NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Caregiving For a Depressed Mother as a Child and a Depressed Spouse as an Adult

People often unconsciously choose a spouse who has similar characteristics to one or both parents (see my article:  Overcoming the Guilt You Feel For Not Being Able to Heal Your Parent's Emotional Wounds and How to Stop Being the "Rescuer" in Your Family of Origin).
Caregiving For a Depressed Mother as a Child and a Depressed Spouse as an Adult
A child, who was the emotional caregiver for a depressed parent, will often unconsciously choose a spouse who is depressed and recreate a similar caregiving dynamic with the spouse.

The following fictionalized vignette illustrates how these patterns are repeated and how therapy can help:

Emma grew up in a loving, nurturing home.  She was the youngest of three children in a close-knit extended family.  Both parents were actively involved in the children's lives, although the father was often away on business.

Emma's mother was well liked by her neighbors for her kindness and generosity.  She was very proud of Emma and Emma's sisters, and she instilled confidence in them.  She encouraged their curiosity and creativity, and she taught them that they could be whatever they wanted to be.

As the youngest, Emma was closest to her mother.  By the time Emma was about to start school, her sisters were already involved in high school activities and out of the house most of the time.  As a result, Emma spent a lot of time alone with her mother.

Emma's Mother: Caregiving For a Depressed Mother as a Child and a Depressed Spouse as an Adult

For a young child, Emma was especially perceptive, and she realized that her mother was depressed--even though her mother was loving and active in Emma's life and she tried her best to hide her depression from Emma and the rest of the family.

Emma worried about her mother, and she spent most of her time at home trying to enliven her mother and make her laugh. There were days when Emma's jokes and funny stories seemed to lift her mother's mood.  But there were other days when it seemed that nothing Emma could do would lift her mother's spirits and Emma felt very sad on those days.

As Emma got older and she developed friendships and outside interests, she continued to feel that her primary responsibility was to lift her mother's spirits. Realizing that Emma felt overly responsible for her, her mother would encourage Emma to pursue her friendships and interests.  She didn't want Emma to sacrifice her happiness.

By the time Emma graduated from high school, she felt deeply ambivalent about going away to college, even though her parents and older sisters encouraged her.  She worried that her mother would sink into an even deeper depression if she wasn't around to try to enliven her.

She had a hard time adjusting to being away from home during her first year at college, and she took every opportunity to go home on weekends to spend time with her mother.  She would also often bring home friends that she thought would be entertaining for her mother.

In her junior year, she met Tom.  She liked that Tom was a serious philosophy major, who was intelligent, knowledgeable and curious.  Soon they were spending a lot of time together.

Emma's friends at college teased her about Tom because they thought he was dour.  But Emma brushed off their criticism and told them that they didn't know him, they were judging him only from his outer appearance, and they couldn't appreciate all of the qualities that she saw in him.

Soon after they graduated college, Emma and Tom got married and began working. Emma found her dream job working as a journalist.  But Tom was unable to find the type of job he hoped for after he graduated college.  Part of the problem was that he had definite ideas of what he wanted and refused to compromise.  As a result, he did temp work.

Emma and Tom: Caregiving For a Depressed Mother as a Child and a Depressed Spouse as an Adult

Emma was very aware that Tom felt depressed and discouraged about his work situation, so she refrained from gushing about her work.  Instead, she tried to be emotionally supportive of Tom, but he didn't respond well to her trying to lift his spirits.  He would become annoyed with her and mostly wanted to spend time alone.

This left Emma feeling lonely and helpless, and when she tried to talk to Tom about it, he refused to address the problems between them.  He expressed his resentment that she was so happy with her work, and he felt miserable.

Soon, Emma was spending most of her free time with her friends because Tom refused to go out.  She was deeply concerned about Tom and their marriage, but there was nothing that she could do.

As time went on, Emma was promoted into a more responsible position with a big salary increase. She was also given more interesting assignments.  But Tom continued to stagnate.  Emma encouraged him to get help in therapy, but he refused to go.

Two years later, their marriage was over.  Tom moved out to live with his parents across the country, and Emma was in despair.

Shortly after that, Emma began therapy to try to understand what happened and to pick up the pieces of her life.  Her psychotherapist helped Emma to see how she had been in a similar dynamic with Tom as she had been with her mother.

Although Emma's mother and Tom experienced their depression in different ways and had their own unique responses to Emma's attempts at caregiving, they elicited similar responses in Emma.

While she was in therapy, Emma also saw her blind spots about Tom.  Looking back with the perspective of time, she realized that there were signs before she got married that Tom was depressed and rigid in his thinking, but she didn't want to see these traits.  She also saw her role in the demise of their marriage and how she infantilized Tom.

Emma grieved in therapy for the loss of her marriage as she went through the divorce process.  She also learned in therapy that she had a propensity to be a caregiver in a relationship due to her early relationship with her mother, and she would need to be much more aware of this in the future so she would not repeat the same patterns.

Emotional dynamics between parents and children are developed at an early age.

As in the fictionalized vignette above, these dynamics are often unconscious for both parent and child.

When a child grows up feeling emotionally responsible for a parent, this often sets up the possibility for similar dynamics in adult relationships on an unconscious level, which often leads to problems in the relationship for both individuals.

Getting Help in Therapy
Both people in the relationship need to be willing to change these unhealthy dynamics to make healthy changes.

It can be very challenging to overcome these dynamics on your own, even if one or both people are aware of them and willing to change, which is why working with a skilled psychotherapist can be helpful.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome unhealthy emotional patterns in their lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.