I just don’t know what to do with him” complained Jade to her girlfriend over coffee, “he’s become such a downer! He always seems to have a grumpy or sulky look on his face, he’s never interested in going out with our friends, he’s stopped playing his sport (which he always loved), he’s up half the night then complains the next day that he’s tired, he whinges that he’s hopeless at his job but won’t do anything about it, he forgets the simplest of things and loses his train of thought mid-sentence, and worst of all … he NEVER wants to have sex!
Whilst many of us can relate to Jade’s plight and roll our eyes in empathy, she may be dealing with more than simply a case of Mr Grumpy Pants. The symptoms she is describing are common signs of depression and may indicate that he needs more than a swift “snap out of it!” from his partner. Depression is a very common condition and has a huge impact on relationships, especially when one partner is depressed and the other, confused.
Around one million Australian adults and 100,000 young people live with depression each year. On average, one in six people will experience depression in their lifetime; one in five females and one in eight males.
Depression plays havoc with relationship dynamics and is certain to throw out the typical balance of power, structure, communication and intimacy. Often, the partners of depressed people start to feel isolated within the relationship and feel that they ‘miss’ their partner, even though they are right there. When a man is depressed in a heterosexual relationship, the traditional sex roles can be impacted as his sense of power and control diminishes, and he loses his sense of evolutionary dominance. This can be further emphasised if his partner steps up to take the relationship reins, thus reversing the balance of power, and often division of labour, in the home. Whilst in post-feminist modern times we rarely make conscious choices in line with traditional sex role stereotypes, at the unconscious level our traditional selves are alive and well. This can lead to added confusion and frustration for a woman whose partner looses interest in his typical manly tasks, leaving her to fend for herself.
So how can you tell if your man is depressed, rather than just grumpy, lazy or annoying?
Moodiness that is out of character – more than the typical grumpiness that follows a football team loss, this is an unpredictable mood that lasts for days or weeks on end. When your man is in a normal grumpy mood, he might be shaken out of it when a positive event occurs, e.g. playing with his child, a win at work or his footy team triumphs the following week. With the more serious end of the moodiness spectrum, it seems that nothing will shake him out of it. This can lead to you feeling helpless, like nothing you do will make him happy.
Increased irritability and frustration – when your man goes from Zero to The Incredible Hulk in a matter of moments, he can be pretty hard to live with. You might start to notice that the small annoyances in life that he would usually take in his stride become overwhelming and he quickly becomes agitated. For example, if he stubs his toe, accidentally breaks a plate, forgets to record a TV show or runs out of petrol, he moves straight into irritability or anger mode without passing through his usual rational mode or putting things in perspective. This can leave you walking on egg shells.
Finding it hard to take minor personal criticisms – when your man is feeling super-sensitive it can be very difficult to transact your normal household life. Asking him to take out the rubbish, telling him he has toothpaste on his tie or suggesting that matching socks might work better, could potentially lead to a strong emotional reaction. Whether he withdraws or blows up, his reaction is likely to be out of proportion and may seem unreasonable to you.
Spending less time with friends and family – more than your typical avoidance of in-laws or bailing out on a picnic on a rainy day, this is about avoiding social situations that would usually bring him joy, satisfaction or a sense of wellbeing. As a couple, your social lives might be intertwined so when he opts out of social events it can have an impact on you. Making excuses for him or trying to conceal the fact that he’s sitting at home rather than having dinner with friends can be awkward and embarrassing for you.
Loss of interest in food, sex, exercise or other pleasurable activities – the things that he used to enjoy become too much energy and effort for him. You might notice his discipline around diet and exercise slipping, his desire to read his favourite magazine or try the latest gourmet food or wine, no longer taking an interest for him. Perhaps one of the greatest areas of impact for you is your sex life. When your man seems to actively avoid sex or blatantly knocks you back, it’s hard not to feel rejected and inevitably, your own self esteem takes a hit.
Being awake throughout the night – disturbed sleeping patterns is common in depression. At one extreme, he may develop insomnia and stay awake (thus, keeping you awake) throughout the night. At the other end of the scale, he may be sleepy and low energy all the time, opting to stay in bed and sleep rather than go to work or engage in social activities. Either way, his changing nocturnal habits are going to impact you and your capacity to get a good night’s sleep.
