What a husband or wife does or says in relation to a depressed spouse can either exacerbate the symptoms or help relieve them.
Dolly, my bride of over 50 years, doesn’t understand depression experientially.
She’s optimistic, outgoing. Her emotions stay on an even keel. She handles setbacks with simple faith in a loving God. Whether it’s in response to a comic strip, a humorous pet video someone sends her on social media, or part of a phone conversation, her laughter reverberates daily off the walls inside our house.
What a priceless wife! And despite her inexperience with depression, she’s wise and sensitive in how she handles my bouts with the darkness. If you’re a spouse of a depression-prone person, learn from one or more of these four reactions that describe my wife.
She tells me she’s praying for me.
When she knows I’ve had consecutive dark days, I often get a short but inspiring message on my phone at work. “Just want you to know I love you, Babe, and I’m praying for you today.”
In his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster wrote, “Some people have needs that we cannot personally meet. That’s when we pray. Intercession is a way of loving others.”
Let him or her know you are interceding for the sustenance needed to meet the demands of the day.
If I confess suicidal thoughts to her, she reminds me of specific reasons I have to keep living.
The remarks that follow don’t reflect the exact words I’ve heard from her, but they do capture the essence of things she’s said:
- “God called you to write. You have books, articles, and blogs still inside you that other people need to read.”
- “You’re a good teacher. Your students need the wisdom and experience you bring to your classes.”
- “Your family loves you and would miss you. Your grandson adores you and would miss not having you to wrestle and tease him. I love you, too, and wouldn’t appreciate it if you left me by choice.”
Notice how here words affirmed me and my contributions, instilling hope that the future includes eternal usefulness for me.
Back in the early 1990s, when I first mentioned the option of suicide in front of Dolly, she did what a family member should do: she took it seriously! She called our pastor for an intervention. When he met with me, he talked me into obtaining medical intervention for the first time. For the next few years, medicine brought noticeable relief to the frequency and depth of my dark moods.
Dolly has never belittled me or made me feel spiritually less mature because I suffered from depression.
She knows my family history. She realizes that rough days can occur even when there is no circumstantial reason for the downward mood spiral. Never have I heard anything remotely resembling a glib remark, such as “Snap out of it!” or “I know how you feel,” or “Just trust in God and this will pass.” In fact, I’ve heard her say the opposite: commending me to others.
But it is what Dolly doesn’t say that may be her most effective ministry to me when I’m despondent.
Dr. Michelle Bengston, who knows depression both experientially and through academic studies, wrote this in dealing with depressed loved ones: “Do not suggest that they ‘snap out of it’ or ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps.’ About the worst thing you can do in your words, attitudes, beliefs, or behavior is to convey that your perception is that they can control it. Believe me, if they could ‘snap out of it,’ they would. No one likes feeling depressed.”
When my depression shows disrespect for her or threatens the health of our marriage relationship, Dolly confronts me.
Depression often spawns irritability. For me this includes hypersensitivity and defensiveness because of my low self-esteem. More than once I have misinterpreted her words or nonverbal cues, erroneously accusing her of a slight or criticism of me that she never intended. When depressed, I tend to project my own self-loathing which causes me to misinterpret her words or body language, resulting in a harsh tone directed at her, when she didn’t have me in mind at all.
Rather than excusing my unfair remark or edgy tone, she doesn’t let the sun go down on her anger (Ephesians 4:26-27). Without raising her own voice, she says, “You had no right to speak to me like that. You owe my an apology!”
Thank God she holds me accountable when what I say and do crosses the line into sin. She doesn’t blame me for depression, yet she does expect me to tap into the Holy Spirit’s strength to control how I treat her.
Dolly is an incredible example of how to walk alongside a suffering spouse: she’s sensitive and comforting without being maudlin or spineless! She gives me her love unconditionally, yet doesn’t pamper me. Compassionate understanding can go a long way in keeping your marriage strong and making sure the struggling spouse is supported when bouts of depression occur. The response of the healthy spouse can be the difference between despair and hope.
First published at penetratingthedarkness.com December 2017. **Reprinted with permission.
Dr. Terry Powell
Author and Professor
Terry is Faculty Emeritus at Columbia International University, and now Adjunct Professor in Church Ministries. Married 50 years, he has two sons, a daughter-in-law, and a grandson. Terry writes about faith and depression at Penetrating the Darkness. His latest book, Oh God, I’m Dying! How God Redeems Pain for Our Good and for His Glory tells of God's sustaining grace in the life of co-author, Dr. Mark Smith, an effective Christian university president despite suffering daily pain from a near-fatal accident.
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Dr. Bengtson writes with deep compassion, blending her training and faith, to offer readers a hope grounded in God’s love and grace. She helps readers understand what depression is, how it affects them spiritually, and what, by God’s grace, it cannot do. The result is an approach that offers the hope of release, not just the management of symptoms. For those who struggle with depression and those who want to help them, discover hope for the future.