How to Respond (To read Part 1 click here)
Define the Problem
A favorite professor of mine used to be fond of saying that “the solution was never found to the problem that was never defined.” The problem must be accurately identified. In so doing, it is important to keep in mind there is a natural inclination in us all to a certain type of biased thinking. The “fundamental attribution error” biases us towards attributing our own negative behaviors to causes that are 1) situational and 2) external to us, while the undesirable behavior of others is overly attributed to factors that are 1) enduring and 2) internal. In the example above, Amy does not attribute Chris’ behavior to a temporary, treatable condition (depression) that has afflicted him, but rather to stable, internal characteristics of Chris’ (that he has changed and no longer loves her or wants the relationship). Mistaken assumptions about what is wrong make one’s own suffering worse, and can easily lead to unnecessary choices that harm the relationship. Question your assumptions as you strive to define what is wrong. Be vigilant for the fundamental attribution error.
An interesting twist on the fundamental attribution error occurs when a reversal of the usual pattern is seen in depressed individuals. Chris, for example, also fails to recognize it is depression, and assumes it is something wrong with him, even though he asserts he didn’t know what it was.
Resist Blaming and Shaming
The attribution error is often related to blame. Both Chris and Amy, for the most part, blamed Chris for what was wrong. Many people blame themselves for failing to make their (depressed) partner happy. Blaming escalates to shaming with the attitude that “I (or you) should just ‘snap out of it’!” A mopey attitude one should “snap out of,” but Depression? I am still waiting, after 20 years, to hear of a case where this has happened so easily.
Adjusting expectations of what a depressed individual can accomplish will likely be necessary, however, it is important not to foster excess disability by “taking over” for them. Re-negotiate responsibilities and expectations, with the expectation that your depressed partner can and will do what they agree to. Be flexible about re-negotiating, as necessary, and support and encourage them in doing as much as they can. Maintain a view to increasing expectations as they are able. If you think of a depressed mind like an injured muscle, it is important to reduce the stress of demands on the weakened muscle, but not too much, or it will atrophy. Regaining full strength, however, requires more than just waiting at reduced demand: progressive challenge and demand is necessary to foster recovery.
Commit a Daily Act of Defiance
Depression undermines us from the things we normally do, and alienates us from living and enjoying life fully. It is important to think of ways to undermine the depression that is undermining us. Remember the phrase “defy the impulse.” Defy the impulse to stay inside, to sleep all day, to talk to no one, to do nothing. Whatever depression is “telling you to do,” look to defy it in any way you can, even in the smallest amount. A short walk every day with your partner brings benefits of movement, exercise, fresh air, and restoration of the companionship that has been adversely affected by the depression.
Talk About Feelings
Share your feelings, even if just a little, with your partner. I remember an elementary school teacher once telling my class “no one ever learned anything while their mouth was open” (talking, presumably). From the point of view of classroom management, I suppose this is a serviceable principle, but psychologically it is simply untrue. Expressing our thoughts, feelings, and experiences has a way of changing how they are experienced, usually for the better, by clarifying, containing, or alleviating it by “getting it off [your] chest.” While this may come to us by way our partners’ responses, it does not depend on it. Consequently, partners need not feel the pressure to have answers. Being present merely to listen can, in itself, be tremendously helpful.
Read, Read, Read…
Read about depression. Everyone who is reading this has access to a computer. Read some more. At the start of the learning curve, reading more invites confusion due to conflicting opinions and advice you will read. I challenge you to keep reading a bit more and see if things don’t begin to fall into place, leading to your quickly developing a surprisingly sophisticated understanding. One can be easily forgiven for not understanding the basic function of gluons in . . . whatever field of study it is that recognizes them. It astounds me, however, how little people actually know about depression, given that everyone knows of its existence.
Seek Professional Help
Depression is sometimes called the “common cold” of mental health, no doubt because it is so common. Unlike the common cold virus, it is highly treatable. Perhaps it is more akin to “the common computer virus” of mental health, because while treatable, when people become afflicted, they don’t respond with improved self-care, or seek professional help in a timely manner. Their defenses are disabled, making their responses to the affliction progressively less effective until, eventually, at long last, it dawns on them what is wrong. Once recognized, only then is it possible for appropriate, effective action to be taken.