Hello, friends! In this Q&A, I tackle two interesting listener questions relating to couples who both go through dips in their mental wellness at the same time, and coping with the winter blues and what you can do to help yourself feel better!
I was wondering if you could offer some advice on couples who are both going through mental health “episodes” at the same time. My partner has anger management issues and lacks emotional understanding of anything but happiness or anger… while I am extremely sensitive and suffer with depression. We aren’t capable of leaning on one another in this time, my sadness only triggers her anger and vice versa, but this is not our normal dynamic… normally we are good, its only when one has a slip of mental health that the other does and it piggy backs.
It sounds like things are difficult for you both right now. I hope things ease up a little soon. Thank you for writing in the question. One really encouraging thing that I see in here is what you wrote at the end. That this isn’t your normal dynamic. That you are normally good. It’s only when one of you has some difficulty and then it sort of snowballs from there.
First off, this is very common. It doesn’t mean there is something fundamentally wrong or dysfunctional about your relationship. You and your partner are a system and a change in a system causes the rest of it to adjust or change as well. It sounds like you have a pretty good understanding of your patterns and your partner’s patterns. That can help you not take things so personally when you might get into it or you are met with some inappropriate anger.
I think a lot of this is going to come down to establishing some standards and planning for this to happen. Rather than denying it and hoping it won’t happen again, think about what you can do to help yourselves out when it does happen. To be clear, I think this planning probably needs to happen when you are not both in a strongly emotional state. When you are both keyed up in your own ways, trying to establish plans and guidelines might come off like blaming and lead to a big argument. But when you are both doing relatively okay, I think it’s reasonable to be real about the fact that you tend to seriously impact each other when you are going through mental health episodes. You can talk about appropriate boundaries. What is and is not okay with regard to how you treat each other in these moments. You might have to set some ground rules about no yelling, name calling etc. Or on the other side, your partner needs to be assured that they won’t be completely shut out and ignored. I’m not sure exactly what these would look like but it would be a collaborative effort to prepare for the next time.
I think that you can both also be honest about the fact that you might need to do some intentional distancing or relying on other resources in service of the relationship. You can’t rely on each other for emotional support, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get emotional support. Do you have therapists? Do you have other trusted loved ones or family members that you can lean on? Are there ways for you to plan some time for yourselves to try to ride out the storm or improve your state of being that doesn’t involve the other partner?
As always, I encourage you to be clear and consistent in your messaging to one another. You can say, “I love you. I will even if you have a really hard time. But when we are both having mental health struggles, we tend to pull each other down further. Know that I am not judging you for having the difficulties that you do, but I think that we both need to find a way to get our own help outside of our little bubble so that we can get better faster for each other.” You can also make a point to focus on the fundamentals and basics during these times of elevation. You might not be able to be a great listening ear and shoulder to lean on, but maybe making a point to support in other ways like preparing meals, calling in prescriptions, taking care of business, giving small thoughtful gifts like a plant or some cozy sweats, or offering to facilitate some alone time for your partner, can go a long way.
Again, focusing on the less intense times, I think a lot of us try to not bring negativity in when we are feeling good, but that is the perfect time to be investing in yourself and your own mental health resources. Rather than only turning to things like therapy, books, self-help etc when things are hard, it can be really helpful to work on that stuff BEFORE it gets difficult again. That said, it can be very difficult for some people to work on their mental health when they are not in an active episode because things feel better. For that reason, you both may want to spend some time journaling or doing whatever form of documentation works for you. Keep track of what is going on, how you are feeling, and the roadblocks that you are running into. These are things that you can look for resources to deal with when you are feeling a bit better.
I also want to say something I’ve reiterated on the show several times before with regard to communication in a relationship. You don’t only have one single shot at a conversation. And you’re likely not going to completely blow it with one misstep. If you made a mistake when you were feeling poor, talk about it later. Come back to the topic and practice some of that clarity and consistency I talked about. Make it clear that you are in this together and that you are both struggling. Say plainly that you don’t think your partner is a bad person or a bad partner, but that these difficulties you both are having are causing friction and difficulty in your lives.
