AT A LOSS Print
My husband and I have shared a wonderful 13-year partnership, most of which has been amazing. He travels a fair amount for work, but we talk on the phone almost every night that he’s away. We have two kids (age 9 and 4), and he’s great with them. Recently, he revealed to me that he believes he has struggled with depression his whole life. He even told me he’s thought about suicide before. I’m at a loss. I feel so guilty for not knowing what he was going through, but I also feel angry that he thought about leaving the kids and me, and hurt and betrayed that he kept such a huge secret from me and didn’t come to me for support. Does this mean he doesn’t trust me? Now I feel like I can’t trust him. I feel deceived. But then I feel guilty for feeling angry and hurt and deceived. How could I have missed it? I want to talk to someone about it, but I’m embarrassed to tell my friends. I also want to help him but don’t know how.
I’m really glad you brought this question to me. It sounds like you’ve been through a pretty emotionally-exhausting experience processing this information your husband has shared with you. As depression affects ~15% of Canadians, it’s quite common for one or both partners in a relationship to struggle with it; but, because of the stigma that still exists around mental health issues, most people don’t talk about it or feel comfortable bringing it up. I see a need for both emotional and practical support in this situation.
Let me start with emotional: Firstly, I see what are called both primary and secondary emotions coming up for you in this situation. The primary emotions you are feeling are shock, anger, hurt, betrayal, confusion, anxiety, and guilt for not knowing. The secondary emotions are the emotions you feel for feeling some of those primary emotions — i.e. the guilt for feeling angry, hurt, and betrayed. You have every right to feel angry and hurt and deceived. Our emotions serve a purpose, so please try to practice self-compassion and recognize that your hurt, anger and betrayal all come from not being informed of your husband’s struggle. In a society that values openness in relationships, him hiding his depression may be viewed as deceitful. So, make space for those primary emotions (i.e. allow them to be there), and the secondary ones will likely dissipate.
I hear you being hard on yourself for not helping your partner, and not knowing. Yet, from the sounds of it, he was not ready to bring attention to the topic (and thus probably hid it well), or perhaps he only really became convinced of it recently. There are a number of reasons as to why he might have done this: perhaps he was afraid you might view him as “broken” and leave him? Perhaps he thought it might make him be perceived as a less capable father? Perhaps he thought he could “get over it” on his own? Perhaps he didn’t want it to put strain on your relationship? Perhaps he was ashamed or in disbelief (particularly in men, there is much shame around depression, as society shapes them to be strong and independent and not needing help). But, this is just speculation. When there’s space to do so, I encourage you to have this conversation with him.
Now, there are 3 practical areas that I see as needing support from your question: Yourself, your husband, and the relationship. I will speak to each of these:
For yourself: You know how when you’re on a plane, they always emphasize the importance of putting the oxygen mask on yourself before helping your loved ones? Same goes for real life. If you are suffering, not only will you not be able to be helpful, you risk building resentment towards your partner and setting the premise of a caregiver/cared-for relationship that is not reciprocal. Who are your supports? Who can you call to talk about this? What can you do to take care of yourself? How do you manage stress and difficult feelings? Depression in a relationship affects more than just the individual whose mind it occupies, so ensure you’re treating yourself with the same (if not more) compassion, patience, and understanding as your loved ones. You can expect to experience a whole gamut of emotions and thoughts, right from “I should have been able to mitigate my husband’s depression” to “Our entire relationship was a lie”. These are thoughts, not truths, and, as I mentioned previously, you could not have known he was struggling (it sounds like he wasn’t fully aware, himself!). So, I encourage you to seek out counselling support yourself, or check out a family members support group. I also encourage you to discuss with your partner sharing your experience with a friend or family member so that you can gain support. If he is adamantly opposed to the depression being known by others, it’s important for you to respect that. However, perhaps there is still a way you might be able to seek support from friends/family for yourself that does not reveal the nature of his struggle. And, as I mentioned before, your own personal counselling could be an excellent, safe and confidential resource for navigating things from here forward.
For supporting your husband: Particularly as a woman and mother in your relationship, my guess is that you identify as being caring, nurturing, and helping, and might feel as though his well-being is partially your responsibility. As members of an intimate partnership, you both share responsibility to contribute, so it’s important to both allow and expect him to be supporting and caring for you (and the kids as well) alongside the depression. I believe in the all individuals’ resilience, and by respecting his ability to help, you will be more likely to empower him. Ultimately, he has to make the decision as to what he wants to do to seek help; however, by saying it out loud, he has made the most difficult step. I encourage you to ask him what he’s considered in terms of treatment, leaving the decision in his hands. If he is uncertain where to go, your family physician is an excellent first step.
For your relationship: It sounds like you feel your relationship has taken a blow. This is completely understandable given your feelings of betrayal, and also most likely completely repairable. Ask yourself, what questions do you need answered from your husband to help build back your trust? What do you believe your responsibilities are as partner – not counselor or doctor – but as a partner in a reciprocal relationship? If and when space allows, it might be helpful to ask him what he expects from you. If those expectations seem realistic and are in line with what you expect from yourself, explore how you can best set yourself up to meet those expectations most of the time. If those expectations exceed what you expect from yourself or seem unrealistic, it is important to consider a compromise (if this cannot be achieved, I strongly recommend that you access a third party/counselor to help).
Megan Bruneau, M.A. RCC
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Although many individuals share similar concerns relating to their relationship advice, no two persons or couples are the same. Romantic Reminders’ Registered Clinical Counsellor, Megan Bruneau, provides professional advice that some might find helpful influencing how they consider approaching their concern; however, her advice is by no means a substitute for couple’s therapy or one-on-one professional help. Megan advises all of her clients to seek relationship support in the form of a trained professional if their situation grants them the opportunity to do so. Additionally, if physical or emotional abuse, addictions, or mental illness are present in your relationship, this advice likely will not be suitable or sufficient for you. Instead, individual and couple therapy are strongly recommended.