7 Ways Your Depressed Husband Shows Up In Couples Therapy

depressed husband

Your Depressed Husband and Couples Therapy

We have been studying men like your depressed husband in couples therapy for more than twenty years. Many researchers now believe that a depressed husband acts out in couples therapy in one of two problematic ways:

  • They Use Emotional Camouflage. The “Guy Code” and “Normative Male Alexithymia” require them to embrace the norms of stoic endurance, quiet self-possession, mental toughness, and self-reliance (Pollack, 1999).  If they are in full-on camo, depressed husbands will show up as irritable, withdrawn, self-medicated, and/or somewhat pissed-off.
  • They Feel Ashamed, Incompetent, and Fear Failure. Perhaps the biggest issue in working with depressed husbands in couples therapy is that all-purpose therapists sell the depressed husband short. While it’s true that some depressed husbands avoid discussing the quality of their intimacy with their partner, it’s often because they feel uncomfortable and unsure of themselves (Shepherd, 2005).

The Natural Antagonism Between Your Depressed Husband and Your Couples Therapist

Here is an interesting idea. Depressed Husbands and therapists, regardless of the gender of the therapist, are naturally at odds depressed-husbandwith each other. You can always spot a bad couple’s therapist by the speed and certainty in which they clearly identify the depressed husband as the problem. Here are 4 ways husbands may act out and wind up in couples therapy:

  • Men have a much more difficult time containing their anger, and tend to stonewall when flooded (Gottman, 1999).
  • Men lead women ( although women are rapidly catching up) in the role of being unfaithful (Peluso, 2007).
  • Men have far more difficulty identifying, and talking about, vulnerable emotions (Levant, 1995) and (Wexler, 2007).
  • Men are more likely to be chronically emotionally unavailable, ambivalent, and even resistant to the couples therapy process (Englar-Carlson & Shepard, 2005).

Couples therapists, both skilled and unskilled, male or female, share a natural affinity with wives. Like the wives, they believe it’s a good idea to talk about feelings, ask for help, and express vulnerability. A depressed husband’s resistance to these values is where the skill of a highly trained science-based couples therapist is put to the test.


How Your Depressed Husband Can Be Supported in Couples Therapy

The challenge in working with depressed husbands in couples therapy is that it may take more energy for the therapist to establish a strong bond with him.

But the couples therapist can’t focus too intently on the depressed husband that they alienate his perhaps long-suffering wife.

Evoking vulnerable emotion from the depressed husband is the key. With the stoic denial of feelings, intellectualizing & defensive reactions, depressed husbands require more direct attention in the first few hours of the first day of the couples therapy intensive.

Two research studies have shown that the quality of the therapeutic bond between the husband and the couples therapist was oddly more predictive of outcome than the quality of the bond with his wife (Bourgeois, Sabourin, & Wright, 1990) and (Symonds & Horvath, 2004).

It’s important to try to balance attention with both partners, but depressed husbands might need a little extra attention early on to get them onboard (Garfield, 2004). Research shows that an important measure of success in couples therapy is how well and how quickly your therapist can emotionally connect with your depressed husband. Be patient. It’s worth it.

The 7 Challenging Ways the Depressed Husband Shows Up in Couples Therapy

  • Complaining about being “ganged-up” on in couples therapy (Englar-Carlson & Shepard, 2005).
  • Exhibiting “tells” which suggest an inner feeling of Shame. They may avoid eye-contact, look down, or turn away from their partner during a conversation in couples therapy.
  • Showing up as a prickly pear; reacting sharply to even mild criticism.
  • Making either sarcastic or apparently sincere self-critical comments.
  • Exhibiting a cynical, fatalistic, and pessimistic outlook.
  • They may actively resist any attempt by the couples therapist to facilitate a meaningful dialogue with his spouse.
  • Becoming furious instead of curious, and complain about being the “designated problem”

How to Introduce the Elephant in the Room to the Depressed Husband and his Spouse

depressed-husbandHow do you draw attention to the depressed husband and his spouse to the notion that he is, well…depressed?

This is fraught with peril. If we go right at it, the depressed husband may hear us as just saying he is, once again, the “designated problem.”

We may also run the risk of over-focusing on his perceived deficits, which might erode any progress we have earned is building a therapeutic bond with him.

This is where clinical skill is important. we must encourage a mutual curiosity in both partners, and do so in an uncertain and humble way.

