Dear Captain Awkward:
I need some advice on being a decent human being.
My wife and I have been together for 8 years, married for 5. She has severe depression and anxiety. She’s been in therapy since before I met her, but her illnesses still hit her pretty hard. I do as much as I can for her — earning an income, taking care of the chores and cooking, always giving upbeat feedback.
She hasn’t had a full time job in a few years, but she takes on a smattering of freelance projects because she says her career is the only thing that makes her life meaningful. Unfortunately, it’s a huge struggle for her to complete these projects — generally she’ll start them the day they’re due, and I’ll have to sit with her for moral support and try to take care of as many aspects of it (printing, mailing, etc) as I can without any professional training.
Most days she sleeps in late, spends the day messing around on the internet, and then tells me about how stupid and worthless she thinks she is. I can usually get her to a point of resolving that tomorrow she’ll wake up on time and I’ll help her make a plan to get some work done, but that generally doesn’t happen. Getting out of the house helps, but the process of getting her to get up the nerve to go can be exhausting.
She is also convinced that none of her friends care about her — though she has more and better friends than I do. She’s very intelligent, so she has an exceptional ability to rationalize and explain away any evidence I present to counter her thesis that “I am a horrible stupid person who nobody likes and who is probably just faking my problems because I’m stupid.”
The reason I’m writing is that this should not be a big deal for me — she’s not hurting me, I’m not the one who’s depressed, I do get out of the house for work and to see friends. But I find that as much as I love her, and as much as I love spending time with her, there are times I start to feel frustrated, start to wish her depression wasn’t a shadow hanging over everything I do. I know that’s not OK, and most of the time I can keep my focus on her rather than on me. But it seeps through sometimes, and I worry that it will affect her or that I’ll slip and say something like “let’s not make plans — tomorrow you’ll probably just sleep all day anyway.”
Do I just need a kick in the pants?
Overwhelmed Husband (#429)
This one is a different song set to a similar tune:
Dear Captain Awkward:
I need a better way to interact with my husband. He has a whole long list of flaws in spite of which I love him, but these flaws seriously increase my workload and stress load, and I am sure I could learn to enable him less and get more out of my life, if I knew how.
Briefly, he has rarely made any money in our 16-year marriage. While unemployed he has not been a particularly good homemaker (he cooks brilliantly, but can’t stay organized, can’t pay bills on time, can’t keep the house tidy, had to have our child in full-time daycare from age one since he couldn’t handle the stress and boredom of child-minding, he can’t get around to getting his driver’s license, can’t stay on top of serious paperwork like his right to live in the country, etc.).
I think he might have ADD or depression, but he won’t seek a diagnosis or take it seriously that his contributions to our household are so small.On the plus side he’s lovely with our child when he does spend time with him, and he’s funny and loving and smart and I don’t love many people so my love for him is pretty important to me. He also loves me deeply.
I feel like if I were a single parent, though, I’d have an easier life. I think it’s partly because I like planning things and using my time efficiently, but for some reason he saps my initiative. I don’t like staying up when he’s gone to bed, I rarely feel good about planning some me-time leaving him alone with the child (and he does make me feel guilty about it), I can’t even insist on taking some time to get (job-related) work done when we would otherwise both be home with the child (partly because I am a big procrastinator about my work, but also because I can’t seem to act independently when he’s around).
I know there’s a lot wrong with him, but I can’t make him fix those things. But I think I am also handling things badly, and don’t know how to fix me. I don’t have many friends, and no close ones where I now live. I feel like I’m wasting my life.
Helpless Enabler (#430)
Dear Husband and Enabler:
I am going to ask you both the question that beloved poster Sheelzebub always asks people:
- If your marriages continued exactly as they are now for the next year, would you stay?
- Would you stay for another five years? Ten?
- Would you spend the rest of your life going on as you are now?
There are more questions here. I recommend these in particular:
- What goals and dreams do you have for yourself that you are ignoring or putting off “until someday, when partner gets better”? Is there any way you can get started on them now?
- Have you thought about seeking therapy for yourself? Not to “fix” your partner, but to nurture yourself in handling all of this?
Whether or not either of you technically have depression, it is ruling your lives just as surely as if you did have it.
I’m sure your partners are lovely people. I’m sure they deserve love. I’m sure they would give anything to not suffer from depression. I’m sure they have major guilt about the possibility that they are dragging you down.
Truths, some of them sad:
- You can’t make them feel better.
- You can’t control or change their behavior.
- Even if some of the stuff that is affecting you badly is not all the way their fault, it is still hurting you.
- You can’t fix the relationship by yourself.
- Loving someone isn’t always enough to build a happy, functional life with them.
- Your needs are real and SUPER FUCKING IMPORTANT.
What you can control is:
- Your own level of self-care, whether that be seeing mental health treatment for yourself, making sure you get exercise and time to pursue hobbies you like, looking for friends and activities outside the house and doing them because they make you happy.
- Asking directly for things you need from your partner and drawing bright boundaries with them. They may not be able to immediately meet those needs, and they may not immediately respect those boundaries, but by starting this work you are giving your relationships their best possible chance for survival.
Husband, you get to say:
“Wife, I need you to start your freelance assignments earlier and budget enough time to get everything done. I have my own work to do, and I am not going to scramble to help you anymore at the last minute.”
