Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

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August 4th, 2008

Pure Sex, Pure Love

Depression Hurts


Recently I received a request from Susan, a longtime reader of my Pure Sex, Pure Love column:

How do you deal with a partner whose dealing with depression? Can you help—and if so, how? And where the lines are drawn between being supportive and looking after your own emotional needs, since depression doesn’t just affect the person going through it. Do you deal with a loved one’s depression differently if you are married versus dating?

I pondered this email as I left for my final week of the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship, where one of our lectures happened to be about the recent studied of Buddhist meditation used in the treatment of chronic depression.

“Estimates are that 1 in 6 people will experience depression at some point in their lives, and women are more likely to experience depression than men.”

The first episode of a clinical depression usually occurs in a person’s mid-20s—right when we’re finishing up school, starting jobs, in the middle of dating and early relationships or marriage. Estimates are that 1 in 6 people will experience depression at some point in their lives, and women are more likely to experience depression than men. Worse yet, if you’ve been depressed once, you’re more likely to become depressed again, and each bout of depression further increases your chances of a relapse.

Depression & Relationships
To Answer the Questionnaire, click here.

  • Fake name
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Relationship status (single, dating, engaged, married, separated/divorced, widowed)
  • Should Susan continue her relationship with John? (Yes/No)
  • What would be your advice to Susan about how best to deal with John’s depression? (Short answer)
  • Susan and John are dating. If they were married, would you offer different advice? (Yes/No)
  • If yes, what kind of advice would you offer to a married person whose spouse is dealing with depression?
  • In your opinion, is prayer a useful tool in treating depression? (Yes/No)
  • What can the Catholic Church do to address the challenges for young-adults dealing with depression? (Short answer)
  • In your opinion, should Catholics be open to meditation and practices from Buddhism and other faiths in the treatment of depression? (Yes/No)
  • Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who was depressed? (Yes/No)
  • If yes, how did you handle it? Please share your story. (Short answer)

In their book on mindfulness and meditation to try to stop relapses of depression, John Teasdale and three other psychologists and practitioners argue that our attempts to think our way out of depression actually make us dwell on bad thoughts that pull us back into it. Mindfulness training and meditation, they say, can help.

Mindfulness, according to Dr. Teasdale, is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are.” Enjoy little moments. Don’t try to suppress emotions, but don’t dwell on them, either. In a series of exercises over eight weeks, Dr. Teasdale’s book, along with its accompanying CD of meditation exercises, teaches awareness of body, mind and spirit.

I thought about these Buddhist principles of both being in the moment and letting go as I continued my email exchange with Susan. When you are in a relationship with someone who is depressed, you often feel like you’re getting pulled in to their sadness and mood swings, and may worry you might become depressed yourself. Can a bit of mindfulness—through prayer and meditation—help both the depressed person, and those who love her?

Susan told me she’s dated two men who have struggled with depression. In college, she dated a man named Dave who became depressed toward the end of college. He flunked out of school, and both withdrew from their relationship emotionally and also lashed out verbally at Susan. “We had some fights and lots of crying, and at some point, after much ‘trying to make it work,’ I couldn’t take it anymore and got out,” she said.

Now, she’s dating John, a freelancer who recently lost a big job contract he’d hoped would be his livelihood for the year. He’s crushed, she said, and has started down the road to depression. He has started to withdraw emotionally, and Susan is afraid that this might turn into a replay of her college relationship.

“I’m trying to figure out how much I can give and how I can be there for him. I know it’s not my responsibility to make him feel better (and conversely, that if he gets worse, it isn’t my fault), but even as logically as I understand and know that, my heart is still trying to make him feel better. I’m also scared that he could get worse, I’m scared that he’s going to find some negative way to let his emotions out, I’m scared that I’m going to get hurt in the process, and I’m scared that I’m not going to be strong enough to stick it out.”

This is a big topic— and before I weigh in with some specific advice and questions, I’d like to hear from you.

What do you think Susan should do? Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who was depressed? What might she do to support John through this situation? How can prayer have a role in helping a couple through depression?

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • ZP

    The Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy website says that the program teaches “how to sidestep mental habits such as rumination and self-blame.” Although the stated purpose of MBCT is preventing cases of depression, it seems reasonable to assume that, because it teaches people to deal with negative thinking, it will at least serve as a treatment for mild to moderate depression when used in combination with other treatment(s), especially for people who have experience with meditation. For example, the University of Kansas program Therapeutic Lifestyle Change, which is described by the researchers as a treatment for depression, includes “anti-ruminative behaviors” as one of its six “elements.”

  • Bill McGarvey

    Bill, just wanted to say that your story was very powerful. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Bill

    I have suffered from depression during my life. I would like to share a little bit, because it may shed some light on the situation. I have been a police officer for 16 years. During that time I have shot a person and lost two friendds to gunfire. I would talk to people abotu these situations, but I never dealt with them. It got to the point where I wasn’t sleeping well and had a ton of stomach issues, I was also very jumpy at loud noises. When I would get to the worst part of my depression, I just got by and was not really present even when I was with people.

