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When Depression Hurts Your Relationship

Which way round is it? Is it depression that's is hurting your relationship? Or is it your relationship that's making you depressed?

It’s complicated!

Some aspects of depression ARE due to our relationships. For those of us who are susceptible to depression, we may feel abandoned, rejected, criticized dismissed or abused more often than most people.

Conversely, we might be the person who is delivering the rejection, criticism, abuse or abandonment. We might not even be aware that we are doing it.

Studies[i] have shown how depression and close relationships affect each other and how we can become caught in the push-pull of:

‘Depression affects relationships/relationships affect depression’.

The breakdown of a relationship when one partner is depressed is often due to either:

  • An inability to work through conflict, or

  • Being unable to communicate personal needs, or

  • A widening gap when the person who is depressed withdraws.

Conversely, a strong relationship can certainly help protect both partners should one become depressed.

What are the main symptoms that show up when depressions hurts your relationship? There are 6 main ones:

  1. A decline in sex drive, especially if communication is limited and emotions are unexpressed or ignored

  2. Feeling frustrated with the other person because they won’t do what you want

  3. You think that the other person IS the problem

  4. You can’t see a future together

  5. You start using things to excess to self medicate like alcohol, prescription drugs, gambling or pornography.

  6. You have simmering resentments about the other person which you don’t talk about but you act out through ‘passive-aggressive’ behavior

There are many ways to tackle these issues which are effective and can be extremely helpful to rebuild foundations of a faltering relationship. Couples therapy is a great way to start looking at the lack of communication and opening those doors up again.

What to do when depression hurts your relationship? Become fully responsible.

This is the way to discover the power we never knew we had.

When we suffer from depression we tend to believe that we are a lot more responsible for other people and situations than is good for us. Being overly responsible needs to be in control. It is characterized by fear, force and a lack of trust that everything’s going to turn out OK.

Some people truly believe that they are responsible for another person’s happiness, especially someone whom they cherish.

Everything may be going fine until the other person is not happy. Then we think it’s our responsibility to put that right. Perhaps that’s why we feel so depressed.

Being overly responsible is born out of the need to have power over everything. We want things to happen our way because – basically – we’re running scared and we don’t trust things are going to work out OK.

But things don’t work out OK because we end up depressed with physical and/ or emotional burnout.

At the same time we are each completely responsible for our own life. We were born alone and we’ll die alone; there is no safety net.

No matter who we turn to for help, recovery from depression is down to us. Others can guide us and make suggestions but they can’t do the work for us.

As adults we are 100% responsible for ourselves.

But, if we’re depressed we can’t see this.

What stops us from being fully responsible for ourselves? Trying to live other people’s lives!

It’s a trap.

And here's how we walk into that trap:

  • We think we’re ‘helping’ but in fact we’re making ourselves depressed by getting involved in other people’s lives trying to ‘fix and rescue’ them.

  • We anticipate other people’s needs, and then feel angry when they don’t do what we want them to do.

  • We try to please others instead of ourselves.

  • We find it easier to express anger about things done to others rather than things done to us.

  • We feel guilty when someone tries to help us.

  • We feel worthless and empty if we don’t have someone to help.

  • We blame others for the distress we feel. We believe other people are making us depressed.

How can we become fully responsible for ourselves? Let’s first look at the victim/persecutor seesaw.

A simple analogy can help to demonstrate what happens to us when we don’t take responsibility for ourselves, instead preferring to be caught up in other people lives. It’s called the ‘victim/persecutor seesaw’.

At one end we have the persecutor and, at the other, the victim. We continually seesaw from one type of thinking to the other.

Victim thinking

When we’re depressed we see ourselves as victims. We perceive we are victims of society because:

  • We can’t get where we want to be

  • Of our childhood because of the way we were raised

  • Of our friends abandoning us

  • Getting a raw deal from our workplace

  • Others’ behavior in our relationships etc.

We compare ourselves with others and generally come bottom of the pile. Other people seem to have so much going for them, get good luck, land on their feet, never have anything to worry about and have people giving them a break.

We the victims, on the other hand, see ourselves having bad luck, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, dealing with insurmountable stress and having unavoidable pressures placed on us. We become locked into a lifetime of ‘victim thinking’ and it doesn’t make us happy. In fact it makes us depressed!

Persecutor thinking

Many of us have the capacity to turn into persecutors when we’ve had enough of being ‘victimized’ by others. We may end up saying things like: you always do that to me; you should think before you speak to me like that; you never help me when I need it; I’m always doing things for you and you never thank me.

We’re the worm that turned and we may be so surprised at our success in making others do what we want that we step into this role more often!

Persecutors are the bullies of life. We may not think of ourselves in this way but all of us have the capacity to become one, especially when we’re depressed.