And if she ends up in a huge crisis at the last minute, you get to take yourself to the movies. There will be professional and emotional consequences if she fails to get it done, and she will likely try to make those your fault and your problem, and it will be very hard to hear the things she has to say both about you and about herself. But you are allowed to draw a line about what you are reasonably willing to do, and working full time + doing all the household chores + doing her work, too is not reasonable.
When she gets into a cycle of talking about how awful she is and no one loves her, you get to say “It’s really hard for me to hear you insult yourself that way, so I’d like us to stop talking about that now.” Or “That is your Depression talking, and Depression is a big fat jerk liar. Let’s change the subject and give Depression a chance to chill the fuck out.” You don’t have to hang in there with her through the entire cycle and listen to all of it. Negative self-talk is self-reinforcing. Cut it off at the source if you can.
You get to schedule regular time out of the house.
You get to ask her for a joint plan for handling household chores differently, and if she can’t do that with you, you get to just straight up ask her to handle some things when it will take a load off of you. Start small. “Wife, can you make sure to take the garbage out tomorrow? I’d sure appreciate it,” or “I would like you to cook dinner one night/week from now on.” If she hears that as “Wife, I think you are a horrible person and I don’t love you” that’s her Depression talking, not you, and not your fault. If she tells you all about how she can’t take the garbage out because she’s horrible, you get to say “It really sucks that you feel like that, and I wish I could take that away from you, but I still need you to take the garbage out tomorrow even if it’s hard.”
You get to ask her to go to couple’s counseling with you specifically to work on finding a better division of labor at home. You also get to ask her to work on that with her own therapist. “Wife, I need us to figure out a better division of labor around the house. Can you please ask your therapist to suggest some specific strategies that might help with that specific area of life?” What she says and does in therapy is her own business, obviously, but you’re not a dick for suggesting it.
And Husband, I know this thought fills you with guilt and dread and you are not ready to even think about it, but if you end up separating from your wife because you are unhappy and do not see the situation getting better, you will not be a bad person. Whether or not any of this is her fault, the situations IS harming you. It is harming you. The way you talk about yourself, as a potentially not-decent human being, makes me so very sad. You are good and you are doing your best.
I think you probably would be happier as a single parent. I think you are trying to parent two people right now, and it is unfair, and it sucks.
If you’re not ready to make that decision, that is understandable. It takes time and putting some support resources in place. But I think that it’s good that you admitted the possibility to us here.
In the meantime, you get to say to your husband, “Please take care of your drivers’ license paperwork by the end of the week, thank you.” If that starts a shame-spiral, so be it. That’s HIS shame. If he responds with an excusedump you can say “I’d still like you to take care of that this week.” Because you DO actually NEED him to be able to drive & live legally in the country. You need this even if he is depressed or has a hard time with executive function.
You get to say “Husband, please take Child to the park for a few hours, I need to focus on work right now.” Even if it weren’t work-related, you get to say “Husband, I need a few hours at home to myself. Please take Child somewhere that is Else, thanks.” You also get to say “I’m going to the office for a few hours to knock out some work. Have fun!” and get the hell out of there.
You get to pursue friendships, work, and activities outside the house without a guilt trip or a negotiation. “I’ll be going to the gym on Tuesday nights from now on. Thanks for looking after kid! Can I bring you anything back from the store?”
Both of you, you get to make reasonable requests about things that affect your quality of life. Like “I would like you to look for a part-time job or volunteer gig that gets you out of the house for at least 10 hours/week.” On the surface, that sounds patronizing as fuck, right? How can you say that to a fellow adult? But, you guys, you need your partners to do something that gets them regularly out of the house. To bring in some income. To bring them in contact with others. You need them to do it, and they’re not doing it on their own, so you need to gently ask them to do it.
I think the key to doing this in the least patronizing possible way is to not get too far into what they need or suggest that whatever you’re suggesting will be better for them. Make it about your needs, and make the requests small and specific. “I will be happier if I know I have a few regular hours with the house to myself. Can you go work at the library or a coffee shop one night a week?” “If I give you a list, can you do the grocery shopping today? Thanks.” Depressed people are depressed, they’re not stupid – they don’t need the lecture about how some fresh air will do them good. “You would feel better if you washed some dishes” is a true, they probably would feel better! But the whole problem is that the question of whether the dishes get washed is being ruled by their feelings, instead of your need to not to have to do the dishes after every single meal. “It’s your turn to wash the dishes tonight” or “I really need the kitchen to be clean, can you take care of it?” is a better, more direct, more true request.
It’s so hard to be involved with a depressed person. I say this as a depressed person who has not been managing it so well lately (Roughly: meds stopped working, need new meds, getting meds requires effort, which would be a lot easier if I had better meds, ergo I need new meds. I will solve this conundrum at some point, just, not today). I am worthy of love, like your wife and your husband are worthy of love, but if you lived with me you would still be within your rights to say “Jennifer, it is your turn to do x household chore now,” and you would not be being mean to me. If I heard your request and used it as an excuse to be really mean to myself, that was STILL not you being mean to me. That was me being mean to myself, which I am an expert at doing, and would have done anyway, and at least by you speaking up there is maybe a chance that something will get better.
Whatever you both decide, please, please, please find some people who can support you and give you some breathing space from these relationships. I think your own health depends on having some outlet away from the guilt and the sadness.