Facing Depression in a Relationship

Author:  Taylor Roach – MA, Intern  

verified by Psychology Today

What is Depression?

Depression is expressed in varying ways for each person – sometimes, it is very noticeable and sometimes, it is deeply hidden.  Being able to recognize it in yourself or your partner can be difficult.  If you are unsure, it may be beneficial to ask the question, “Am I depressed?” or “Are you depressed?”  Depression is the absence of being able to feel deep emotions such as joy or hurt. Instead, it keeps you in a state of almost feeling nothing.  Things that perhaps brought you joy in the past may no longer bring you that same feeling.  Depression can be brought on by immense stress, major grief, lifestyle changes, or other circumstances.

It is important to understand that there may not only be one source to its onset. See the article Can Depression Be Cured? for more information. This article may be helpful for you if you are unsure of how to recognize depression such as: Are they/you eating less or more? Are they/you talking less than usual? Do they/you have less energy than usual?  The following information may give you some helpful tools to consider when being confronted with the reality of depression in your relationship; either you or your partner experiencing depression, and how to move forward.

How to Fix my Relationship

You may have heard the famous breakup line, “It’s not you, it’s me”.  This concept can hold true for depression in a relationship as well.  When your partner comes to you and tells you they are depressed, it is important to consider that the onset of depression can happen long before the relationship began.  Depression can often come and go through the span of a lifetime.  In addition, it is natural to immediately wonder if you are part of the cause of your partner’s depression. Depression is highly prevalent even in healthy relationships, too.

You may be wondering how can I help my marriage?

Capitalizing on the healthy parts of your relationship may be the best way to combat depression in this case. While making the most of your relationship, it is important to acknowledge the presence of depression.  Recognize that it is nothing to be embarrassed about.  Emotions live in every part of who we are and are often the most tangible internal part of us.  Consider these few examples for self-improvement that you and your partner can work on individually.

    • Do, create, or reflect on something you can be or are proud of. Ask yourself “what makes you proud?” Think of a moment in your life when you accomplished something and felt proud.  Maybe a time during your childhood. Maybe a simple moment in your day.  Perhaps you created something like a meal or an art piece that made you feel proud.  To further this exercise, start every day by thinking about 3-5 things you are proud of yourself for right when you wake up.
    • Learn to love yourself so that you can allow your partner to love you, too. Remember, you come first. Feeling a lack of love for yourself doesn’t mean that your partner doesn’t love you.  When you love yourself, you share your love. In sharing your love, you allow yourself to receive foundational love which then builds you up.
    • Find a “serenity spot” that only you and your partner know of (ie. a nearby lake) where you can go when feeling a certain way. Have a conversation with your partner about the specifics: where to go, when to go (what sorts of actions or feelings to look out for), why choose that certain place, etc. Have you ever gone to a wine or food tasting?  In between each taste, you are often given coffee grounds to reset your sense of smell. Use your serenity spot to reset your sense of peace.

Helping Someone With Depression

The most common response that partners give to their loved ones facing depression is to ask them to change their thinking or “just think happy thoughts”.  This response most likely comes from a place of love even if it may not feel like it on the receiving end.  When you or someone you love is experiencing depression, it can be extremely frustrating because you both want better for yourself and your partner.

However, if you are depressed, you may not be able to just simply “snap out of it”.  You may be feeling really stuck (both you as the depressed partner, or you as the partner wanting to help ease the depression). Depression may feel like constantly trying to dig out of a deep hole and not having enough energy to do so.  This is also true when you are the partner to someone facing depression.  You may find yourself spending a lot of energy trying and wanting to pull your partner out of the hole.  In this sense, you may be in the hole of depression together.

Consider this as a helpful question, “What do we need to do as a team to fight what you’re going through?”  This question may be especially helpful because someone facing depression often feels incredibly isolated and alone in their feelings.  By showing them that they are not alone, you are sending a message that you want to help and that even if you are unable to fully understand, you want to seek to understand.

What Makes a Good Relationship?

It may not be possible to fully understand your partner’s feelings of depression, or fully explain feelings in a way where your partner can understand if you are the one who is depressed, but the most important role to consider when combatting depression is to seek to understand and seek to be understood.  Both of these roles may sound more difficult to achieve than you are wanting, but know that the effort will be well worth it.

