Why 'white knighting' simply won't work

"I have found that the hardest thing to do in a relationship can be… nothing," writes Paul Chai.

"I have found that the hardest thing to do in a relationship can be… nothing," writes Paul Chai. Photo: Stocksy

Anyone who has slogged it out in a long-term relationship will, at some point, talk about how much hard work it is, and it's true it takes effort to remain in a committed relationship. But I have found that the hardest thing to do in a relationship can be… nothing.

That could be because I have a Y chromosome and want to fix everything, or just because I have the 'White Horse Gene' where I think it is my job as husband and friend to go riding in to save the day. It goes against everything you are taught, and feel instinctively, to let someone you care about just hurt and not do something about it.

But over the past few years my biggest learning curve has been to sit back and let the person I love figure things out.

The biggest lesson started a few years ago when my wife first developed depression. I am not new to the black dog - my mother had it, I am aware of its effects, so I took this as, "Hey, I know what to do here!" I was quick to offer up comparisons, suggestions and loads of (un)helpful advice. This visit from the black dog was a project, something the two of us could get behind and sort out.

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Except we couldn't, because every visit from depression is like a fingerprint, an individual emotional swirl that affects each person differently. And depression cannot be beaten by anyone but the sufferer.

My wife's depression was very different to my mother's struggle, and still I thought if I could just get my wife to start running again, to ring her friends, to see how good she really had things, I could help in her fight.

But instead, I was having dark thoughts myself, I was run down by the effort of trying to help someone who didn't want help, and becoming upset and angry that my partner did not appear to value my assistance in what at times felt like a fight not only for our relationship but for her life.

Finally, when I had exhausted all my useless white knighting, she turned up one afternoon with a small book that she gave to me, as we sat silently on the couch. Living With a Black Dog by Matthew Johnstone is a beautifully illustrated take on what it is like living with, and caring for, someone who is battling with depression.

The image that stuck with me is of a depressed woman drowning in a vortex in the floor with their very own black dog dragging them down. Her partner stands back from the sinkhole, out of harm's way, and tosses her a life preserver with UNDERSTANDING and EMPATHY printed on it. He is calling out, "It's the best I can do!".

I had been jumping right into the whirlpool, and while depression may not be viral it certainly has a way of rubbing off. This simple image was Lesson One; sometimes it is best to just stand back but let the person know you are there.

Depression can feel like an extra person in your household, a malevolent force standing between you and the person you married, but it is not something that you can take aside and have a word with.

A second lesson came watching my wife and her mother, seeing how easily the mother of my children can still be hurt by her own parent's reproach, as if she was a kid again.  

When it is a family member or friend that is upsetting your partner, the lesson can be harder still because there is an actual person who you can talk to. As an outsider you can see the destructive patterns that families fall into, but just like with depression you can do little or nothing to stop it from happening. You can easily take your partner's side in a fight between friends without being aware of the intricacies of that friendship over many years. And when you watch people who have the ability to reduce your partner to tears with a few words do just that, doing nothing feels not like help but like a betrayal.

And yet, that is exactly what my wife wanted. Time to sort things out herself, free from the interference of a third party, no matter how good their intentions were.

With my kids getting older, I can see this is a lesson that I learned just in the nick of time.

I am still not perfect. My chest still puffs out when my wife is upset, looking for someone or something I can tackle to make it all okay. But I engage less and less, and remember to sit patiently on the reserves bench not pushing to get on the field, just waiting patiently for a call up.

It can be infuriating, it can feel totally illogical, but sometimes stepping back is the only way to go forward.