When Relationships Worsen After Mothers Recover From Postpartum Depression

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broken heartThe women who I see in my office constantly amaze me.  These women work hard.  They ask themselves difficult questions and do their best to uncover the answers that resonate most for them.  They face their fears head-on.  They exemplify a braveness that comes from a desire to get well.  And they do.  So often, the women who leave my office for the last time after months of suffering, hard work, and recovery do so with a new sense of self that feels stronger, more clear, and more deserving than before postpartum depression or anxiety walked, uninvited, through their doors.  Many of these women will continue to work with a therapist throughout their lifetime.  Yet, even for these women, there comes a time when their suffering decreases or no longer exists and when the crisis phase of their work is over.

This new self feels hopeful, and optimistic, and at ease.  For many of them.

For these women, now it is time to celebrate, time to realize that being a mom feels more “right” than “wrong”.  Time to celebrate a sky that looks more blue.  Time to get to know a sense of self that feels more forgiving and human.  And a time to (dare we say it?) be happy.

And yet, lately, I have seen a number of these moms back again only weeks after leaving my office for that final session.  Understand, these moms are not back because their postpartum depression symptoms have returned so soon after realizing that they feel better, although this is something that almost every mom fears.  These women are back because something unexpected has resulted from their new, emerging self: their relationships with their partners have seemed to unravel.  And it is a particular type of unraveling, one that feels different from when they were in the depths of postpartum depression despair.  This type of marital/partner conflict seems to come out of recovery at a time when these moms actually feel their best.  Rather than partner conflict coming at a time when these women feel incapable, it is coming at a time when they feel, perhaps, more capable than they ever have before.

Why is this?  Why is it that just when a mom feels happier, better about herself, and more optimistic she feels unable to connect with the person with whom she is the most intimate?  Why is it that as she begins to feel more at ease, her relationship begins to feel even more difficult?

I have heard women say that their spouses/partners make the following statements:

“You have gotten better but you have left me behind!”

“I thought things would be better between us when you got well, but now you seem even more unhappy with me!”

“Why can’t things just be the way they were before postpartum depression?”

Individual change is both exciting and strange, especially when it happens in the context of a relationship.  When a mom recovers from a postpartum mood or anxiety disorder like postpartum depression, she often feels evolved somehow.  She has learned limitless things about herself, including both who she wants to be and what she needs to feel her best.  While PPD may have been an unwelcome and unbelievably traumatic experience, the recovery process can allow for new insights that may have never been uncovered had it not been for the need for exploration.  And, while these moms might have grown and changed through this process, their partners may not have.  Because of this, suddenly, the dynamics of their relationships are different.

Postpartum mood and anxiety disorders change women.  Thankfully, once they have recovered, a large number of these women will say that they have grown from their experiences and that they have changed for the better… the necessity to slow down and explore the pieces that may have contributed to despair (be it lacking self care or awareness about what is needed to feel her best, early childhood or family of origin issues, negative thought patterns and challenging belief systems, or undiagnosed and not yet treated mental illness) has actually created opportunity to grow.  And man, oh man do these women grow.

And so when a partner makes a comment like “why can’t things be like they were before PPD” a new ripple of disconnect can be felt.  Before postpartum depression? Very little remains the same after experiencing a postpartum mood or anxiety disorder. And relationships really do have to adjust to these changes.  It is important to realize that while you may feel like a new and different person, your partner may not… and he or she may simply expect things to go back to “normal” and back to the way that they were before the two of you negotiated this very turbulent journey.

Some couples may not make it though this journey. Statistics tell us that the first year after having a baby is often the most difficult in a couple’s lifetime.  Add postpartum depression into this already chaotic time, and the strength of a partnership may be too tested to remain in tact.  However, before you decide that the two of you are incapable of weathering this storm or that your partner and relationship is unable to change with you, I encourage you to reach out for support from a trained couples therapist, from a spiritual counselor, or from someone else who has the skill and insight to walk you through the particulars of this new challenge, of the struggles and accomplishments of your past, and of the expectations and hopes for moving forward.

