In the past I have talked about how it is natural for passion to wane in long term relationships. There are things couples can do to prevent it, and there are ways couples can try to rebuild passion once it has been lost. In order to rebuild a relationship you need to make it a priority again. But you also have to believe change is possible, and you have to put in effort.
I’m a cheerleader for long term relationships. I believe in them, and believe that as long as people love each other they can get through anything. I believe with a little bit of effort on both parts, each day can be better than the last. Couples can work to better understand each other and build a deep enduring love. I believe forever can be real, and couples can “grow old together” still very much in love.
Belief for me is the easy part, and part of my goal with this site has been a hope that my belief can be infectious and I can inspire others to believe when they are having a hard time doing so on their own.
But I recognize that isn’t the case for everyone. Sometimes it’s hard to believe, and hold onto hope. Sometimes you try focusing on the positive, but a little part of your brain keeps insisting that things will never get better. What if you do truly want things to get better, but you just can’t bring yourself to put in the energy or the effort?
What do you do when hope fails?
If hope has failed, it may be that your brain and heart are telling you your relationship is beyond saving. But what if it’s something else entirely?
If you look up “sense of hopelessness” you will find it is one of the major signs of anxiety and depression. In my last post I talked a little bit about mental illness. What I didn’t talk about was how mental health has a direct impact on relationships.
According to statistics, mental illness will directly impact roughly 20% of people at some point in time in their life (though some stats show this as high as 25%). Relationships involve two people, so according to my math 40%-50% of couples will deal with a mental illness at some point in time, adding an additional layer of challenge to the normal trials and tribulations relationships go through.
Impacts on Relationships
Stats from counselors indicate that more than 80% of couples who come in for counseling show signs of mental illness (predominantly in the form of anxiety or depression). This is not surprising, as the nature of mental illnesses often break down the very characteristics required for a strong, healthy relationship. They can impact a persons ability to feel love and affection, while also making it harder to cope with the regular stresses of a relationship and day to day life. This in turn puts additional stress on the relationship.
When a relationship is struggling and there is the presence of something like depression and/or anxiety, a question that can be asked is “does the mental illness contribute to the relationship issues, or do the relationship issues lead to the mental illness”. Honestly, that’s a valid question. But I would argue that the answer doesn’t really matter. Allow me to explain…
depression vs. Depression
We all have had bad days and days that we feel depressed. When you’re depressed, you’re generally feeling down, or in a funk. You probably feel listless and a bit tired, and you really don’t want to do much. Everyone has days like that, and they are usually triggered by something that has happened.
When I first heard about depression, I thought this is what people were talking about. As a result, I didn’t understand what the big deal was. After all, feeling depressed is a normal thing that everyone experiences. In my mind depressed people just needed to cheer up, and they would feel better soon enough.
The reality of depression isn’t so simple. Depression as an illness (also known as clinical depression or a major depressive episode) is different. It may start the same as the “normal” funks that people go through, and that’s probably a big part of why most people don’t get help for it. I suspect that many sufferers think it’s just something they can wait out. Or they think they are feeling “down” because of something in their life, and if they just changed that thing they would start to feel better. But as time goes by it just deepens and worsens. Clinical depression is only partially understood, but it causes changes in brain chemistry that can make it very difficult for people to get out without help.
In a similar fashion everyone experiences anxiety from time to time, but when anxiety becomes a common part of daily life then anxiety may be a disorder. I recently wrote on the impacts of stress on relationships. People with anxiety disorders are constantly dealing with elevated levels of stress. The symptoms of anxiety disorders are very similar to those of depression, and these extended periods of stress often result in anxiety disorders causing depression.
Who are you? What makes you “you”? Some people talk about the separation between the body and the soul, and the idea is usually that the soul is the essence of what makes you who you are. It’s your thoughts, feelings, emotions and memories. These are what make us who we are, and what makes us human.
That’s a problem with changes to moods and emotions. It’s easy to see these things as “who we are”, or “how we truly feel” about things. But what if we can’t trust them?
One problem about moods, feelings and emotions is that they are affected by our mental state. At some level we know this happens. I suspect everyone would admit that they have had days where they are frustrated and irritable, and as a result inadvertently lashed out at someone (displacing anger and frustration from something else).
With mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, these “bad days” can become the norm. Moods change and emotions change.
Some of the main symptoms are irritability and bouts of anger. Difficulty sleeping (which likely contributes to irritability and emotional volatility). There’s also tiredness and a lack of energy, a feeling of hopelessness or being trapped, and issues dealing with stress.
Impacts on Relationships
Anxiety and Depression can be devastating for the person who is suffering from them. But they also take a considerable toll for both members of a relationship.
For the person who is suffering, the illness can break down feelings of love, and lead them to question whether or not they actually do love their partner. We are taught to trust our feelings. So when the “feeling” isn’t there, it’s easy to conclude that the reason is because the love has broken down. Often the affected person doesn’t understand why the feelings are gone. They may not be able to identify why they don’t feel affection any more. They may want to, and they may mourn the loss. But because of the chemical changes in their brain, they are unable to feel for their partner.
Ironically, although they find it hard to maintain feelings of long term love they are still able to feel the oxytocin fueled feelings of “new love” – which can act as “proof” or validation that something was wrong with the initial relationship. Research on depression shows that someone suffering from depression has an increased probability of having an affair, as a way of trying to fill the feelings of emptiness inside and “feel alive” again.
For the partner who isn’t suffering, it can be difficult to watch the person you love withdraw. There is a sense of walking on eggshells, as you aren’t sure what to do to help. And the relationship often becomes characterized by cycles of withdrawal and anger. It causes immense stress, and often the “healthy” partner ends up falling into a depression themselves.
There are a lot of books on depression and how it impacts people, but for a look at the ways depression can impact relationships I recommend reading Depression Fallout by Anne Sheffield. She has lived both sides of depression, and has some valuable insights into it.
Earlier I said it didn’t matter whether a relationship is damaged by a mental illness or the whether the depression was caused by relationship issues. This is because most literature on illnesses like depression say that you should never make significant life choices (such as changes in jobs and relationships) while depressed because of the way illnesses can impact feelings of love and closeness.
When feelings and emotions are impaired, making significant decisions is similar to getting behind the wheel of a car while drunk. You may “get by” safely. But you may also do significant damage, to both yourself, your loved ones and your future. It’s important to try to address the illness first.
Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety can be treated effectively, but unfortunately only around half of the people dealing with a mental illness ever seek help.
If you are having problems in your relationship, and struggling with putting in the effort needed to turn things around because you believe things will never get better, keep in mind that it may not just be an issue with the relationship. Especially if you are having a hard time pinpointing what is “wrong” with the relationship, it may be a sign of something else.
If so, talk to your doctor and tell them exactly how you are feeling. You might just be able to save your relationship, or prevent it from breaking down unnecessarily.