Loving someone with depression can be tough. You may have curtailed social activities. You may have taken on more home responsibilities. Finances may have suffered if your partner's depression is severe, and they can't work. You may feel angry about changes in your relationship.
If you love someone with depression, you've been given a special set of challenges. Here's a list of things you can do to help navigate them.
1. Learn all you can.
Depression can be tricky, because your partner may "look" perfectly normal some of the time, and at other times be curled up in bed crying. This might cause you to be confused about what your partner is going through. You may think they have more control over their moods than they really do: “Why can’t she pull it together for my work function we’ve been talking about for weeks? After all, she was able to go to work yesterday." Reading reputable books or information on the Internet can help you realize that depression is a real and serious condition and not something a person can control at will. See the resources at the end of this post for places to get started.
2. Encourage treatment.
Unfortunately, there is still a stigma about mental health problems. You and/or your partner may believe it’s “just a phase,” or that depression can be “toughed out.” Sometimes you’re just not sure if the situation has risen to the level of needing professional help. It’s better to err on the side of getting help early on; hopefully, this will lessen the length and severity of the symptoms. You can also look at a solid self-help book, such as CBT Made Simple by Seth Gillihan, Ph.D. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a form of treatment that has been proven to help with depression; reading this will give you a feel for what approach a therapist might take and also provide some hope that things can get better.
3. Be angry at the situation, not your partner.
This can be a difficult distinction to make, but it's important. Attacking a person's character or personhood can further damage already shaky self-confidence. Remember that your partner did not wake up one day and say, “Hey, I think I’ll be really depressed today. That sounds like fun.” It’s not their fault; it’s no one’s fault.
4. Stay on the same team.
Similar to the previous point, acknowledge the fact that the situation is stressful, but that neither you nor your partner is to blame. One way to do this is to make "I wish" statements. For example, "I wish things were different for you and me right now,” or, "We're going to deal with this depression together."
5. Steer clear of “fix-it mode.”
It’s natural when we see our partner suffering that we want to do something to help. Often, this can take the form of trying to solve a problem. Many times, however, there is not an obvious “solution” to someone’s depression. It’s not like getting out of the house more, eating less sugar, or exercising are going to be the magic bullet that makes the depression go away. It’s hard to believe that simply listening and “holding space” for a person to feel their feelings is what is needed, but this is frequently so. You can also express curiosity about what depression feels like. For example, try this: “I wonder if you would mind sharing what you’re going through right now.”
6. Focus on accomplishments, no matter how small they may seem.
When people are recovering from depression, they respond much better to support and positive reinforcement than to criticism. Try to focus on the person's accomplishments, no matter how small they seem to you. If your partner hasn’t been getting dressed, and one day they do so, this is a big change and should be recognized. You could say something simple, such as, “I noticed you got dressed today. I imagine that was really hard for you when you didn’t sleep well last night.”
7. Seek couples therapy sooner rather than later.
Don't be afraid to seek outside help for your relationship if you're fighting a lot and just can't seem to get on the same page. This can be a good adjunct to the individual's therapy for depression. Couples therapy promotes better communication skills, which can allow people to feel more at ease bringing up important issues. In addition, less stress at home creates a better environment in which to work on the treatment of depression.
8. Recognize your own needs.
Don't give up your outside interests or friends. Practice your own self-care. It's not selfish; it's essential. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll end up resentful of your partner, and the relationship will suffer.
9. Practice compassion.
Realize that both you and your partner are doing the very best you can at this precise moment. Give each other a break and the benefit of the doubt.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: Information on Depression
- 24-Hour National Helpline
- Cognitive Therapy Made Simple
- 10 Signs It's Time to Get Help for Depression
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