My husband has suffered depression for the past 15 years. It has taken many opportunities for a healthy and positive life from him in that time. He has gone back to school several times, trying to find his passion and came up dry every time. The last degree he got, he started at the age of 28 and as in mechanical engineering. He graduated at 31. He is from Europe and a culture which is very emotionally repressed. He moved to Canada to be with me. After a few months, he got a job using in engineering only to discover that it was not his passion either, despite being a natural problem solver and passionate about the workings of machines and systems.
He was a kind of non-actor for much of his life and the entirety of our relationship. All responsibilities of a couple fell to me; money, friends, planning for the future. All of this should have been red flags, but I come from an abusive home where I had to take on caregiving for my parents and siblings, so it came naturally to me to overcompensate. He said at one point that he didn’t want to worry about the future because he couldn’t be bothered.
In the first year of our marriage, he decided he wanted to switch careers again and move us to a farm where we could pursue self-sufficiency and work for ourselves. Neither of us has a background in farming or self-sufficiency, so he took six months out of his career to intern on an organic farm 200 km away while I continued to work so that we would be able to bu a farm. The farm wasn’t the best; it was very disorganised, and he always complained when I visited that the work was too hard. When he got back to the city, he took a temporary job as a waiter. During this time, I continually confronted him about his depression and seeking help. See, he didn’t understand that he was barely functional as an adult. He didn’t clean up after himself, didn’t cook for himself, didn’t manage his appointments or health. Again, that was all left to me to do for him. He went days without bathing or getting up from the couch. We used to have a joke about him changing from his “night jammies” into his “day jammies” and then back into his “night jammies.” Haha, I know, but I’m just a wife, not a psychiatrist. When he did pursue his interests, he didn’t engage. All of it looked like depression to me.
I begged him to address these issues, and upon threat of leaving, he finally did. His psychiatrist said he was one of the most emotionally repressed people she’d ever met and that he should try and address depression with medication and therapy. To his credit he did. His family was very harsh, particularly with regards to expressing emotion. He also went to a prestigious boarding school, where alumni graduate to run prominent corporations or hold political office (that’s why parents send their sons there), so I think he may have been taught that he was being set up to measure up to unattainable standards. In the years since his diagnosis, he has gone off his meds a few times without the guidance of a therapist or doctor because “he feels better and doesn’t need them anymore.” I told him that not even psychiatrists on antidepressants could make that decision for themselves, and he certainly isn’t able to either. Especially when every time he does go off them, he reverts to his depressed and helpless self.
Something that has always been a thread through his depression is a concern with environmental destruction and climate change. That is certainly one of the motivating factors with wanting to be self-sufficient. He and I do all that we can and has been suggested to reduce our carbon footprint: we’re vegan, we recycle, we cycle when we can, we don’t buy a lot of new stuff and always try to buy second-hand. We live rurally, but even then our cars are old, used and fuel efficient models. Where we live is in a housing bubble right now, so we rent a small house, but we have plots in the community garden. We hope to build an Earthship/sustainable house when things cool down and are learning about that now.
However, he is obsessed with conserving even more, to the extent that it is affecting his mental health and mine. If I fill the kettle up too much, even by half a cup of water, he’ll scold me for wasting energy. He refuses to believe that running a dishwasher is more water and energy efficient than hand-washing dishes, even though our energy efficient washer is far more efficient, many times over. He refuses to throw anything out, even if it’s broken or hasn’t ever been used because “that’s wasteful.”
Moreover, his concern about climate change never manifested as any activism nor action of any sort. He never raised money for environmental causes, nor went to marches or demonstrations before he met me. We have attended a few animal rights, and pro-immigration demonstrations, but those were from my research and at my request and it even took a lot of convincing to get his to those. In fact, for this all-consuming concern about climate and the environment, he doesn’t do much, except stay at home and be depressed. Which to me implies that it’s more about the “being depressed” than it is about the issue.
I think he has chosen these issues as a “load bearing depression repository” for him. Climate change and environmental destruction are these huge, complex issues that may take many years, if not our entire lifetimes to be resolved, if ever. They will always be there to feel shitty about, so if he claims that he is depressed about them, then he doesn’t have to face how he feels about himself.
I’m not discounting the seriousness of these issues, nor that they could be a factor in his depression. We should all be concerned and it *is* fucking depressing, but his depression hurts both of us, and I refuse to let it take more away from him than it already has. I confronted him about this again, because it is having a detrimental effect on my mental health, but he assured me that “he knows his depression better now” and it’s not about that (he has also gone off his meds again independently).
Last time I told him that I couldn’t live with him obsessing over the kettle or the dishwasher and letting such small things affect our relationship. He says he will never be able to do that; he will always be concerned with it. He implies that when I overfill the kettle or use the washing machine to preshrink fabric *for the clothes I make myself* I am not concerned about these issues, which is complete bullshit. He says I gave him an ultimatum, which I did. But I have tried, Lord have I tried, to reason with him.
