Spouses with depression suffer intense marital problems due to a history of childhood trauma and emotional abuse
Spouses with depression face insecure and rocky marital relations. When one spouse has depression, it’s hard for the non-depressed spouse to feel connected and alive in the relationship. But when both spouses are depressed, the stakes go through the roof, soaring from withdrawal and loneliness to rage at being let down.
Spouses with depression have a tumultuous and unstable moment to moment experience when both partners are depressed and anxious about the marriage. Most depressed spouses are not aware that their partners are also depressed. Most depressed spouses aren’t even aware of their own depression. They are dealing with lack of self-worth and want their partner to rescue them from it. The problem escalates because when the other partner is depressed, each need to be rescued – leaving both in insecure limbo, feeling uncared for, unnurtured and wondering if the marriage can hold together.
Spouses with depression have a history of childhood emotional and other traumas
Spouses with depression have tragic histories of emotional abuse and trauma which sadly becomes their norm. The depression comes out later in adulthood when they believe they are safe from their families of origin, with the marriage used as a vehicle through which the effects of the trauma show up.
Dominic a 38-year-old local councilman grew up in a family where everything in the family was black and white – there was no room for different experiences and if he tried to share his perspective, he was put in the dog house. His mother withdrew and didn’t talk to him, while his father drank and had affairs. He longed for his mother’s affection and acceptance and for his father to participate in the family rather than acting out and neglecting his responsibility. Dominic came to his adult life insecure, unsure how to manage his swirling feelings and a sense of helplessness about having and maintaining an intact marriage. He used alcohol and uppers to keep going
Pauline, a 34-year-old property manager was born into a home where her father physically abused her mother and often came into her room threatening her. She was traumatized and felt unprotected by her mother. She longed to find a man whom she could feel safe with, rely on and have a family that compensated for the one she never had.
“Childhood experiences of abuse appear to have lasting and broad effects on individual and relational outcomes, and these effects are neither heightened nor mitigated by the partner’s characteristics or behaviors.”
The Journal of Family Psychology, in February 2017 reported research that found a childhood history of abuse, neglect and trauma resulted in depression, substance abuse and negative communication between spouses. Interestingly, the relationship factors between the partners had little to no effect on spousal depression – the early history of emotional trauma was the major factor in spouses with depression in marriage. “Childhood experiences of abuse appear to have lasting and broad effects on individual and relational outcomes, and these effects are neither heightened nor mitigated by the partner’s characteristics or behaviors.” When people with such histories get married to one another, they are less satisfied with their marriage, even as newlyweds; abused wives also declined in satisfaction over time compared to those without this history.
Spouses with depression can’t trust nurturing behaviors
When Dominic and Pauline met, they instantly fell in love and got married within 2 months. They saw their traumatized and wounded selves in one and other acting like magnets. Both longed for a safe and reliable relationship and discovered this common wish; believing that it would be enough to somehow provide it for both in the marriage.
Within the first six months of their marriage, Pauline was pregnant and set off all the insecurities in Dominic that he felt with his own mother. He protested his fear of being ousted from Pauline’s attentive gaze by trying to control her – having temper tantrums and hitting her, just as a young child would do to a parent who was not giving them what they wanted.
Pauline was happy to be pregnant but fearful of the responsibility, looking to Dominic to be her rock – always there, taking some of the burden of preparing for a new child; making her feel sexy and attractive as her body changed through and after the pregnancy. But Dominic’s terror of being shunned again as his mother did to him in childhood overtook every other factor. He began forgetting to pay bills, going out drinking and became depressed. Pauline’s vision of her rock was crushed. She felt as if her menacing father was coming back through Dominic; threatening her safety and security. Her spirit collapsed and she too became depressed. Spouses with depression made the marriage a risky place (like both their families of origin), spinning them into a black hole.
The journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, 2018 reported that the brain responds differently in adults who have had traumatic and emotionally abusive childhood experiences. Because these children have experience of loss and helplessness, their brains are more responsive to losing, and are more vulnerable to negative triggers, especially factors beyond their control. Both spouses with depression were more sensitive to what was for them fearful scenarios – for Dominic it was being ousted from the one he depended on for attention; while for Pauline it was her vulnerability to having a male protective figure abdicate his responsibility – the perfect storm for this couple that led to both spouses with depression living in a fragile shell of a marriage.
Spouses with depression expect and look for their partners to be bad actors
Coming from a history of emotional trauma, neglect and abuse, Dominic and Pauline had their brain wired for disappointment, betrayal and insecure but dependent relationships.
Long term effects of early trauma changed the neurobiological networks in both Dominic’s and Pauline’s brains, as a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) 2019 reported. The study not only confirmed the significant relationship between childhood trauma and depression, but went further, noting that the experience actually rewired the brain – such that Pauline was highly insecure and unable to trust in Dominic; while he lived in terror of being separated from his main source of emotional dependence and personal security. Together these spouses with depression had brains that were wired for anything but safety and intimacy.
Dominic and Pauline were hyper-vigilant regarding any and every sign from their spouse about their reliability, focus of attention and consistency of loyalty and affection. Communicating with old friends became threats; doing better in their jobs became grabbing hands attempting to destabilize the marriage. Spousal depression was the only way each of them could numb the fear and rage that was evoked by these triggers – taking them back to their helpless childlike selves. Each saw the other as the ultimate bad actor who had promised to be the responsible adult and who abjectly failed – just like their respective parents.
Spouses with depression often numb themselves with substances
Spouses with depression need to tamp down the horrible feelings of danger, lack of protection and unreliability evoked by their partners actions however trivial. The depression serves as a coating of safety when none exists in the real world. But even that is insufficient. Often spouses with depression use alcohol, anti-anxiety medications and hard drugs to take them away from the intolerable threat of having no ground under their feet; feeling unmoored with nothing to clutch onto.
Dominic often used Alcohol to numb his anxieties, rage and disappointments; and then took Adderall to lift himself up again when he had council meetings. Pauline was on and off anti-anxiety medications since her days at college. When she felt particularly betrayed and abused, she would increase her intake of the medications until she couldn’t feel anything any longer.
Spouses with depression have a fear of intimacy
It’s almost impossible for spouses with depression to have emotional intimacy on any regular basis. They don’t know what it’s like to have normal emotional intimacy where a degree of vulnerability is necessary for closeness and connection. Dominic was either demanding Pauline’s full attention or trying to fill himself up with work/alcholol/drugs to manage his rage and fear when he failed to get it. Pauline felt abused when Dominic wanted more of her, making her retreat to her drugs/work. But they used psychical intimacy as a way of feeling something for short periods of time that didn’t require trust in the moment.
Spouses with depression get better in therapy
Making a relationship with a therapist resets the neurobiological networks to a more safe, secure and trusting connection. Depression counseling helps to make each partner reset their wiring so that they are less depressed and available for an intimate relationship. Then couples counseling can help create the template for healthy inter-dependent spousal relations. Dominic and Pauline did both and it was very painful and scary. But they committed to their relationship – and engaged in the challenging work of rewiring their brains for a healthier connection.
Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2019
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