I lost my wife in 1985. She was still in our home, alive and breathing, but depression held her hostage.
From the beginning of my wife's depression, I felt my job was to actively help and guide her through her illness. At first I was energized to help. She was sick; I was healthy. Time to step up. For several months, I maintained a good attitude.
But my commitment gradually flagged. I became bitter and resentful. I hated going home. I found ways to increase the frequency and length of my business trips. I was doing a heroic thing, and she was failing. I was going to power through while she fell deeper into depression's grip.
In six months, divorce went from a repulsive thought to an attractive solution. I came to believe a lie that divorce would be best for me, my wife and our children. Alcohol became a frightfully close friend. I prayed repeatedly for my wife's death, convincing myself that it was a loving action on my part. My desperation and self-deception led me down a dark and loathsome path.
I doubled my efforts at helping my wife and became even more exhausted, bitter and resentful. I used my exhaustion as an excuse to avoid spending time with her. I began looking for subtle ways to exclude my wife from activities with our children.
My best efforts triggered the worst possible results: My wife's depression exacerbated. We didn't talk about it then, but she felt abandoned and judged.
In the fall of 1987, I was sitting on my front porch and sensed God asking me, Are you going to fulfill the commitment you made to Me and to your wife 12 years ago?
I hated that question and waited three days to give God my answer. In what was the worst day of my life up to that point, I answered, "Yes, I will live out my lifetime commitment." I didn't expect anything to get better but prepared for a life of misery.
Then God reached into my soul and renewed my heart, but this transformation was not easy for me.
As God completely changed my heart, I made a decision to demonstrate unconditional love and unwavering commitment to my wife. Still, my negative emotions did not suddenly evaporate. My anger and frustration did not immediately change to joy and peace. But my love and commitment made all the difference in my wife's recovery.
How did I harmonize this unconditional love with a storm of negative emotions? When I sat on the porch that cold afternoon and answered God, my only emotion for my wife felt like hate. Three days later my emotions softened a bit … but only a little bit. My unconditional love was an action, not an emotion. Regardless, my wife saw it and quietly began trusting me again.
One thing did change in the twinkling of an eye after my encounter with God. I began looking for reasons to stay married rather than seek divorce. To put it callously, since I had signed up for a life sentence, I thought I might as well make the best of it.
Perhaps my motivation wasn't pure, but the results were dramatic. I started seeing good in my wife. I started seeing improvement. I now had eyes and ears to see glimpses of the incredible wife I had been blessed with.
Starting to heal
I believe my wife saw the change in the frequent tears of appreciation that filled my eyes when I interacted with her. She asked over and over what I was crying about. My only response was that I saw the incredible gift she was to me.
Unconditional love and unwavering commitment were the primary catalysts for my wife's recovery.
I left my computer career in the year 2000 to help couples struggling with depression. Early in that decision process, I asked my wife if she remembered when I became fully committed to walk through her depression with unconditional love. With tears in her eyes she recounted exactly when that transformation happened. She remembered the comfort and confidence she felt following my turning point. She felt at that point she was "good enough," even when depressed.
There are countless resources to help people who struggle with depression. When delivered with the "wrong heart," all of these suggestions will fall flat. With the right heart, just about any act of love can help provide life and healing to a depressed spouse.Craig Cato is a licensed professional counselor and the author of Solo on a Tandem Bicycle: Hope when your spouse is depressed.
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