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Depression fallout: The impact of depression on couples

Love and depression speak different languages. Every man and woman in a relationship touched by depression comes face to face with this unpleasant truth.

What is depression fallout?

Although each believes that he or she is living through a unique situation, the behavior of both parties conforms to a predictable pattern.

One participant acts according to the dictates of his or her depression: Be critical, unpredictable, sullen, illogical, angry, touchy, put-upon, distant yet occasionally tender, and deny there is anything wrong with you.

The other follows the rules governed by depression fallout: Be confused and bewildered, blame yourself for the relationship's problems, become thoroughly demoralized, then get angry and resentful, and, finally, yearn to escape.

Few people are well informed about the dynamics of depression and its companion, depression fallout, despite the unhappiness they cause. Ask most people to conjure up the image of someone who is depressed and they will envision a huddled figure sitting passively in the corner and murmuring about how sad he or she feels. No wonder, since most lists of depression's symptoms begin with "a persistent sad, 'empty,' or anxious mood," followed by "loss of interest or pleasure in ordinary activities, including sex."

While these symptoms do describe how depression sufferers feel, they are not matched by the expected passive behavior. Indeed, the depressed often become unpleasantly aggressive, argumentative, and faultfinding without provocation. This disconnect causes innumerable depression-clouded relationships to unravel and become mired in conflict and misunderstanding. When previously attentive, warm, demonstrative partners turn irritable, distant, and thoughtless, mates are unlikely to attribute the change to a psychiatric illness, even though they may have read about depression in the abstract.

Instead, they jump to what seem to be more likely explanations: a waning of affection, dissatisfaction with the marriage or love affair, a clandestine liaison with somebody else, a selfish preoccupation with work, or a reluctance to share deep, dark secrets that concern both partners.

Since the true culprit is an illness that afflicts no less than nineteen million Americans at any given moment, why don't depressed partners speak up and explain what is going on in their minds and hearts? Surely anyone whose life has turned inexplicably gray and hopeless would choose to talk about it with his or her intimates, thus paving the way for answers and solutions. But that is not depression's way. Indeed, depression's most insidious trait is the ease with which it seduces its sufferers into blind alleys signposted Lousy Relationship, Bad Karma, Weak Character, Stress Overload, and other misleading names.

A personality change for the worse
All those battered by depression fallout are convinced that their situation is unique and their reactions to it aberrant. Having enjoyed a gratifying and seemingly solid partnership beset by no more than the usual ups and downs, they find themselves living with an unwelcome stranger masquerading behind a familiar face. Not only does this newcomer no longer behave as expected, but he or she appears to have undergone a personality change for the worse.

Tenderness and support have been traded in for grumpiness and irritability; sharing for secretive distance; patience and reason for volatility and antagonism; and good habits for bad ones. Threatening though this is, fall-out partners do not seek solace or advice from family and friends. Convinced that they are somehow responsible for the transformation, or that its explanation is perhaps embarrassing and best kept hidden from others, they guard their secret. This extracts a costly price.

Isolated in self-imposed solitary confinement, unable to coax explanations or apologies from their mates, fallout sufferers start shelving their lingering suspicions of personal responsibility and take to building protective ramparts in the form of negative reactions to and feelings for their partners. Loosening the knot of love, loyalty, and companionship formed over time takes a toll, and that toll is at least partially paid by fallout partners in guilty self-recriminations for being a "bad" or selfish person who can be counted on for support in good times but not in rocky ones. They indulge in tit-for-tat, parrying criticism with criticism, and although this temporarily relieves their feelings of frustration, it brings them no closer to an understanding of what is happening to the relationship. Partner support
The first gift the Message Board delivers to new arrivals is assurance that they are neither malcontents nor misfits. They quickly learn that even those Board posters whose partners have been diagnosed and are being treated for depression share the same problems and are subject to the identical negative thoughts.

Even in the presence of such empathetic company, first-time Board visitors often lace their posts with "I know you won't believe this, but ... " or "He [or she] said the strangest thing to me ... " and are instantly welcomed and reassured that what they had thought unbelievable and strange is commonplace.

When oldtimers respond like a well-rehearsed chorus -- "Oh, yes, we know, we've been there, too, and we understand" -- the dam of reticence gives way, allowing pent-up emotional turmoil to flow freely.

In short, the single most important fact for a depression fallout sufferer to grasp and take to heart is that his or her particular brand of misery, far from being unique, is shared by a minimum of 19 million others in the United States alone, and so are their far-from-aberrant emotional reactions.

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