Lastly, this might be the obvious answer but perhaps integrating the help of a couples therapist during these times would be useful if you haven’t done that already. Increasing the support in any way would be helpful. In particular, a couples therapist can help you move in a productive direction without making one person feel like they are the problem. It’s a safer and more constructive place to plan and hash some things out.
Best of luck to you both and thank you for writing in!
Hi Duff, I’m wondering if you have any unconventional suggestions for “the winter blues”. My general anxiety/depression has been well-controlled since I got on medication and worked through some underlying self-worth problems. But around this time of year I always feel like my joy is less than it would be at other times of the year. If I had a day that in the summer would make me feel 100% joyful, then in the winter that same day would only make me feel 85% joyful. It’s not debilitating, but it is frustrating because it feels so out of my control. I don’t think I’m a failure or want to kill myself– I just feel apathetic. I wish things were getting done, but I have incredibly low motivation to actually do anything. Nothing makes me excited like it usually does. I’m also irritable, I think because I’m so annoyed that I feel this way. Have you ever caught a cold or had an injury, and you’re frustrated and annoyed that 1) you’re in that situation, and 2) that you can’t do much to “speed it up”– you just have to wait it out until your body heals itself? That’s how this feels. I know I should try to exercise, get my vitamin D levels checked, go outside more or get a lightbox, but the thing is that it’s about all the motivation I can muster to do my job (at least “good enough” to not have any problems with my employer) and feed myself. How can I motivate myself to do the things that might help when I don’t want to do anything at all? Also, I did go for a long walk in the sun this Saturday, but that night and the next day I felt even worse. I know n=1 isn’t a large sample size, but that made me feel even less motivated to try to further pursue the things that are supposed to help, because when I did muster up the motivation to walk in the sun, it didn’t even help. Do you have any tips that are less intimidating to implement?
Glad to hear that you have been able to tackle a lot of your anxiety and depression issues. proud of you for finding and using your resources. It’s also good that you can see the pattern here. That’s half the battle. An important factor to mention here is to also make sure we are separating out normal winters from pandemic winters – they are a bit different and it’s important we recognize this.
I understand why you’d be annoyed when you can see your capacity and what you are capable of. Seasonal changes are very common. You aren’t alone in this. You don’t need to do all those things, but you may need to start with one of them and let the snowball happen. Your willpower is pretty much tapped at this point, so you can’t be expected to go from the state you are in now to exercising, going to the doctor, getting a lightbox, etc. all at the same time. But as I talked about in my recent email and video, you may want to think about what your lead domino is. Which one thing will have the biggest impact and make those other things easier. I suppose it’s another way of conceptualizing the Pareto (80/20) principle.
What are some of the things that you needed to rely on more before your generalized depression lifted a bit? What was the most effective active ingredient? If you can identify one or more options, then your job becomes to pour whatever willpower you have into those rather than all of them. This could be therapy, it could be a lightbox, it could be a temporary increase in medication. It might take some brainstorming or some outside help to recognize which have been the most effective strategies in the past.
Speaking of outside help – you may also want to enlist the help of outside sources like friends or family to pick up some of the slack. Like if you know you need a lightbox or need to find a therapist to work with but you simply don’t have the motivation to do so, it might be the time to ask someone to help you with it. Maybe someone could just buy you one and you can pay them back. Or maybe they can give you 3 options for therapists to work with rather than a million potential matches.
You are right that an N of 1 is not sufficient to make a conclusion that some of your strategies won’t work right now. BUT – I’m hearing that you probably need to borrow some motivation from someone else. Whether that is friends and family, a therapist, or simply pumping in positive content 24/7, if you aren’t satisfied with your current state of low motivation and anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure in normal, everyday pleasurable activities), you are going to need to find a way to retrain your brain. This probably means some behavioral activation. That is, forcing yourself to get back to things that should be pleasurable for you. Treating it like a job and hammering away at it until you start to get some more motivation on your own. I have some resources in my depression book about this including determining your easiest wins and using the 5-minute rule to get started.
You aren’t dumb for encountering this. It’s pretty normal. You can work on acceptance of the lower motivation and productivity level. And you can also make some tweaks to make things a bit easier. Look for your lead domino and borrow whatever help you need to get started.
You got this!
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