    During this time I was praying all the time. I was saying at least one rosary a day, and attending daily mass as often as I could. When that wasn’t fixing the problem, I blamed myself and it increased the depression.

    I didn’t find relief until I started seeing a third psychologist throught the department. She recommended anti-depressants, and I continued with therapy. After a year it was like a light switch was turned on and the recovery was quick.

    I don’t know what to tell you as far as sticking with a relationship. I know this process was very hard on my wife and children. I do know that I’m blessed to have them and I thank God that they stayed by my side. Obviously, this may not work for everyone, but it did for me. Sorry for the long post.

  • ronald panlilio

    If you love soeone, then you should always support them. You cannot really love someone, if you take off when they are sick or injured. Until death do we part. People struggling with a mental illness, need a support system of people to go to when they are not feeling well. That would be you, his family, his friends, your pastor. Mental illnesses can be controlled over time. I cannot promise that your support will heal your partner. But if you leave him he will definitely get worse before he gets better.

    I suggest reading books about the illness he is struggling with. So you can understand it, and be able to detect any changes in behavior caused by the illness.

    When you are sick, you will quickly learn who loves you, and who will avoid you when you are down on your luck.

    I believe god would never give us a cross we could not bear. The illness is a trial to overcome. I would suggest to him to pray daily, read scripture and go to mass more often, or praying with the blessed sacrament. And ask his family to pray for him.

    I have always found jeremiah 29:11-13 to be an uplifiting verse.

    Maybe when he is healed he can go back and work with other people struggling with mental illness and let them know they can and will get better if they pray and trust their doctors.

    Even if your relationship does not last, if you support him while he is sick then he will know that he has a friend that will stick by him in tough times.

    God gives the toughest trials to his strongest children. Pray together, and ask him to keep a journal of his thoughts.

    I pray that god helps you and your partner. It is always great to have a happy ending.

    As long as his depression doesnt force him to become abusive or violent, then I would just continue to pray for each other. And just be honest with him about how this illness is making you feel.

    It is kind of like the lion with a splinter in his foot. If you are the one who helps remove the splinter, then he will always remember you for taking away his pain.

    I have some prayer resources on my website http://www.awesomearchangel.com

    take care and god bless

  • Kristan

    This article spoke to me; I was diagnosed with clinical depression & anxiety disorder in Nov. 2007. I now feel as though I can confidently label myself as a survivor.

    I just began dating a man, so I have not yet dated someone who is depressed, but I can offer some advie as someone who has been there.

    First off, I STRONGLY reccomend the book Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach by Sr. Kathryn James Hermes. This book was my therapist + my spiritual director. I even exchanged a few emails with Sr. Kathryn. The book contains practical, tangible tips for the person who is depressed & the person who has a family member or friend struggling with depression. I remember one day I was reading through it and I copied a page for my Mom of “things not to say” and she had said each one of them at least once. Often comments with good intentions can have a horrible impact on someone who is struggling with depression.

    When I was in the midst of my depression, I didn’t date. I would get notes on some of the online dating sites I had used, and I would politely reply and say that I was not in a position to date right now & to please pray for me.

    My advice to Susan:
    1. Buy the book. (http://www.amazon.com/Surviving-Depression-Kathryn-James-Hermes/dp/0819870773/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1218815318&sr=8-1)
    It really gives you insight into what John or anyone else is going through. I felt like the book was written directly for me – it was such an amazing help. I have relatives that have survived depression & I call them for support because they have been there.

    2. Let him know that you’re there for him & affirm his masculinity in positive, Christian ways. My biggest fear when I was first diagnosed with depression was guys would see me as “damaged goods” and that I would never get married. If you’re comfortable, suggest that he talk to a therapist. If your relationship continues, ask if you can do a joint session with his therapist so you can get some professional advice. My mom came with me to 2 therapist appts and it was SO helpful for her (and for me!). I even left the room at one point so my mom could vent to my therapist about what she was experiencing in response to my depression so I wouldn’t feel guilty for putting her through this (yes, I know that sounds crazy, but I did feel guilty for putting her through this. It’s called a mental illness for a reason!)

    3. Concerning your comment about wondering if you’re going to be strong enough to stick it out – pray for that courage. God will give it to you. My spiritual director told me to read Exodus 3 about Moses & the burning bush, which at the time I thought was an odd passage to read. But, I found peace in God saying to Moses, I’m going to use you to lead others through a desert to freedom. It’s going to be tough, but I AM. That I AM got me through the darkest nights. Knowing that God led me through that desert to free myself (and others) from slavery brought me comfort.

    You’ll be in my prayers.

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