things are the reason many people are unhappy. Also, the more healthy you are, the more attractive you will be to your spouse and others.

 Have friends that you spend time with at least once a week, in the real world, not the virtual one. Don’t use the excuse that your friends are busy or live too far away. Make friends nearby.

Are thankful for what you have. Christians thank God daily for many things. That helps us to focus on our blessings, rather than our problems. Many of my clients can turn down their anger toward their spouse by being thankful for all the years of love and sacrifice their spouse has given them, regardless of current circumstances.

Because your spouse can’t do any of these essential happiness behaviors for you, your spouse can’t make you happy no matter how much he or she would like to.

“If I set boundaries with my anxious spouse, won’t the additional stress make my spouse’s condition worse?”

If you have been doing a good job showing your love to your spouse, boundaries will be tolerated better. However, using boundaries always creates additional stress at first. For example, you may walk away whenever your spouse uses abusive language with you.

That is bound to make your spouse angry and increase stress initially. However, if you are consistent with your boundary, then your spouse’s abusive language will stop. That transition will result in an improved relationship for both of you. This is why boundaries are a loving thing to do. People pleasers have poor boundaries and bad relationships.

Letting others mistreat us makes the relationship worse for us and for them.

It is important not to put up with your spouse’s harmful behavior, even when he or she is suffering from a psychological disorder such as anxiety or depression.

“My spouse is already in treatment. Won’t setting boundaries interfere with my spouse’s progress?”

Setting good boundaries will help to make your husband’s or wife’s treatment more effective. Professionals have a hard time helping someone change if others allow them to become lazy or behave badly. You have more power to help your spouse improve than a counselor does 

As you gradually set limits, symptoms may initially worsen, but will then improve as your spouse learns how to deal with your boundaries. As long as you are setting healthy boundaries and not trying to change everything all at once, you will be helping your spouse to improve.

Also, keep in mind that you will only be using boundaries for a few specific behaviors, while at all other times, you will be helping your spouse to enjoy being with you. Your loving behavior towards your spouse or kids must always be most of what you do, even when using boundaries. People who fail with boundaries are often those who treat their spouse or children badly.

Treating our spouse or others badly is never a part of having a good relationship.

“What are the most important boundaries to set with an anxious or depressed spouse?”

The most important boundaries for you to set are the ones that enable you to enjoy your relationship. If you stop enjoying your relationship, you will start to wonder why you should stay in it. To prevent resentment, you need to set limits on your time, and be especially sure to continue to work on your own life goals.

It is also important to say “no” to any behaviors which help to maintain your spouse’s symptoms. Reassurance, for example, is a behavior which may seem to help your anxious spouse in the short run but creates a reassurance addiction that maintains the anxiety. Reassuring an anxious person is no more helpful than giving alcohol to an alcoholic. You are feeding the addiction.

Also,staying at home all the time with a depressed spouse may seem to be caring, but only promotes your spouse’s dependency. Love and support are good, but excessive help is not. You can learn to balance working on your own life and working on your relationship. 

A coach who is trained in psychology can help you with handling the specifics of your spouse’s psychological disorder while still promoting your relationship.

“My husband is on disability for a psychological problem. Should I just let him take it easy at home?”

I learned a fascinating thing about nursing home residents which also applies to younger people.If you give a nursing home resident a wheelchair, they will stop trying to walk even if they no longer need it. It’s easier for the staff, because the resident doesn’t fall down, but the resident becomes more and more helpless. Staff should only give as much support as helps to keep the resident independent.

As Americans learned with the welfare program, too much assistance takes away people’s motivation to work. It feels like a benefit, but it prevents growth and success. In terms of your relationship, be loving, but not so much that you take away your spouse’s motivation to work or to work on your relationship. 

Occasionally I hear about spouses who provide total care for husbands or wives who are unable to work due to psychological problems. This prevents them from being able to return to work. Putting them to work at home, cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, etc., not only will be good therapy, but will also be more motivating for returning to work. It’s also more fair to you, since it will help to keep you from becoming resentful for doing everything.

“My spouse blames me for her psychological problems. Should I leave her?”

Blaming is a way of escaping responsibility. It takes the focus off the blamer and puts it on someone else. No doubt if you left, you would also get blamed for abandoning your spouse. A good way to deal with this is to not defend yourself. Instead, agree with your spouse that she might be right and tell her you will support her decision if she wants to leave you. Never let your spouse’s blame pressure you to do anything harmful for your relationship.

People blame in order to avoid responsibility or to excuse their own destructive behavior. This approach to putting the responsibility back onto the other person to do something about it takes away the psychological advantage of blaming. If your spouse is blaming you for a legitimate reason, you can agree to get help to overcome your problem behavior and then do it. Learning to deal with blame is a skill that requires training and practice.

Defending yourself when you are blamed rewards the blamer with a feeling of power. By continually being defensive, you maintain the blaming behavior.

“How can I get more help to deal with my anxious or depressed spouse and improve my relationship?”

I have addressed these issues in two of my books, What to Do When He Won’t Change, and Connecting Through “Yes!” In addition, I offer relationship coaching to people with such difficult spouses. Unlike couple’s counseling, relationship coaching does not require your spouse’s participation. As a licensed psychologist and marriage coach, I have the credentials and experience to help people improve a relationship with a spouse who has psychological problems.

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