The time has come to unmask and outfox a notorious undercover agent whose mission is to undermine good marriages without either partner recognizing the troublemaker in their midst, sometimes not until it is too late to repair the damage. The name of this highly efficient home breaker is depression.

What makes this common, treatable illness so dangerous is it’s ability to assume unexpected disguises, a talent that leads to mistaken identity. Instead of matching the image that many still hold of someone depressed as a passive, morose person huddled quietly in the corner, depression is far more apt to manifest itself as an aggressive, argumentative, fault-finding individual who seems to be anything but sad, and, even more perplexing, bears little resemblance to the person you know and love. This disconnect causes countless marriages clouded by depression to unravel and become mired in conflict and misunderstanding. And because the root of the problem is not accurately identified and addressed, the whole family is thrown into disarray.

A family is a lot more than a collection of individuals who live under one roof. To function as a unit that endures, each member must value not only him/herself but also the others, and must feel valued in return. The depression of one parent does away with family coherence and happiness as surely as any of the other hard knocks that can unsettle wedded bliss. In fact, keeping a marriage solidly intact and mutually rewarding is virtually impossible when a partner of either sex suffers from this illness and fails to seek treatment. Not only does he or she no longer behave as expected; they appear to have undergone a personality change for the worse. When this happens, the non-depressed spouse and the children start a journey into the troubled territory I call depression fallout.

Depression fallout, provoked by prolonged proximity to someone depressed, is the unhappy progression from initial confusion to self-blame, then to demoralization, then to resentment and anger, and finally to the desire to escape the source of so much stress and unhappiness.

Stage one, confusion, leads directly to stage two, self-blame. When a previously “good” husband and father suddenly starts acting like a bundle of nastiness mixed with cool disdain, everyone, particularly his wife, wonders what’s going on.

Searching for reasons that could explain what seems like a personality change, she comes up with all kinds of possibilities. Perhaps her husband is worried about losing his job or the family finances or has a medical problem and doesn’t want to upset the family. Then comes the default explanation: He’s having an affair. Attempts to question him are thwarted by his refusal, or perhaps inability to talk and to explain what’s the matter. In the face of what looks like silent reproach, the stage-two fallout sufferer assumes blame for the change: She’s done or said something that has been misinterpreted, spent too much time in the office, let herself gain a few pounds, forgotten to pay attention to his needs. She tries peace overtures, but nothing makes a dent in her husband’s demeanor, which continues to be critical, cross and dissatisfied.

Soon the confused self-blamer is deep in the heart of depression fallout’s third stage— demoralization, strongly suspecting that she may indeed be as flawed and unsupportive as her depressed husband implies. Feeling helpless and hopeless and totally lacking in self-esteem, our depressed wife is now singing the depression fallout mantra: Nothing I do is right. Nothing I do is enough. And everything wrong is my fault. Not surprisingly, sooner or later demoralization gives way to stage four— resentment and anger at such undeserved treatment. Then, as the relationship deteriorates and the stress and misery continues, she eventually longs to escape the source of so much unhappiness.

This scenario, usually played behind closed doors and rarely reported to even the closest of friends, is as common as the illness that drives it. The obvious question to ask is why don’t depressed partners speak up and explain what is going on in their minds and hearts? The answer is that they too are in the dark as to what has caused the change in their interior landscape. Should suspicion of the truth be voiced by others, or perhaps cross their minds even without promoting, they often rush to suppress it in the false belief that depression is a sign of weakness best overcome by sheer determination.

Given depression’s power to warp your husband’s psyche, unmasking his depression and holding the family together until professional treatment comes to the rescue is your job, and although it’s a tough one to handle, it’s doable. You will have to overcome denial, bone up on the illness and its treatment, set boundaries to keep hurtful behavior at a tolerable level, shelter the kids from the storm, and look after your own needs, to name only a few of the challenges facing you. The good news is that with courage, determination and a little luck you’ll be able to help your husband make the choices necessary to restore his health, your mutual love and the family’s harmony.

Overcoming denial is key to recovery and the first, most difficult hurdle you have to overcome. You will need to choose the right moment, the right tone of voice and body language, and stick to non-confrontational words, using “I” rather than “you.”

A partnership approach is important, both while the illness is in the ascendant and when recovery is under way. You should learn about depression and its causes; know what can be expected from medication and from psychotherapy; be aware of what antidepressant medication your husband is taking, and keep track of its effects on his energy level and mood. Be concerned, but don’t be nosey. Ask if you can see the doctor or psychiatrist together from time to time so that you can compensate for any misinterpretation by your depressed spouse of the diagnosis and treatment recommended. It’s very common for a depressed person to lie prone and practically speechless on the sofa all weekend long and then cheerfully inform the doctor on Monday that he or she feels just fine.

Protecting children from a parent’s depression is a major concern, and with care you can minimize the impact and ensure that their distress will be temporary and without lasting effects. Don’t keep the problem a secret from them. Tell them in an age-appropriate way that their Dad isn’t feeling well, that he’s taking medicine and will be better soon. Also, make sure that family life remains structured and orderly, maintaining rules, regulations and discipline. Do so by setting an inviolate boundary which both the depressed and non-depressed parent must honor— no emotional outbursts, fighting or disrespectful comments in front of the kids.

Last, but by no means least, pay attention to your own needs and look after your health. Remember that you too need empathy and support, so take your relatives and close friends into your confidence so they can help keep you afloat.

One final tip: stay hopeful. You will on occasion feel hopeless and helpless, but if you love your spouse and are determined to get your marriage back on track, you will be another depression fallout success story.

A Change in Family Structure
A Change in Family Structure

Helping kids adjust to divorce.

Breaking the Silence
Breaking the Silence

Teaching children about mental illness.

Six Golden Rules to Help Children Through Divorce

Helping children to cope with the difficult change that comes with divorce.

Evolving Treatments
Evolving Treatments

The progression of special needs therapies.

  • Ann Sheffield

    Anne Sheffield is the author of Depression Fallout: The Impact of Depression on Couples and What You Can Do to Preserve the Bond (Quill imprint of HarperCollins) and also of the award-winning How You Can Survive When They’re Depressed (Harmony) and Sorrow’s Web: Overcoming the Legacy of Maternal Depression(Simon and Schuster Fireside Book).