Battling depression for over a year, John’s mood and affect have progressively gotten worse. He has difficulty making decisions. At work he has a hard time concentrating. His productivity has decreased noticeably. By lunchtime, John can barely keep his eyes open.
Lucy is an event planner. A recent conference she organized for 300 out of town participants stressed her out so much she had a panic attack and ended up in the hospital strapped to a heart monitor.
John and Lucy are married with no children. Their marriage has been on the rocks since the onset of John’s depression. They are working on it, sort of. John needs time off to figure out if he wants to stay in his marriage. He’s rented a studio apartment and stays there at least five days a week. When he’s home with Lucy, he’s usually asleep on the couch.
Two days ago Lucy asked John to met with her over lunch. She demanded that John either decides to move back home and work on his marriage with her or their relationship is over. She’s frustrated. The living arrangement is unacceptable. Her feelings hurt, her heart hurts, and the tightness in her chest when he leaves after his visits frightens her. Lucy has had enough.
John’s reaction to her demand was lackluster. Withdrawing from Lucy’s line of questioning he told her ultimatums don’t work for him. She can’t pressure him into making a decision.
Lucy exploded. She wanted a decision and she wanted it immediately. They impulsively ended their relationship on the spot, angrily stomping off in opposite directions.
What you have just read is the impact of depression meeting anxiety causing a knockout. John is worried about the past. All thoughts about past interactions and behavior trigger his depression. He is stuck. He cannot make a move. Lucy is worried about her future. Without good enough answers her anxiety is triggered. The only way to reduce the worry about what may happen in the future is to get an immediate answer.
Depression and anxiety are like oil and water. They don’t mix well. When they meet, they end up pushing each other way. It causes more pain and hurt. If John and Lucy’s relationship is salvageable, they are going to need to find common ground to address their individual needs.
The marriage counselor steps in with a plan
Let’s back up to before the explosive breakup. Lucy wants John to make a decision and move back home to work on the relationship. He needs to make a decision whether he stays in the relationship or not. They are in therapy, looking for common ground.
They have agreed to experiment with alternating living arrangements. One week John lives at home with Lucy; the next week he stays in the studio apartment. They will do this for a month or two.
During the time the couple spends together they figure out what is working, how are they are communicating, and what they need to change or address. The week John and Lucy are in separate apartments, they will not meet but again, pay close attention to how they feel about the situation, considering what’s working and what’s not.
Over the period of a month or two of reflective introspection, focused dialogue, and experience alternating between living apart and together, they will have sufficient data to make a decision about whether to stay together or separate.
This approach provides Lucy with specific details and a plan to calm her anxiety and gives John the time and structure to work with Lucy to see what it would take for him to stay married. He’s not making an on the spot decision. The couple is communicating along the way.
In this case, the depression and anxiety are both heard in the relationship. The couple gets to work together as a team to find ways to figure out how they feel, how to be committed to one another, and whether they can change to save the marriage.
The key to salvaging a relationship in the face of competing disorders is to respect what you have and how you partner is coping, and find solutions that meet both your needs.
If you or your partner has a disorder how are you coping and what tools are you using to navigate some of these challenges? Is what I have outlined helpful?