In the presence of depression, you may want nothing more than for someone to just understand.  The task of explaining may feel too daunting and staying silent is your most desired option.  However, when given a safe space to openly express your feelings, this task may begin to feel less daunting.  Here’s how a safe space can be created:

    • Just listen. When your partner is telling you about their feelings or circumstances, they may just need your presence and attentive listening.  When trying to “fix it” for them and give them uninvited solutions to their problems, this creates an unsafe space for them to openly express their feelings.  Solutions that come too quickly can sometimes send the message that their feelings are invalid and need to be fixed or changed rather than felt and processed.  Listen intently before responding
    • Understand that you just may not understand. Listening allows your partner to express their feelings without an expectation to convey them in a relatable or understandable way.  Without always being able to understand the emotions of another, you create an environment that allows them to feel understood.

What to say to your partner when they are depressed and what to say to your partner if you are feeling depressed.

On both ends, it is okay to be blunt and clear about your feelings.  The approach in many situations sets the tone for what is to come next.  If you approach with open arms, it will be received the same.  You may be fearful that you will regress more than progress if you tell your partner about your feelings of depression. You may worry that you will make your partner backslide if you tell them how their depression is affecting you or that you want them to talk to you about it.

The reasons for depression, as well as,  the reasons for whether or not to talk with your partner about it may never be fully clear to you.  Communicating (even if it is painful) may be the most beneficial thing you can do.  Be true to yourself and express how you are feeling. If you don’t, you may be allowing depression to cage you in more and more than it may have already done.

Communication Tips

    • When in doubt, empathize it out. “An attentive ear is the joy of the wise.”-Anonymous
    • Watch this fun video to learn about empathy and how to empathize:
    • Perspective-taking. Let’s say you were stranded on an island for weeks, and you are thrilled to see a boat heading your direction.  When the boat reaches the island, you learn that the person in the boat was stranded at sea for weeks only hoping to find land, also.  In this case, this maybe you and your partner regardless of which side of the “depression island” you are on.  You are both in this together, and the best way to find the shore might be for both of you to work together to find and provide safety.  In addition, with some understanding of what the other is feeling or is working toward, you can look at the situation from a different angle allowing you to understand better.
    • Externalize your depression (for more information check out the Narrative Therapy Approach). Understand that you are not your depression and that your depression is instead a part of you.  Come up with a name that you are your partner can use for your depression so that you can use that name when talking about the presence of your depression and what it may be doing to you (and your partner).
    • Think about the response to depression in terms of your brain and nervous system. We, as humans, have a flight, fight, flee, or freeze response when we are in the presence of danger.  Depression is the danger that causes the maladaptive response to freeze by staying silent, desiring only to be locked in your room and alone, etc.  Think about ways to get to one of the more adaptive responses such as fighting or “flighting”.  Picture if your depression is a tiger.  Would you want to freeze in the presence of a wild tiger?
    • “Should we consider medication?”  Common misconceptions around using medication as a treatment for depression are that it will work immediately and it will solve all problems.  Finding medications that will work for you can be a process.  Start by speaking with your primary care Doctor or a Psychiatrist.  There are many options available.  Medication can be a helpful addition to therapy.
    • Talk about your guilt if either of you are feeling it. Know that it is normal to feel guilty about not being able to put in as much as your partner if you are depressed.  Remember that a partnership can’t always be 50/50, and that is okay.  It is also completely normal to feel guilty about not being able to help your partner through their depression.  In any case, verbalize this feeling to start an open dialogue about it!

Counseling

Personal Counseling

Depression should be treated by a therapist who can help you process the underlying feelings. These feelings may be leading to the presence of anxiety and/or depression.  Having a professional perspective when facing all the challenges that are brought on by depression will help you to organize your thinking and feel less alone in your experiences.

If you are having thoughts of wanting to end your life, reach out to crisis support as soon as possible.  Even if you are feeling hopeless, know that there is still hope and people who care about you.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Call 1-800-273-8255

Couple’s therapy

Couples counseling is a beneficial tool if you and your partner are facing depression and are unsure of where to go or what to do.  A couple’s therapist will guide you in a direction where you will be able to capitalize on the strengths of your relationship and combat the effects of depression on the relationship.  Assuring your partner that you are in it together and working on it together may be your greatest hope.