Improve Relationship with an Anxious or Depressed Spouse

Stop waiting for your anxious or depressed spouse to recover before working on your relationship. Make the best of what you have 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.  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 is also important to get your spouse to participate in your relationship and care of your household, whether he or she feels like it or not. When you have an anxious or depressed spouse, it is important not to let his or her feelings drive your relationship. You need to put limits on what your spouse’s anxiety or depression can impact or it will bring your relationship down.

“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 will either improve your relationship or bring both you and your spouse to the point where a divorce makes some sense to the both of you.  If you are unhappy but don’t have a relationship problem, then I think you have the wrong expectation about relationships.  Relationships are for sharing happiness—they aren’t for becoming happy.  People who expect their partners to make them happy tend to blame their partner any time 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 your emotions.  Doing so may revitalize your relationship with your spouse.  Even if it doesn’t, it makes sense to learn how to do this before ending your marriage, or else you are likely to have the same problem in your next relationship after the honeymoon period is over (whether you remarry or not, there is always a honeymoon period in relationships).

“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 the both of you. This is why it is important not to put up with your spouse’s behavior, even when they are 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 to 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 set limits, symptoms may initially worsen, and 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 specific behaviors, while at all other times, you will be working to help your spouse to enjoy your relationship more. Boundary setting and relationship building go hand in hand.

“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 stay happy, 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 in the long run only helps to maintain the anxiety. Reassuring an anxious person is no more helpful than giving alcohol to an alcoholic. Your staying at home all the time with your 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 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.  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 walking.   As Americans learned with the welfare program, too much assistance takes away people’s motivation to work.  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 makes them even less 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 you will need to go to work.

“My husband blames me for his psychological problems.  Should I leave him?”

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 he or she might be right and that you both need to put your heads together to figure out what to do about it.   By taking the blame to the next level of “What are we going to do about it?” you actually take away the advantage of blaming.  You can also agree to get help learning how to deal with the situation.  Blamers usually want to continue to blame and become fearful when their partner actually gets help.  Leaning to deal with blame is a skill that requires training and practice.

“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 relationship coach, I have the credentials and experience important for people seeking help in this area.

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