Advice: Can you fall in love again?
Her husband is depressed and difficult to live with. Should she leave him, or try to stick it out for the sake of their child?
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This week's answer comes from Dr Rebecca Jorgensen. San Diego-based Dr Jorgensen is internationally regarded for her expertise in Emotionally Focused Therapy - a practical, evidence-based approach that has a high success rate with couples. She is coming to New Zealand later this month to provide training in the technique for Relationships Aotearoa counsellors and others.
I am struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel with my husband. We have been married for about seven years and we have one child. He is a great father to our son and tells me he loves me often. However, he suffers from depression and has done so for many years. He hid his depression from me when we first met and in fact managed to keep it hidden for the first four years we were together. It has now gotten to the point where we find it difficult to communicate with each other. I do not like spending a lot of time with him as he seems very inward and unable to stay "with it".
This has caused issues when he looks after our son as he doesn't listen to him either, which is frustrating for a young person.
The biggest problem now is that I do not love him any more. I am no longer attracted to him and I feel very shallow for feeling this way. I don't know what I can do to love him again and almost feel like I'm trying to for the sake of our son.
I'm also very frightened of the prospect of separating and how we would emotionally and financially deal with that, not to mention how we would look after our son, who is just about to start school.
Is it possible to fall in love again?
It's a very good thing you are considering these important questions and recognise the complexity of the issues at hand for you and your young family. Reaching out for help is one of the best things you can do in your situation. So, I'm really glad you asked.
First, let me say that you are at a time (between five and seven years) many couples experience as difficult. It's one of the predictable rough spots in the life span of a committed relationship that couples who achieve long-term happy marriages must work though. And when one partner is fighting depression that makes this time even more difficult.
Most importantly, let me give you a resounding YES, it is possible to fall in love again. Let me explain a little more.
Love is an emotional bond. We need experiences of closeness and emotional intimacy to keep the bond strong. When couples get in a pattern of emotional distance the feelings of being in love, close and committed begin to fade.
A pattern of emotional distancing can become established almost without us thinking about it. Family demands put pressure on us to keep moving and we stop sharing at a more intimate level. Or, like in your situation, if one partner is struggling with untreated depression, the depression shuts down emotional engagement. The depression, or emotional shut-down in one partner often triggers the other to respond by sharing less, avoiding more and becoming more task focused. Each partner avoids the painful emotion the distance and depression brings into the relationship.
Many couples develop a withdraw/withdraw pattern when one partner is depressed. Feelings of love get squelched under the pain of depression and emotional distancing.
So, what can you do? Here's five things:
1. Keep doing what you're doing here - breaking the silence and reaching out for professional help: Your husband's depression needs to be treated. It is a common and very treatable mental health condition. He has been struggling with it for far too long, as have you. Depression responds best to a combination of medical treatment and couple therapy. So try to get your husband to the doctor and find a good couples therapist. Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy provides the benefit of working on the couple relationship and curing depression at the same time. Which could mean your husband's depression gets cured and you get your feelings of being in love with him back with the same treatment.
2. Learn more about love: Love is not a mystery anymore. Research psychologists are writing about the science of love these days. I'd recommend information by Susan M. Johnson (author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for A Lifetime of Love), and Daniel Siegel (Mindsight and Parenting From the Inside Out).
3. Think of your partner with compassion to start the love juices flowing again: You know that lonely and scared place inside of you? (You know it probably all too well.) That place you busy yourself to not think about. The one you tell yourself over and over, 'it doesn't matter' or 'forget it he just doesn't care.' The one you might tell a close friend about, but never your partner. Well, your partner has that place too. And as much as you need and want compassion, acceptance and understanding your partner does too. Consider his lonely and scared place with compassion, let the compassionate part of your heart have some room to breathe.
4. Share some positive thoughts of your partner with him about him, at least one a day, every day: The idea is to share something about him as a person, a character quality, not something he does. Which means you will have to get in touch with those positive feelings. Even if there are only distant memories left, get in touch with them and then let your partner know you think of him as having good qualities. Say "I was thinking about you today, about how _____ (eg. kind) you are and I just wanted to let you know." If you can't say that yet, share your positive thought through a smile with eye contact, a non-sexual touch or a kind deed. But be sure to build up to sharing your daily positive thought directly with words.
5. Remember you are here to succeed in loving and being loved: You have what it takes inside of you. You felt the love before and with deeper emotional sharing the feelings can return. They may be locked behind walls of fear and protection but you have love and the longing to be loved. The more you remember it's in you to succeed, the easier it will become to take the risks towards reaching for love, sharing and compassion.
You can start turning it around and start enjoying more connection. Remember to work at it every day.
The good news is the pattern can be reversed and feelings of love can resurface and your relationship can be stronger and better than it ever was as you come through this difficult time together.
We'd love to hear your take on this week's issue. Before you comment below, though, remember that this is a real-life situation. This reader has bravely shared their personal life with you; please show them respect by refraining from hurtful or abusive comments.