I’m a mental health therapist. I’ve also personally battled depression for the past 20+ years. So when I say depression is a thief, I’m speaking from both personal and professional experience. I have seen how it can take the joy, energy, and sense of purpose out of everyday life. I know how it can affect every aspect of a person’s life. I also know how hard it can be to support someone who is living with depression.
Depression may look different from person to person, but at its core the illness often causes people to feel lonely, inadequate, and misunderstood. One of the most prevalent symptoms of depression is a feeling of isolation. At times, people with depression may isolate because they don’t want to inflict their pain on the people they love; other times, it’s because they’ve been hurt by others–well-meaning and otherwise–and aren’t able to trust enough to be vulnerable when they’re depressed.
When someone with depression withdraws from loved ones without communicating why, it leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation. I’ve seen this with my clients and in my own life. One partner may not understand why the other is distant, distracted, or even angry. They may wonder what they did to offend the other person, or they may be frustrated or hurt that their partner has suddenly detached from them.
In an article published by Psychology Today, the author explains how depression can affect our physical bodies as well as our minds. This can include changes in sex drive, sleep, appetite, energy loss, and even physical symptoms – including headaches, stomach pains, and back or neck pain. Frustrated partners may wonder why their loved one is sick, not interested in sex, or disengaged from activities and events.
Expressing my feelings when I am depressed has always been a challenge for me, especially in relationships. I’m afraid of how my words will be interpreted. I’ve been blamed for my depression, told that I am a “negative person.” I’ve felt guilty for not wanting to have sex or engage in social activities while depressed. Mostly, I’ve been ignored or told to take a pill or go see a therapist so I could “get fixed.” I know how hard it can be to navigate a relationship when a partner is dealing with depression.
Being able to talk openly about mental illness is critical for the health and survival of a long-term relationship. Here are some pointers I’ve found may assist in connection, understanding, and support.
- Communicate. The importance of healthy, effective communication cannot be overstated. I see this both in my own life and with my clients. Communication is always important, but when you are suffering from depression or another mental health issue, it needs to take top priority. Even the simple statement “I’m depressed” can let your partner know you’re not just upset about traffic or bills. Explaining your triggers, warning signs, and symptoms to your partner can help them better understand your illness and respond in a supportive and productive way.
- Have code words. I’ll admit: It’s hard for me to say “I’m depressed.” Those two words stick in my throat like cement. There are so many years of shame attached to them that saying them sometimes feels like I’m giving in to the depression. In this instance, a way to continue communication might be to talk about it without talking about it. Your partner could ask “Is it in the kitchen or the living room?” Meaning, how intensely are you feeling it right now? You might respond that it’s down the street, or at the door, or in the bed. Another way to increase communicate is through more direct questions. When one partner says “I don’t feel well,” the other could ask “Do you mean physically or emotionally?” This opens the conversation up for specifics, instead of one or both partners shutting down.
- Be with your partner. If your partner is living with depression, it makes sense that you’d want to jump in and offer advice. However, someone who is depressed often knows what they need to do to feel better, but they don’t have the energy to do so in that moment. In these situations, it is very powerful to simply be with your partner. Accept that this is part of your relationship with your partner instead of trying to change or cure them. Holding their hand, maintaining eye contact, and engaging in active listening can help your partner far more than offering suggestions for things they should be doing. Talking through thoughts and feelings can be effective in reducing symptoms, and knowing that someone loves them even when they feel they are at their worst is both healing and empowering.
- Provide the basics. Depression often affects a person physically as well as mentally and emotionally. Basic comforts like drawing a warm bath, providing a meal or a cup of tea, or even giving a back rub for shoulders tight with stress can be huge for someone suffering with depression. Because depression often makes people feel unworthy or unattractive, words of encouragement are also vital. Finding ways to be intimate when your partner is not feeling well shows sensitivity and relieves pressure when they may be feeling inadequate.
- Give reminders and encouragement. People with depression sometimes believe the things they are feeling are a result of who they are as a person, which can result in self-loathing. They may feel shame or guilt for not being able to better control how they feel. Remind your partner that their depression does not define them, and that they are separate from it. You might also remind them that depression is an illness, and like any other illness, they are not to blame for getting sick. Try pointing out strengths and past successes, which will serve to empower them and remind your partner that they will eventually feel better again.
While a partner may not be able to take away their loved one’s depression, they can provide the strong support system that is vital to a person’s mental health and sense of self. Through patience, understanding, and open communication, a partner can give their loved one a space to heal and feel safe to communicate what they are feeling. Having a relationship where one or both partners experience depression can be a challenge, but if both are willing to put in the time and effort, the result can be a strong, supportive relationship built on trust and understanding.