The ultimate goal is to get the depressed husband and his wife talking about his inner experience. This invites empathy and insight into the therapy process. It’s helpful for the couples therapist to offer the observation that the depression is an aggravating factor, but the depressed husband is not solely the problem.

A good couples therapist will be capable of initiating and sustaining a dialogue with your depressed husband about his feelings. But a great couples therapist will be able to initiate, sustain, and hand-off that dialogue to your depressed husband and you. In Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy, this is called an “enactment.”

Creating a safe place for you both to discuss the Elephant in the Room without your poor depressed husband feeling blamed or shamed is the goal. The therapist has several tools in the toolbox to accomplish this.

First, they go slow. They listen carefully for metaphor, feeling words, and not-so feeling words at first (Rabinowitz & Cochran, 2002). Going too fast into feeling is a common rookie mistake with a depressed husband just entering couples therapy.

How an Excellent Couples Therapist Will Engage With Your Depressed Husband

For example, it ‘s probably futile to ask your depressed husband “how do you feel about that?” But “what’s it look like from your side of the street?” may go down a lot easier. We know that your depressed husband will admit (perhaps grudgingly at first) that talking about his marriage is an extremely difficult, but necessary and unavoidable part of the process (Rabinowitz & Cochran, 2002).

But it’a common blunder for the couples therapist to lay on the empathy too thickly at first. All-purpose therapists may mean well, but chestnuts like “It takes a lot of courage even come here…” or “I admire you for having the strength to reach out…”  tend to reinforce instead of relieving the very shame he’s feeling just sitting there in couples therapy (Osherson & Krugman, 1990).

depressed-husbandA better move is something like “What’s it like for you to be here right now? or ” It’s pretty typical to feel a little uneasy about what we’re going to do here…I was just wondering if that describes it for you right now? 

An excellent couples therapist will know that your depressed husband probably already feels a little defeated just being in couples therapy. This isn’t necessarily a problem. It provides an opportunity to discuss what’s real for him right now.

Another thing. EFT reminds us of the importance of metaphor. Normative Male Alexithymia blocks access to feelings, but a powerful metaphor can free up the inner log jam of feelings (Shay & Maltas, 1998). The skillful use of metaphor is an essential tool in the science-based model of Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy.

A good couples therapist will also normalize ambivalent feelings by modeling self-disclosure. The twin tools of using the client’s metaphors (or offering some that might seem appropriate), and skillfully self-disclosing are a sign that you and your depressed husband are with a competent evidence-based couples therapist.

Talking About the “Guy Code” With the Depressed Husband

It’s important to talk about what depressed husbands do with feelings, and not buy into the notion that they don’t have any. It’s also useful to help depressed husbands understand their historic relationship to grief and sadness, and how their families and relationships with intimate others shape their inner emotional world

Depressed husbands in couples therapy can be tough. They are often reluctant, if not resentful clients. They may need more TLC than their wives early on. A good science-based couples therapist will have a rich understanding of the “guy code” and will be able to discuss socialization with empathy. A good couples therapist will also not be triggered by resistance and will be open and free of judgment. These men need patience, empathy, and humility from their couples therapist.

Working with depression is a fundamental skill in couples therapy. About 7% of Americans are clinically depressed, but over depressed husband40% of couples who present for couples therapy have at least one depressed partner. But understanding the nature of a depressed husband, and engaging with him quickly and empathetically is an important skill for a couples therapist.

Many poorly trained couples therapists bristle at the notion of gender politics in the therapy room. That’s a mistake. Sure, a depressed husband can be difficult, but that doesn’t necessarily identify him as the singular, designated problem.

Depression is an overwhelming challenge in modern marriages. Over half of all depressed husbands report having marital conflict. And we also know that depressive episodes are often the threshold events that precede incidents of bickering and fighting. Gottman tells us that when all the four horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling) show up, and the depressed husband is unwilling to accept influence from his wife, the likelihood of divorce is 93%.

Research by Johnson & Jacob, (2000) and Benazon & Coyne, (2000) confirms Gottman’s Data. Depression is a huge problem in couples therapy, and the depressed husband typically requires careful handling from the start.


        …Because Depression May Only Be Part of the Problem.

Call us for more information 844-926-8753 to reach me, Daniel Dashnaw, use option 2


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