It may be that you find your relationship to be as capable as you are.

~ Kate Kripke

Photo credit: © piai – Fotolia.com

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About Kate Kripke

Kate Kripke is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) specializing in the prevention and treatment of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. She is also a Colorado state coordinator for Postpartum Support International. Kate lives in Boulder with her husband and two daughters and writes an eponymous blog.

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  1. I had terrible PPD and was hospitalized after I attempted to take my life. Ten days after I got out of the hospital, my husband asked me for a divorce. I wanted to do couples counseling, but he wasn't interested. He didn't want to work with me through my PPD, so he left me. I am always happy to hear stories of women whose partners stuck by their side. There are some of us, however, that were not this lucky. Thank you, Kate, for writing about this. It makes me feel less alone.

    • Laura, I am so sorry you had to go through that. *hugs*

    • Laura- Thank you for sharing your story… There are many relationships, like yours, that just don't make it through the terrible trauma of a postpartum mood disorder. And, of course, when partners don't truly understand what is happening (and many of them don't), their fear and feelings of vulnerability around their own ability to help can be so immense that the only way through feels like "out." I am hopeful that you are able to connect with others here who share a similar story to yours…

      • Like I said, Kate, thank you for writing about this. Not only could he not handle me, he took my daughter away from me. Six years later I am still fighting for visitation rights. I am so grateful to have found my now husband. He has been everything my ex-husband wasn't and he has given me the love and supprort I need and deserve.

        My postpartum depression has definitely changed me, and I feel it has been for the better. It has humbled me and changed my life focus. I wish PPD never happened to me, but I feel like I have been given a second chance at life and I am excited to see what my future holds for me.

    • Oh Laura. I'm so sorry that happened to you.

      - K

  2. My husband was a rock for me through my PPD/A. When I started to emerge from this 3.5 year battle I was shocked at the state of my marriage. It was close to not being recoverable. I think the problem is, if they do support us through our battle, that they don't want to add the breakup of the marriage to our list of things to have to deal with, so wait until they think we are healthy enough to hand the list of things that are wrong with the marriage. We both agreed that things will NEVER be the same as they were before kids, so we are trying to re-invent our marriage and try to get that connection between us back again.

    One of my husband's biggest complaints was that he supported me, but – even though he intellectually knew the reason why – felt I never supported him during the depression he started experiencing during my illness. He just felt ignored. Lack of sex sure as heck didn't help any. And he did try to explain these things to me at the time, I was just too deep to hear.

    • Melinda- you add SUCH an important insight here…. Many partners DO get depressed or anxious during a mom's illness, and often his/her needs are overlooked in the healing process. While this is not intentional and does also come out of the reality that many men aren't as open about their emotional needs as women are, it is important to realize that it happens. In my practice, I always encourage partners to both come to at least one session with mom and seek out support for themselves through the healing process.

      One of my colleagues here in Boulder- an expert in intimacy and relationships- talks often about the mistake couples make when they try to get "back to the way things were" before kids. These couples will, undoubtedly, become frustrated at their inability to do this. Looking forward and reinventing relationships is what is needed in repair.

  3. Suffered from postpartum psychosis and was also suicidal.. when things got better after 6 months, my husband had started to question who i was as a person. Said that i was different, i changed. How can i not change after all that..By him saying that made me frustrated for him to have the nerve to say such thing… I never asked for ppd and i get stabbed with it and then my husband decides to contributed to the depression. so.. i initiated marriage counselling. after 7 months, it was clear that i had enough.. he was a verbal and mental abuser, very controlling. so i left him summer 2009 and I'm still to this day battleing for sole custody..

    its good to know that we didn't change for the worse like many partners seem to think so, but have adjusted to a new and better person..

