"My Husband Is Depressed"
The Counselor's Turn
Bill and Rhonda thought they had very modern, egalitarian ideas about marriage. But when Bill stopped working, both found themselves bumping up against more traditional expectations. In their early years Bill had been an equal partner in raising their kids, working at night and caring for them when Rhonda was at work during the day. He was also attentive, romantic, and made Rhonda feel desired. He was a strong, stable provider Rhonda could depend on.
But all that changed when Bill had the stroke and lost his job. Like many men, Bill's sense of self was intrinsically tied to his career and financial well-being. Losing them brought on a deep depression.
Although Rhonda had a successful career and she shared financial responsibilities in her marriage, she still held on to the traditional idea that she should be taken care of by a man. She never imagined that instead she would become Bill's caretaker -- a role she resented. To make matters worse, Bill's depression shut down his sex drive, which ultimately affected Rhonda's self-esteem.
The first thing I did was to encourage Rhonda and Bill to mourn the loss of their dreams. I explained that the pattern of anger and resentment they'd been locked into was not only destructive but it was also distracting them from their true emotions. What they were both really feeling was grief, so they needed to work on that issue first. To improve their communication, they had to start by talking honestly about what they'd lost.
Then Bill needed to pull himself up out of his depression -- and he needed to do it alone. Rhonda didn't realize that when she tried to fix things for him she only made him feel like a child. I asked her to hold back on giving Bill suggestions about how to overcome his depression and encouraged her to let him struggle with it on his own, knowing that he would feel better about himself if he was the one who found solutions.
Bill also began coming to see me alone. We worked on reducing his anxiety and boosting his self-image. I also talked to Bill about the importance of keeping a schedule and staying active during the day. He took over the grocery shopping and cooking, drove his mother-in-law to her medical appointments, and began forcing himself to get to the gym in the mornings. It wasn't the same as having a job, but it was a mood booster. Bill found that he liked cooking and that his workouts were making him feel better and stronger.
Next, we had to tackle their communication problems. Bill and Rhonda had not had a real life crisis before, so they weren't used to discussing difficult issues. This upheaval showed them that they didn't really know how to talk to each other. I encouraged Rhonda and Bill to start expressing their feelings and coached them on how to listen, acknowledge what their partner was saying, and give back an understanding response. We also had to break Rhonda's habit of speaking for Bill or jumping in whenever he'd pause. The less she jumped in, the more he expressed himself. I told Bill that he had to come up with some response to Rhonda's feelings, even if he felt uncomfortable doing so -- he couldn't just sit there in silence.
After we worked on their individual issues, it was time to shift this couple back into team mode. To deal with Bill's financial irresponsibility, Rhonda had slipped into a parental role. They needed to find a way to handle their finances as equal partners. They agreed to sit down together every week and come up with the family's budgets and plans together. They'd never done that before and it helped level out the imbalance in their relationship.
When it came to their sex life, I asked them to state clearly in one sentence what they each wanted. Rhonda wanted Bill to initiate sex, and Bill wanted to regain their sexual connection, too. He agreed to try to initiate sex even when he wasn't feeling confident. They also worked on touching and hugging each other more in general.
Because of the drastic change in their roles, Bill and Rhonda were forced to build a new relationship from the ground up. I call it Phase Two of their marriage. They had to let go of what they thought their lives would look like and work with what life had handed them -- together. And though the transition was rocky at times, they definitely made it to the other side. As Rhonda told me in her last session: "As good as our marriage was before Bill had the stroke, I think we're better now. We know each other so much more deeply and even though our lives have changed a lot and we still have struggles with his health, I think we're getting stronger."
Can This Marriage Be Saved?? is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's story is based on the files of Debra Castaldo, PhD, author of Relationship Reboot. The story told here is true although names and other identifying information have been changed to conceal identities.