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Living With a Depressed Loved One

The painful difficulty of living with a depressed person.

There is a great deal of information available about depression. But when you live with a depressed person, it can be painfully difficult. Anti-depressants are the number-one prescribed medication in this country, but they are not a panacea. Many with depression continue to suffer, or at least have symptomatic periods. This, in turn, affects those who love them.

It can be especially difficult when the person with depression is your child or a partner. Many parents feel it is their duty to rescue their adult children. But the feeling of helplessness often prevails when you live with a depressed individual. It may not be healthy to feel it is your duty to rescue a partner, and it's also not healthy to take responsibility for his or her feelings.

For men who have depressed partners, feeling helpless is especially common. Generally, men are fixers. When they hear of a problem, their reaction is to fix it. But depression is not so easily fixed, therefore the result is helplessness and frustration. This can complicate the helping process.

For women who have a depressed partner, it is common to feel like the connection between partners is missing or inhibited. If the depressive symptoms lead to withdrawal, the female partner may feel shut-out. The feelings and thoughts of a depressed person may be difficult to share, which might compound the problem and leave the partner feeling there is a lack of communication. Worse, some men turn depression into anger and may be easily irritated with their partner, thereby further exacerbating the problem.

Difficulties abound when living with a depressed partner. Because of symptoms like apathy, a partner’s needs may not be met. In a relationship, each partner will make attempts to feel love from their partner. These attempts may be thwarted by detachment from the depressive, leaving the partner feeling disconnected. Anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure, can also contribute to a lack of sex drive, which can further complicate this problem. The end result: The partner feels his or her relationship needs are not important.

Not only might the parent or partner feel helpless in regard to alleviating the loved one's depression he might also feel as if he is a contributor. In fact, because of distorted thinking, the depressed individual might believe their loved one is a contributor. But even when that is not the case, the parent or partner may experience an internal battle over what to say or not to say. As mentioned, a partner may not express his or her feelings of neglect, fearing they will contribute to the depressed mood of the other. This can further both issues: Feeling neglected and feeling like a contributor to the depression.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, there are nine possible criteria that contribute to a diagnosis of depression, of which five must be met, for the majority of the time:

  • Depressed mood
  • Markedly diminished pleasure in almost all activities
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain when not dieting, or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness
  • Recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation, attempting suicide, or specific planning for suicide.
  • (There are other criteria or a specific diagnosis)

These criteria can lead to a multitude of other symptoms, including a lack of sex drive, angry outbursts, irritability, withdrawal, and more. People experience different symptoms of depression, one person’s depression might appear much different than another’s.

Many who live with a depressed person struggle with whether they are being supportive or enabling. Some people believe “tough love” is needed. Being supportive and loving may appear to allow the depressed individual to remain stagnant. Pushing too much can lead to conflict and further withdrawal.

It may seem like a hopeless situation. Still, there are still several things that can be done:

  • Research depression. There are a number of things that are helpful for depression: Exercise, meditation, 20 minutes of daily unblocked sunlight, medication, dietary changes, as well as a number of natural remedies. More than just suggesting what can help, the loved one can engage in the new behavior.
  • Take care of yourself. Whenever someone is dealing with a loved one that has a mental illness, it is imperative to engage in or continue self-care. It is possible to balance your needs with your partner’s. Exercise. Do enjoyable things whether your loved one will do it with you or not. Do not allow the depression to darken the entire universe you live in.
  • Be supportive. Cognitive distortions, as well as the lethargy involved in depression, lead to negative perceptions and irritability. It is often difficult not to be affected by this, especially if there is anger directed at you. However, it is important to follow the second of the Four Agreements, don’t take anything personally. Much of what is being directed at you is a result of depression and distortions in perception and thinking. The ability to look at situations in a detached and objective way is at the heart of Eastern thought and psychological growth.

Abraham Maslow, who formulated a theory based on a hierarchy of needs, notes it as part of self-actualization. Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis (who worked with depressed patients and developed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Rational Emotive Therapy, respectively) promote it as a strategy for psychological health. Eastern thought looks at compassionate detachment as an enlightened trait to strive for. Compassionate detachment is being able to empathize and feel compassion for another, while not getting drawn into their perception of reality. You do what you can, without attaching an expectation to it.

Being supportive also includes, in moderation, gently pushing your loved one to do what is good for him or her. This includes invitations to join in activities and attempts to get the depressed person involved in exercise or some of the above suggestions demonstrated to help with depression.

  • Listen. Being heard can be incredibly curative. Communication is how we connect. For many with depression, the feelings of isolation can be deafening. The ability to listen and not offer a quick fix can be of tremendous benefit.
  • Be love. This may be difficult, and sound corny, but, if you are following the suggestions above, you are already being love. Abraham Maslow suggested most people seek therapy as a result of a deficiency in their love and belonging needs. Mood disorders—of which depression and its more chronic form, dysthymia, are a part—are the most common psychiatric diagnosis. If Maslow is correct, love maybe at least part of the solution. As I wrote in “Love’s Tug of War,” putting real love first is difficult due to our own ego needs. But the ability to do so can be rewarding. In fact, you can use this to move toward your own self-actualization or enlightenment, as it is a vital part of each. Love should be the default strategy when you don’t know what to do.

Copyright: William Berry 2014


American Psychiatric Association; 2013; The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Feist, J., Feist, G., & Roberts, T.; 2013; Theories of Personality, p.276

Ruiz, Miguel; 1997; The four agreements: A practical guide to personal freedom.

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