    • Not only did you not "change for the worse" Valerie, but you may have also uncovered important (and valid) needs in your relationships that you had not given yourself permission to see before your experience with PPP. Sometimes it takes time to get to know the new person that emerges, and I certainly encourage you- and others- to be open to the strength that comes with a new relatiohship with yourself…

  4. I feel like I'm emerging from my 2+ year battle with PPD and my marriage is a total mess. Like another poster mentioned, my DH also developed depression but the biggest thing he is struggling with is an adult ADHD diagnosis. When we discovered that, I breathed a sigh of relief because it helped explain the majority of our marital issues (and it also contributed to my depression, but we didn't know it at the time). My DH, on the other hand, sees it as a death sentence and is very very hesitant to engage in treatment for it. It will be a miracle if our marriage survives my PPD and his ADHD. I'm not holding out much hope right now.

    • Wow Deb, reading your story is like looking in the mirror–except I can't get my husband to seek an ADHD evaluation because he doesn't "believe in it" (even though his father has been diagnosed and treated for ADHD). I am curious how you encouraged him to seek the diagnosis? Even my sister (a Physician Assistant) wishes he would admit it and seek treatment because it's so clear how much he could benefit from it.

  5. I experienced antenatal depression during my second pregnancy, and I just completely despised my husband during the depth of my depression. He was unemployed at the time, and I didn't think he was looking hard enough for a job. He wasn't showing enough enthusiasm when playing with our toddler. I felt I was carrying all of the burdens of the family by working, being a mother, etc. My list of complaints went on and on and on. Even the way he brushed his teeth annoyed me. It wasn't a good situation.

    He stood by me, and I got treatment as soon as the baby was born. (I was diagnosed so late in my pregnancy that my doctor and I agreed that it made sense in my case to wait before starting medication.)

    As I recovered from my depression, I realized that so many of my criticisms were unfair. I was able to see the good things he did and remember why we'd been happily married for 10+ years. But I also had to confront that there were reasons for some of my depressed thoughts, and we had to be honest with each other. For me, depression lowered my filters. In my cheerful state, I never wanted to hurt anyone's feelings. But depressed me just wanted to tell my husband exactly what I wanted and needed. Depressed me was a bit bitchy and demanding…but actually put my needs before his for the first time in our marriage. Without the depression, I don't know if I would have ever verbalized exactly what I wanted and needed from him.

    My son is almost a year old, and I've fallen back in love with my husband. We are both different people, but I believe our relationship is stronger as a result. We communicate more, and we are more careful of each other's feelings. It wasn't easy, but I finally feel like we made it. And I am happier with him now that I'd been since our honeymoon years.

    If you're suffering from postpartum depression or antenatal depression and reading this, I hope you know you aren't alone. Your relationship might get worse when you recover, but that either gives you the opportunity to fix it or to make a fresh start in life.

    I'm so sorry reading some of the comments here about women left by partners who felt they couldn't deal with PPD. The optimistic part of me believes that those partners weren't worthy of these women who will eventually find a better relationship with someone who appreciates what they've overcome. .

    • sarah freeman says:

      really agree with this, it mirrors my own journey, as do some of the other comments. As I got better, my husband started to go downhill, and so did two of my sons. Something to do with the stress of supporting and witnessing it all. My psych said its a really good sign that I am improving. And things with my huband are improving, but we are def different, and I am much more aware of needs and desires I have squashed down for years. I suspect we will be much much closer after all this refining by fire, and already some things are different, but it is very easy to see where it could go off the rails if we didnt accept that each others intentions are good.

      • Being aware of deeds and desires can feel really difficult at first, can't it? If you are able to hear each other out though, as you describe, this can be the key to a very fulfilling relationship. Stick with it if you feel you are able :-)

    • I am moved by your story, Sarah. What a tribute to hope. I am happy for you both.

  6. Omg…it is so nice to know that I am not the only one who experienced this! I agree that I did emerge from the hell of PPD better than I ever was before. It forced me to look at and take care of depression and anxiety issues that I suffered from looooongbefore PPD. It made me want to get better so that My daughter would not have to grow up with a depressed mother like the one that I had.

    Yet, it seemed as though my husband was not happy and I daresay maybe even a little disappointed with the newer healthier me. Maybe he had grown accustomed to my low self esteem and passivity. The healthier me seems to be"too much" for him to handle. To top it off, he became far more jealous as he felt that my newfound confidence made me look more attractive. Even going as far as to suggest that my better moods were the result of an extramarital affair.

