As a mental health counselor and someone who has battled depression for most of her life, I'm no stranger to the toll it can take on relationships.
While it differs from person to person, at its core, the illness causes people to feel lonely, inadequate, and misunderstood—even isolated. Sometimes it’s because we don't want to inflict our pain on the people we love. Other times, it's because we've been hurt by (even well-meaning) others and don't want to risk feeling even worse than we already do.
When someone with depression withdraws from loved ones without communicating why, it leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation. A partner may not understand why their S.O. is distant, distracted, or even angry. They may wonder what they did to offend the other person, or they may be frustrated that their partner is suddenly detached from them.
In addition to intense feelings of shame, sadness, and worthlessness, depression can manifest itself physically—including changes in sex drive, sleep; and appetite; energy loss; and even physical pain, such as headaches, stomach pains, and back or neck pain. This leads to more confusion for a partner, who may wonder why their loved one is often sick or generally disinterested in events and activities (including sex).
Expressing my feelings when I'm depressed has always been a challenge, especially in relationships. I'm afraid of coming across as whiny, ungrateful, or melodramatic. I have been blamed for the way I was feeling and told that I was a negative person. I have had a partner turn away from me as I was crying in bed, telling me he couldn't tolerate me when I was “like that.” Mostly, I have been ignored, or told to take a pill or go see a therapist so I could “get fixed.”
We've been able to develop a course of action that works for both of us, resulting in communication, understanding, and support.
Two years ago, I began a new relationship. Because of my previous experiences, it was difficult not to repeat the same habits—I withdrew when I was feeling depressed, closing myself off completely, which took a toll on our relationship.
But eventually, we were able to talk openly about my depression and behaviors surrounding it. Over time, we've developed a course of action that works for both of us, resulting in communication, understanding, and support. What works for us may not work for everyone, but these are methods we have found to be helpful.
5 Tips That Worked for Us
1. Make communication your highest priority.
It can be as simple as switching your language from “Gosh, I’m so upset” to “I'm depressed” to let your partner know that it's more than being annoyed about traffic or bills. Explaining your triggers, warning signs, and symptoms can help them better understand your illness and respond in a supportive and productive way.
2. Come up with code words.
For me, it can still be hard to say, “I'm depressed.” For some reason, those two words stick in my throat like cement. There are so many years of shame attached to them, and saying them sometimes feels like I'm giving in to the depression.
During times like this, my partner has worked out a way for us to continue communicating. He will ask, “Is it in the kitchen or the living room?”—meaning, how intensely are you feeling it right now? I'll respond that it's down the street, or at the door, or in bed with me.
Another way we increase communication is through more direct questions. When I say “I don't feel well,” he will ask “Physically or emotionally?” This opens up the conversation for specifics, instead of one or both of us shutting down.
Accept that this is part of your relationship with your partner, instead of trying to change or cure them.
3. Don’t try to solve the problem.
Partners of those struggling with depression tend to feel helpless and may jump to problem-solving or giving advice. Often, someone who is depressed knows what they need to do to feel better; 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, instead of trying to change or cure them. Holding their hand, giving eye contact, and actively listening can help far more than offering suggestions for things they should be doing. Talking through thoughts and feelings can effectively reduce symptoms, and knowing that someone loves you when you're feeling at your worst is both healing and empowering.
4. Provide basic comforts.
Drawing a warm bath, whipping up a meal or a cup of tea, or even giving a back rub can be life-changing for someone suffering with depression. Because depression often makes people feel unworthy or unattractive, words of encouragement are also vital. Finding other ways to be intimate when your partner is not feeling well shows sensitivity and relieves pressure from a partner who may feel inadequate.
5. Give reminders and encouragement.
People with depression may 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 their emotions. My partner will often remind me that my depression is not me, and that I am separate from it. He also reminds me that depression is an illness, and like any other illness, the one who is sick is not to blame. When he points out my strengths and past successes, it empowers me and reminds me that I will eventually feel better again.
The Bottom Line
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 gives 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.