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 46 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 her.
1. She lets me know that 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, “Somtimes people have needs that we cannot personally meet. That’s when we pray. Intercession is a way of loving others.”
Don’t just pray for your despondent spouse. Let him or her know you’re interceding for the sustenance needed to meet the demands of the day.
2. 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 at CIU need the wisdom and experience you bring to your classes.”
*”Your family loves you and would miss you. Your grandson, Tate (six years old) adores you and would lament 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 help for the first time. For the next few years, medicine brought noticeable relief to the frequency and depth of my dark moods.
3. Dolly has never belittled me or made me feel spiritually less mature because I suffered from depression.
She knows my family history with depression. 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 because no matter how I feel, I strive to maintain an effective ministry and don’t yield to the despair.
But it is what Dolly doesn’t say that may be her most effective ministry to me when I’m despondent.
Dr. Michelle Bengtson, 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 worse 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.”
4. When the symptoms of my depression show disrespect for her or impinge on the health of our marriage relationship, Dolly confronts me.
Research clearly indicates that depression often spawns irritability. For me, this includes hypersensitivity and defensiveness spawned by a 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 onto her 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 me 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.
What a combination: she’s sensitive and comforting without being maudlin or spineless! She gives me her love unconditionally, yet doesn’t pamper me.
As a spouse of a depression-prone person, how else have you ministered effectively to your husband or wife? What else do you recommend saying or doing (or not saying and not doing) in relation to the spouse?
Which of the four ways Dolly has helped me do you most need to apply in relation to your spouse?
Dr. Michelle Bengtson wrote a biblically-based book on depression, Hope Prevails. On her blog, you can click and receive her free resource titled, “How To Help A Depressed Loved One.” Her blog is Hope for the Hurting.
Vaneetha Risner wrote a great book on suffering, The Scars That Have Shaped Me, which I reviewed in a previous blog. Her website is danceintherain.com. There, she offers a free e-book to those who subscribe to her blog: “10 Practical & Surprising Ways To Help A Suffering Friend.” http://danceintherain.com/