    I guess the biggest issue is that those stressful times exposed rifts in our marriage and differences in our personalities that are just too great to ignore. I also discovered that, under pressure, perhaps he was not who I thought he was. In fact, things weredone and said during that dark time that I feel I still cannot let goof or forgive him for.

  7. My personal experience and what I think:

    My X and I were so pumped I was going to be a Dad and her kids from another marriage were the same. It was a happy time, then my Son was born. Not long after the X became irrational and awkward to deal with, blaming. Later her middle daughter from a previous marriage who assumed my last name turned on me, and later the rest of her family did the same. The only warning I had was a friend (bridesmaid) came to visit after a long period of time and informed me that the “X has gone off”. I did not really understand what she meant but crap got really bad later on. Later, she tried to jump out of the van and fighting with me for the little of details. During a discussion I did not agree with, she ran out in front of an oncoming car. And later, she eventually downed all her meds and her brother blames me saying “you did not want to stop her”. Glad I was on the phone to an RCMP friend of mine at the time she claimed I was letting her do this to herself. I asked my friend what to do and she told me “phone the ambulance” and I did. She spent 3 weeks in the hospital and later she appeared much better. But the tension was still uncomfortable with her family and other kids from the other marriage. For the sake of my son I left the relationship because I had to make sure my child did not suffer stress at so young an age. Later, stuff got better and the X made an effort to make it work with me so (and I waited 3 years to be sure she was doing well), we had a Daughter. Later on, and again she went off the deep-end. I had enough, her middle daughter from the previous marriage just hated me and was jealous of my son. I could not afford my children being damaged. I have stayed away. I feel sorry the women but I will never go beck to her. My kids are fine. They sure do love me and are so accustomed to the visitation. I did it right for the most innocent and influenced. All people need a good foundation to begin life and stress from Post Partum is the worst and most effective way to ruin a child. I have told my male friends to watch out for irrational behavior and get the wife to dr right away. I have lost nothing. I am very happy and my kids adore me.

    About me: I had been severely bullied as a child and when I was 24 met a lady I am still friends with to this day. We lived together 14 years and (during that time in 86 I had a vasectomy to ensure I had no children – result of bullying) and had 2 cats and then one day we ended the relationship..She did not want children but I was getting that powerful urge to have them. I met my now X and she had 3 children from another marriage and seemed a happy women.
    I made an awful mistake suggesting she go off her meds and she did.. I regret that. We lived together for about 4 years and then got married. Her 2 daughters assumed my last name. Then we got married and I got reconnected and it was a success.:). so happy I did that, so happy I have kids, so happy I LEFT! My Son is healthy, lovely kids, really good looking serious.. and his sister is the same. I got all a Dad could ever want and more. I have tried several times to make it work with the X but recently told her I do not trust her depression.. no matter how well she is medicated I just can’t risk it.

    Message for Guys: Careful with Post Partum.. It is like a shotgun hanging on the wall loaded and cocked that somehow falls on the floor and goes off. Stay in touch with your doctors.

  8. Melanie says:

    I just recently am discovering that I may be suffering with ppd. My son is 4 months and I had preeclampsia and had to have an emergency c-section 3 weeks before my due date. I was on 2 medications for blood pressure and was in school full time. About a month ago my partner and I were arguing and I said I wasn’t happy so he left. After I regretted everything and tried to ask him to come home but I was an emotional wreck and so was he and we would end up arguing more. When I took time to think about what I went through and why I was unhappy I realized it could be connected to ppd and being on procartia and a beta blocker which can both cause depression and anxiety which I wasn’t aware of until last week. I was happy in my relationship I was just depressed and now that I’m off the meds I’m slowly starting to feel like myself again but I don’t know if there’s a way to repair my relationship. I’m not sure if I explain my situation if he would hear it or if he would feel like its an excuse.
    So for now I’m taking it a day at a time and focusing on myself and my wonderful son.

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