The Impact of Postpartum Depression on Your Relationship
When Beth imagined motherhood, she pictured her and her husband John, lying in their bed on a Saturday morning. She imagined their little baby perfectly content lying between them. Beth and John would lovingly look at each other, and think how lucky they were to have this beautiful baby and perfect family*...
… What Beth did not imagine is being up at 3:00 AM with a colicky, screaming baby, feeling alone, depressed, and resentful as her husband is sound asleep in the next room. Beth is filled with feelings of guilt and worthlessness as she thinks to herself: ‘this is not the life I pictured. I must be a terrible mother. My family would be better off without me.’
No one asks to get depressed after the birth of a new baby. No one imagines that this new addition to their family will leave them feeling isolated and alone. No one chooses to be irritable and resentful towards their partner. And no one wants to think that their family would be better off without them. But this is what happens if you’re one of the 20% of women or 10% of men who experience perinatal depression or anxiety after the birth of a baby.
The high degree of stress during the early postpartum months leads to a reduction in marital satisfaction and increased marital conflict. According to The Gottman Institute, 67% of couples report decreased marital happiness within the first few years of their baby’s life. This picture is even more complicated when looking at couples who have suffered from Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders. Studies show that postpartum depression is linked with higher incidents of marital dysfunction and marital problems, including lack of partner closeness, support, and satisfaction. This is especially true of the husbands of women with postpartum depression who report less satisfaction in their marriage and feel less capable as parents and partners as compared to husbands of postpartum women who are not depressed.
In the case of Beth and John, John recognized that his wife was acting differently. She was withdrawn and cold. She was hyper-focused on the baby and always worried. He was used to his wife being capable and confident. She had been so excited to start a family. But now, he hardly recognized the woman in front of him and didn’t know what to do. John was scared. Feeling helpless and alone, John did nothing.
Postpartum depression places a strain on a marriage. Even after postpartum symptoms have improved and healthier coping methods have emerged, couples struggle to find their way back to each other. If you’re suffering from postpartum depression, the last thing you want to do is consider the effects depression has on your marriage. If your partner is depressed, you may be uncomfortable to talk about what’s going on for fear of further agitating your partner. But you don’t have to let your relationship suffer due to postpartum depression. You can work through hurt feelings, distorted thoughts and misinterpretations in therapy.
Through couples therapy, my clients learn new things about their partner and each other. With time, patience and support, they find healing and newfound strength in their road to recovery. In conjunction with therapy, here are some suggestions for you and your partner.
If you’re depressed, try these tips with your partner:
Set the tone for good communication by creating a safe space to speak openly about your thoughts and feelings. It’s important for you not to assume that your partner knows how you are feeling. Actively listen to your partner’s thoughts and feelings about what’s happening to you and your family, and respond without reacting. Acknowledge how having a baby and being depressed has impacted your relationship, your quality time and your sexual intimacy.
Getting the help that you need
Be very specific about what you need, this includes practical support and emotional support. Acknowledge the things that your partner is doing and express gratitude.
Keep the healthy partner healthy
When one partner is depressed, there is a greater risk for the other partner to become depressed too. The non-suffering partner needs to take care of himself so that he can provide support and take on more responsibilities and tasks during this time of crisis.
Find a therapist who specializes in this area to help you
Postpartum depression is treatable, and with the right kind of help, you do not need to suffer for long. Engage in couple’s therapy so your partner is able to participate in treatment and also receive support. Recognize that you’re not alone; many couples struggle with postpartum depression and get through it.
For the non-suffering partner:
Watching your once capable partner suffer from depression is not what you expected when you decided to start your family and can be quite painful. Even though you try to be supportive, you might be feeling helpless.
Here is what you’re up against
- If you tell her not to worry; she’ll think you have no idea how bad she really feels
- If you tell her that she’s a good mother; she won’t believe you
- If you tell her you will come home early to help with the baby; she’ll feel guilty
- If you tell her that you need to work late; she’ll think you don’t care
Here is what to say
- “I’m sorry that you’re suffering, this must feel awful and isn’t your fault."
- “We are in this together. We will get through this.”
- “The baby loves you. I love you and I am not going anywhere.”
- “You will get better. This is temporary. Let’s think about getting professional help.”
Dealing with her irritability:
Don’t Personalize It
Try not to take it personally when she is irritable. But also do not allow yourself to become a verbal punching bag. It is not good for either of you. You feel bad and she feels guilty after saying hurtful things to you.
Do your best to hear her underlying frustrations when you are listening to her. Try not to fix or problem solve at the moment. Instead, try just listening and holding the space for her.
Communicate what you are feeling calmly and respectfully. If you’re scared, tell her you’re scared. Acknowledge that you have noticed that she is not acting like herself and offer help and support.
Address her mental and physical health
Make sure that she is eating throughout the day; low blood sugar results in low distress tolerance and frustration, which will cause increased irritability. Allow her uninterrupted sleep when you can as sleep deprivation also causes increased irritability.
Practical things partners can do:
- Help around the house
- Set limits with friends and family
- Go with her to doctor’s appointments and come prepared with questions
- Educate yourself about Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders and schedule a couple’s therapy session
- Let her get five-hours uninterrupted sleep by doing some late-night feedings
- Spend one-on-one time together—no TV, no phones, no distractions. Provide the space to let her just be
- When it comes to intimacy, be patient and respectful
- Encourage her to get professional help and find experts who treat maternal depression
- Try couple’s therapy to work on relationship issues
Keep in mind:
- You did not cause her illness and you can’t take it away
- She just needs you to listen as she is probably feeling alone and scared right now
- Take care of yourself too; partners can get depressed during or after a partner’s maternal depression
- Often it is harder to deal with things when we have not gotten sleep. Allow her to get at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep
While postpartum depression is a crisis that can have serious effects on you and your partner, it is a treatable disorder that many couples experience. By taking the proper steps to help you and your partner, postpartum depression can be brief and healed from without serious ramifications to your family and marriage. Think you or your loved one is experiencing postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety, call or email Jamie Kreiter, LCSW for a free phone consultation.
* For the purpose of this piece, I reference marital relationships and defer to "mother" as the partner who birthed the baby and maybe the one experiencing a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder, as this is statistically most common. Please be aware that the topics discussed impact same-sex couples and couples who are married and not married. All families, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, marital status, culture, race or religious beliefs should be treated with equality and respect.
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