Increased alcohol and drug use – whilst a couple of drinks at the end of a busy day might be just what he needs to ‘take the edge off’, abusing booze or other drugs may become a way of avoiding his thoughts and feelings or just numbing the pain. This is clearly one of the more serious behaviour changes you might notice in your man, and certainly a warning sign that things are not ok with him.
Increased physical health complaints like fatigue or pain – keep any eye on your man’s physical complaints. Of course, sometimes a headache is just a headache, but if he starts to complain about ongoing pain or fatigue, there may be more to it.
Being reckless or taking unnecessary risks – what if your man starts driving dangerously, experimenting with drugs, stops taking a medication or plays recklessly with his power tools? Outside of the normal testosterone driven behaviour, if your man is depressed he may start to take risks with his health and safety and this should ring alarm bells for you.
Slowing down of thoughts and actions – forgetting things, losing his train of thought mid sentence, taking a long time to solve simple problems, getting easily confused – these are all signs that your man’s cognitive processes may not be working effectively.
If your man is showing five or more of the above signs, he may be experiencing depression.
So, what next?
The first and most important thing for you to do is adopt a mindset of compassion and support. Easier said than done, right? Your man is annoying you, he’s causing you social embarrassment, he’s drinking too much, lazing around in bed and forgetting to do the most basic of things!
He’s so frustrating!
Your first job is to take a deep breath and to move out of the judgement and blame zone. This might be hard to do, but it’s very important if you want to help him. Rather than judging and getting annoyed, focus on listening to understand his perspective. Empathy is one of the most critical skills you can draw on here – try to minimise the impact on yourself while you focus on him and see things from his perspective. Remember, if your man is depressed, he may not provide a rational or even logical explanation for his behaviour. Don’t try to evaluate him from a logical place, just listen, empathise and support him for where he is at. Here are some suggestions for things you might say to help him:
- Be on His Side
- Rather than saying “why can’t you get out of bed?” try “You seem to have trouble getting out of bed in the mornings. What can I do to make this easier for you?”
- If he has lost perspective, avoid saying “what’s your problem, you’re upset about nothing” and instead try something like “I can see this issue is a big deal for you at the moment. Can we solve it together?”
- Give Plenty of Reassurance
- If depressed, your man may feel unworthy of being valued or loved. You need to reassure him frequently. For example “I love you for who you are. I am not going anywhere.”
- Try to help him by drawing attention to his positive attributes, e.g. or “You are successful in your work and sport”, “You are so caring and loving, a great partner”, “You have been there for me and I’d love to return the favour”.
- Show Understanding and Empathy
- If your man is depressed he may spend a lot of time ruminating on his situation and feeling sorry for himself. Pointing it out to him is not helpful. Instead, try to understand and offer support, e.g.
- “All I want to do is give you a hug and a shoulder to cry on.”
- “I can’t honestly say that I know how you feel, but I want to help in any way I can.”
- Offer to Help
- If you ask him “What is the best thing I can do to help you right now?” don’t be offended if he replies “Leave me alone”. Helping someone with depression can sometimes mean doing nothing.
- On the other hand, depression can leave him feeling incapable of even the simplest tasks. Offering some practical help, like picking up things from the shops, could provide him with great relief.
You can also help your man by providing information. For instance, you can direct him to the Beyond Blue website. They have a page dedicated to Men and Depression, with some fantastic research findings and fact sheets (click here).
If you sense he is in crisis and needs to speak with someone urgently, you can provide him with resources such as:
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
MensLine Australia 1300 78 9978
Lifeline 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
In order to help your man to deal with his depression and make sustainable change in his life, the best solution is for him to engage with a qualified and experienced health professional. If he speaks to his GP and asks for a Mental Health Care Plan he will be referred to a registered psychologist and will be eligible for Medicare rebates.
So start tuning into your man’s words and behaviour.
Is he really Mr Grumpy Pants or is there something more serious going on for him? Remember to adopt a mindset of compassion and support, and try not to judge him. The frustrating behaviours he is demonstrating are the illness, not him. Remind yourself why you fell in love with him in the first place and shower him with love.