Acting as the persecutor is a defense mechanism, a way to run from our pain. We’re hurting so much that all we can do is lash out like a wounded animal.

We think if we don’t dominate others then they will dominate us, which will push the seesaw back the other way so we become the victim again and that terrifies us. This seesaw thinking can dominate our whole lives and we may not even know it. see-saw

The victim/persecutor trap

When we’re trapped in victim/persecutor thinking, we truly believe either others are responsible for us or we are to blame for other’s unhappiness. This thinking is usually established in childhood and it comes as a revelation to many of us when we learn about it for the first time.

Even though we can rationalize that the victim is often an unwilling and unhappy participant, the persecutor is also a victim because they too feel trapped. When we’re into ‘victim-thinking’ mode we can lock ourselves into believing others should feel sorry for us or ‘save’ us, and thus we unwittingly step into a helpless, childlike role.

When we’re into the ‘persecutor-thinking’ mode we trap ourselves into believing that we have to fight our way out of a bad situation because we’ve been harmed, judged or bad-mouthed and it’s up to us to sort it out! We didn’t mean to get trapped but sometimes, it’s all we’ve ever known.

Let’s get a clarification in here: this isn’t about someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and has had a crime committed against them like someone who’s been mugged.

This is about repeated ‘victim-thinking’ patterns that trap people into a state of mind that perpetuates victimhood, the sort of thinking that can lead us to believe there are only two roles in life – those who get what they want and those who don’t.

What happens when others try to help? We don’t accept it.

The real trap bites when someone reaches out with a hand of love and support and we can’t accept it. The victim in us secretly doesn’t want to change because being the victim is comfortable: it’s what we know.

Others try to help us but when they tell us how beautiful, powerful, intelligent and lovable we are, we can’t take it on board. We can’t believe they are telling the truth.

We think they are saying these things to try and get us to do something, feel better or get out of their way. We think they are lying or have ulterior motives. They get upset because we don’t respond how they want us to respond and this makes us feel even more victimized.

We’re caught up in others’ lives and find it hard to map out our own edges. Who is responsible for whom?

“For a long time I thought that I could only be happy if I was in a relationship. I couldn’t see myself being happy without one. It was as if I didn’t exist outside of a relationship. I was like an ‘add-on’ to someone else’s life. Nothing made sense without a relationship. I had no ‘me’ – I had no idea who Vicky was. I needed a relationship to make me feel whole. The problem was I needed it to be run on my terms because I was trying to shore up my crumbling self-esteem. I was controlling, manipulative, depressed and I really, really believed that it was the other person’s responsibility to make me happy. Having done much recovery work, I can look back and see how much pain I was running from and how I was desperately hoping someone else could fix me.” Vicky, 47.

Many of us have become victims because we consistently give more than we receive and try to anticipate what others need, then get angry when no one gives back to us. And we genuinely feel guilty when someone does give to us so it’s hard to climb out of the trap.

We’re so focused on what others want and what they want us to be that if we’re not wanted, we feel rejection and dismay.

How can I ever stop depression hurting my relationship?

Getting off the seesaw

If I were to tell you that this trap is an illusion, would you believe me? It’s true and what is missing are the alternatives. When we’re depressed we tend to see life as black or white. Getting off the seesaw means seeing the other shades and a whole spectrum of color in between.

It is possible to get off the seesaw and be neither the victim nor persecutor. We can become more than this thinking. Just because life has dealt us a series of blows and we’ve felt more pain than we thought possible, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be like this forever.

But we need to give ourselves time, and love. We need to employ our loving self and ask for help from our higher power. Once we begin to put changes in place, life opens up for us. Each of us has the potential to enjoy a worthwhile and joyous life no matter where we’ve come from.

The healing begins when we begin self-care. This is the alternative to accepting responsibility for others.

Self-care is learning what we need to feel good and a simple way is to ask ourselves: what do I need to take care of myself? It’s the answer to managing depression in relationships because when we take care of ourselves, we stand a better chance of healing our relationships.

Often when depression hurts your relationship but you are able to re-connect by being honest and opening up the relationship becomes even stronger than it was before.

This reconnection can help heal old wounds as we come to understand that we are not as powerful as we thought and the other person doesn’t have as much power over us that we thought.

What a relief it is to know that we have choices in our relationships.



[i] A) Davila, J., T.N. Bradbury, C.L. Cohan, and S. Tochluk. 1997. Marital functioning and depressive symptoms: Evidence for a stress generation model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 4: 849-861.

B) Goldfarb, M.R., G. Trudel, R. Boyer, and M. Préville. 2007. Marital relationship and psychological distress: Its correlates and treatments. Sexual and Relationship Therapy 22: 109-126.

C) Whisman, M. A. 2001. The association between depression and marital dissatisfaction. In Marital and family processes in depression: A scientific foundation for clinical practice, edited by S. R. H. Beach (Ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.


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