I struggled with anxiety for many years myself, but the delightful “generalised” kind, now with added panic attacks. I know that I will never “know my anxiety” enough to think I have it licked. Indeed, anytime I’ve had that thought, I’ve realised it’s a red flag to check in with what is really going on because a mental illness’ “job” is to separate us from those who care about us and will use any method possible to get us alone with it.
How can I help him see and give up his obsessions, which are ruining both of our lives?
Can’t Get Any Greener (female pronouns)
Dear Can’t Get Any Greener:
For the entirety of your marriage you have cooked and cleaned and financially supported and cajoled and begged and emotionally labored and thrown your life into upheaval so that your husband could get to the bottom of his depression and “find his passion.”
And now you can’t even do the fucking dishes or make a kettle of tea without him criticizing how you do it. Strange how he has made his concern for the environment line up 100% with monitoring and controlling you to the point that he begrudges you every drop of water you use in your house.
You have already said everything, and tried everything and ended up here. You already know what you need to know about your husband. Whatever his good qualities, he is kind of a passive dude, bad at taking care of himself, and he exerts himself only under extreme pressure from you or when he can offload the effort and costs onto you. If love and loyalty and trying hard were enough to fix this, it would have been fixed already. You can care about people but you can’t do their caring for them.
If I knew a way to make him a) stop his selfish behaviors at home and b) engage more proactively in his own life, I would tell you. There is nothing to say. What could we say? Not everyone gets to follow their passions in life 100% of the time? Sometimes you just have to go to work and do your best by your family even when you’re not feeling it? Depression sucks and requires long-term boring maintenance and treatment and sometimes it will be bad and sometimes it will be better?Depression isn’t excuse to treat the people in your life like crap? There is more environmental activism on heaven and earth than the kind that maximally inconveniences and annoys your spouse?
If I knew the words that would help you leave him forever – to bathe or not bathe, as it pleases him, to work or not work, as it pleases him, to follow his passions as it pleases him, to put only the exact true one correct amount of water in the kettle – I would say them to you now. If this were a fairy tale, I would write the secret inside an enchanted mushroom and wrap it in a magic handkerchief that you could carry with you through the tasks and trials ahead.
We have 900+ posts on the site and probably half of them contain some variation this question (Praise Sheelzebub!):
If nothing changed about your relationship, and you knew it would stay just like it is now, how long would you stay?
1 more year?
5 more years?
10 more years?
How many more years can you pour into this man who pours so little back into you, who thinks even the water you consume would be better saved for “The Earth?” (as if you are not of the Earth and on the Earth, as if you are undeserving of water, as if he gets to decide that.)
You’re worried that he won’t make it without you, but he will. If you leave him, he will suffer for a while and try to get you to come save him and then he will fucking figure it out. He will get some kind of job, or make some friends, or “live off the land.” He will find a shelter or a food bank or move back in with his parents. He found you, didn’t he? He will find someone else, somewhere else, and he will survive.
If you’re not there yet, or ever, that’s okay. You are the boss of you!
In the meantime, it’s time for a therapist…for you. Unpack the ways your parents groomed you to put up with this man. Unpack ways to separate his choices and behaviors from his illness. Treat your own anxiety with the seriousness and care that it deserves. (If he wants to get therapy, great, but put the energy you’d spend cajoling him there into going yourself.)
In the meantime, it’s also time to push back hard at his policing behaviors. “When you do the dishes, you can decide how to do them. When I’m washing them, back off.” “You are not the boss of the kettle.” “I don’t want to hear it.” “Your constant harping on me makes me feel bad. Stop it.”
He’ll be like “BUT DON’T YOU CARE ABOUT THE EARTH?” and you can say “I do care about The Earth and hey, that’s not a stick to beat me with. It’s not a competition and nobody designated you Chief Earth Carer in our house. Back off.”
Interrupt him. Shut it the fuck down. You do not have to just take this.
And don’t try to dig into to his depression when you push back at him. As you point out, you’re not his psychiatrist, you’re his wife. And you’re not just his wife, you’re a fucking human being who gets to exist in her own house without being constantly monitored and picked at. Address the behaviors. If he has sad feelings because you are standing up for yourself, those are his job to deal with. He cannot save the planet by controlling you. That’s not how any of this works!
When you’re ready, if you’re ready, the time for threatening to leave will be over. You tried that already, he rallied just enough to get you to stay, and then reverted to form. If you decide to leave, skip to the part where you say “I’m leaving you” and then do it.
To my eye, you have done everything you can humanly do to make your marriage work, and it’s actually working perfectly…for him…as long as you are willing to comply with his ridiculous requests and subject yourself to his control the next time he wants to find a new “passion” and make you pay and pay and pay and pay for it. It must have worked for you sometimes on some level or you wouldn’t have stayed so long. That’s okay! That doesn’t make his bad behavior your fault! Just, there’s a reason you included the entire history of his behaviors in your letter. You sound exhausted. The costs are adding up, and you are not a selfish person if you want to get as much from your marriage as you give.
Or, to put it another way, your selflessness will never fill up his empty places, but his selfishness can drain you dry. You deserve a happy life that isn’t dominated by this guy’s needs. You deserve a garden of your own, and enough water to nourish it.