ASK ABDI: HOW DO I HELP MY PARTNER WITH HER EMOTIONAL PAIN?
QUESTION: I have noticed lately that my wife seems to be very depressed, unhappy, moody, on edge, etc. She is typically an emotionally intelligent woman. It has been a learning experience, for both her and I, in this relationship; she is learning to open up and share her feelings with another human being, and I am learning how to be delicate with a person like her, who has issues opening up and sharing.
Now to the issue - last night, we were just finished with dinner, having a pleasant conversation; she was on our laptop looking at some old pictures. All of a sudden, she started tearing up. I noticed right away, but I decided to let her feel without me jumping in and asking what was up right away. After a bit, I gently asked her if she was okay, she immediately said annoyed, “of course not!” I asked what had brought her to tears, and she answered that she could not explain what she was feeling in words. I sat back, wondering how to approach this. I got up, gave her a hug, which made her break down in tears further. After hugging for a while, and her crying on my shoulder, she decided to pull away. I asked again, "Can you try to share with me what you are feeling and why?" She again said, more annoyingly this time, that she did not know how to express her feelings. I did not know what to do. I left her alone for a few hours. When I came back out into the living room and into the kitchen where I could hear cupboards opening and closing, she was cleaning (an already clean kitchen - she tends to clean pointlessly when she is upset). I again asked her, calmly, "Babe, what is wrong, what is going on?" At this point, she exploded, crying, yelling that she was depressed, but she did not know why. Saying that she hates waking up in the morning, hates going into work, and has thoughts of just running away from her life. I sat down and did not know what to say. I asked her if there was something that I was doing to make her feel this way, and she answered no, that I was the only person in her life keeping her going.
I am a spiritual person, and so is she. Our spirituality, our belief in happy living, positive thinking, and emotional stability are some of the things that brought us together. She used to meditate, she used to dance, she used to paint, but I noticed that she doesn’t do any of these things anymore. I stopped meditating for a while, but got back into again recently. I want to approach her about this because I think a big part of her depression and anxiety is that she has stopped putting her energy into things like painting and dancing. She gets home from work and she is straight onto her phone, playing games, browsing Facebook… she never used to be like this until recently. I do not want to come off as controlling, therefore I do not mention this to her…
As I said at the beginning, I’ve noticed for the past few weeks, maybe a month, that she has been unhappy, not the usual positive person that I married. My feeling was correct, as she admitted to me last night that she is depressed. I feel that this is very serious, but I have no clue how to handle this, how to approach her about this without her getting upset. I am extremely worried about her, though I know she will never accept professional help. What do I do?!
ANSWER: These are intense times for many of us in our internal landscape. Much emotions are being stirred up to be released. Obviously it is painful as well as scary to be in a situation where a loved one is experiencing what you describe your wife is going through. So, first and foremost, you have to check yourself and your own issues. You describe how initially you let her feel what she was going through without jumping in. That is helpful and healthy. She gave you a clear message that she needs space. Then you kept pushing several times (from what you wrote) until she kept pulling away and getting more annoyed.
People in general, and men especially, want to solve emotional issues by intellectually understanding and wrestling with them. Some people need to process emotions by feeling and sitting with them. In fact, we all do, but it can take many years for us to come to that conclusion. Keep this fact in the back of your mind as you go through life, and check this filter in your interactions with your wife. Learn how to hold space for her without having to fix her or solve the issues at hand. This sounds simple - but, in fact, is quite difficult since we need to sit with our own anxiety and helplessness in such situations. On to the main point of how your partner refuses professional help: you are helpless here. That is her choice, as is her choice not to meditate, dance, or paint. She has made that clear to you, so you need to back off. All you can do is put the focus on yourself and how you are reacting to the situation. I appreciate your belief in happy living, positive thinking, and emotional stability, as you put it. But beliefs are just that: thoughts not reality. Life is not always happy, thoughts are not always positive, and as you are witnessing firsthand - emotions are rarely stable. We can strive towards these things, but life is much more varied than that. We have labeled, and medicalized as disease, natural phenomena such as depression or anxiety. If your wife were suicidal that would be one thing. But to experience depression for a month, or a couple of months, can be a part of life unfolding. Emotions have to be felt to be released; we can not control them by willing them away or wanting to be stable. You ask why she is distracting herself. The same reason we all distract ourselves: anxiety and emotional distress. As you have found out, prodding her is not the way. This is a great practice for you; hold space for her by keeping your own practice going strong and stopping trying to control her. Quiet your own mind and see what the next step is.