I was recently asked to compose an article for Kathy Rushing at The Good Marriage Project . In the article, I share about how spouses can best support their loved ones who are suffering through cycles of depression. I also include 5 things a spouse can say to a sufferer to help them through the darkness. For additional biblical counseling resources about depression, please click here to view an entire page devoted to the topic.
My eyes were as wet as the dishes I was washing. The clouds of tears didn’t stop me from scrubbing as hard as I could, hoping somehow the clean of the sink might also mean the clean of my bleeding broken heart.
I was at the bottom of a two-week low—a particularly deep cycle of depression that I hadn’t visited in some time. Wading through the hormones, uncertain circumstances, and the barrage of mental assaults darting through my brain, I surrendered the soapy sponge and crumbled my head down to the counter.
This can’t be who I really am—this angry, bitter, spiteful miserable excuse for a person. But what if…maybe…it is? What if this is the real me?
As despair rung my neck tighter than a noose, I limped to the bathroom floor to curl up and cry. Feeling like a dying soldier on a bloody battlefield, I suffered the full weight of my brokenness. In pits such as these, there is no prayer, no Scripture, no consolation—just deep groans of a creature longing for redemption, mortal moans only the Spirit can interpret.
Depression Demands Hard Love
For the Christian fighting against depression, there’s an intersection where the gluttony of the “old man” and the thirst for the “new man” meet head-on. At this crossroads of contrast, where wretchedness and newness collide, the mental onslaught is at its most fierce. And at this break in the back, where despondency wrenches the hardest, the depressed are the hardest to love.
Naturally, when we witness our loved ones going through a dark place, we want to do everything in our power to make them better. Like a parent tending to a sick child, we scour for just the right combinations of antidotes that will alleviate the symptoms and ultimately make them well once again.
But with depression, quick fixes fall flat. One cannot always tell if the source of the depression is spiritual, physical, or psychological in nature—or perhaps a terrible combination of the three. And, as Ed Welch writes, “depression has a logic of its own. Once it settles in, it can’t distinguish between a loving embrace, the death of a close friend, and the news that a neighbor’s grass is growing.”
Called Not to Heal, But to Love
The complicated nature of depression, and its resistance to hasty alleviation, causes a particular strain upon a marriage. The struggle squeezes all patience out of a supporting spouse, often ringing them empty of stamina and compassion. Before long, both spouses reach the end of themselves: one starved for the return of the light, the other starved for the return of their love.
Spouses of sufferers must come to accept which roles they’re given to play in the battle, and which they are not. There is a circle of responsibility to consider when caring for someone fighting any sort of sickness: what does God ask me to do, and what can only be done by God?
Above and beyond helping your spouse seek the appropriate physical care and biblical counseling, there is a difficult—yet simplistic—task assigned. The spouse of a suffer is not called to make their role one of a healer, but a lover. Yes, God calls you to love the unloveable with the grace, mercy, and love of Jesus Christ. And only by Christ’s Spirit is this hard love possible, especially when you’re being pushed away by the one you’re trying to help.
Five Things to Say When Your Spouse is Depressed
It is helpful to understand that the mind of someone who is traversing a deep darkness is temporarily unable to chew large chunks of life. Indeed, their vision and thoughts have been narrowed; blessings appear non-existent and curses appear magnified ten-thousand-fold. Even the Scriptures, once treasured by the sufferer, seem as echoes of hope too far to grasp. In this delicate state of despondency, there is little that is immediately helpful, and much that is immediately hurtful.
The ministry of presence—of being there to attend to basic physical needs, to give a hug, a pat on the back, a hand to hold—may be all that the sorrowing one can tolerate for a time. These simple services, accompanied by the following concise empathies, can help a loved one journey across the foggy path to restoration.
- “What it’s like?” Often the question, “What’s wrong?” can lead down a winding, endless road. The sufferer may not be able to eloquently describe (or even discernibly know) why they’re feeling the way they do. Instead, aim at helping them express how they feel through metaphor: Overwhelmed by crashing waves, trapped in quicksand, abandoned in a pit. Psalm 88 contains many metaphors a sufferer may gravitate toward when words are hard to come by. Acknowledge their explanation simply: “Feeling that way must be really hard.”
- “I’m here for you.” Smothering is not helpful, but assuring the sufferer you won’t abandon them is. Right or wrong, depression often feels like a journey that must be traveled alone for a time. Assure your loved one that you are committed to be patient, steadfast, and available—that when they yearn for companionship to return, you’ll be there to welcome them back.
- “Let me pray for us.” Pray aloud over the sufferer and your marriage. Even if the sorrowing appears unwilling or uninterested in your words, do it anyway. Although you may feel helpless to effect immediate change upon the situation, your prayers communicate that hope in God will ultimately carry you through.
- “You’ll feel better soon.” When consolation leaves the lips of a spouse, it’s a statement of hope—a recognition that even though the sufferer may not believe it, someone else whole-heartedly does. And in the darkest of places, the belief that someone else knows this too shall pass is a tremendously bright drop of hope in an otherwise murky water.
- “God won’t leave you this way.” Remind your spouse of God’s previous faithfulness to bear them up out of the pits. He has lifted the fog and restored the joy of their salvation times before. He will do it again, they need only remember to wait.
Depression is rarely experienced sinlessly, which makes loving someone who struggles in this way a terribly difficult challenge. However, your role as spouse is not to convict and cure, it is to comfort and care. Let the biblical counselor work with the Holy Spirit to deal head on with any sin issues that require repentance. Keep on your marital task by loving your one broken flesh through the pain; by restoring the weak in a spirit of gentleness while sharing the load of their burden, being careful not to fall into sin yourself (Gal. 6:1–2). As Welch confirms, “You are working together to walk a difficult path. Sometimes you will be doing the heavy lifting, but if you are walking together you will look for ways to share the load.”