Depression rears its ugly head in all kinds of different ways — many of which are not always as obvious as someone staying in bed all day. It can be all-consuming or a small, nagging feeling in the back of your mind associated with nothing in particular, or anything in between. Dealing with one’s own depression is never easy or straightforward, and neither is determining the best way to support a partner in their own struggle from the outside looking in.
“Often, depression can manifest in ways that are easy to take personally in a romantic relationship, [like] irritability and withdrawal,” says Heather Z. Lyons, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, couples counselor, and owner of the Baltimore Therapy Group. What’s key here, according to Lyons, is being careful not to assume that these reactions or behaviors are caused by you or the relationship, and act accordingly from there.
Seek out the signs.
Again, signals of depression are not always obvious. Lyons has a few tips on what to look out for if you suspect your partner might be struggling with depression. “If you see that someone you love has lost their ability to tolerate even the smallest of frustrations on a regular basis, it’s time to start wondering. This might show up as road rage, passive aggressive comments to friends, or, unfortunately, shortness with you,” she says. In these situations, patience goes a long way.
“[A depressed person might] not always be able to follow through with plans,” says Adina Mahalli, a certified relationship expert and mental health consultant with Maple Holistics in Farmingdale, New Jersey. “This can cause a serious rift in the romantic side of the relationship if you aren’t [able to go out] on dates together,” she says.
A possible solution is to learn how to enjoy an at-home date. “Although he or she might not feel like going out, they will often be willing to stay in for a romantic evening together,” she says. “Be it dinner and a movie, game night, or a spa session, there are plenty of ways you and your partner can thrive romantically in spite of depression.”
Carla Manly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and relationship expert based in Sonoma, California, stresses the importance of communication with your partner as soon as any signs of depression are detected. “Let your partner know that you see how he or she is struggling. Although you may feel helpless or frustrated, gently and openly talk about the issues that arise. It can be tempting to avoid these issues, but doing this will only reduce communication and increase the underlying stress.” According to Manly, the point here is to simply open the conversation and listen, bearing in mind that it’s not on you to fix the issues at hand.
…but without giving unsolicited advice.
Psychiatrist Laura F. Dabney, M.D., notes that while talking to a partner openly is a must, unsolicited advice can do more harm than good. “[This] may actually worsen their depression symptoms,” she says, pointing out that simply listening is much more helpful. “Being able to ask questions is the best support. If you give advice, they may take it as they are doing something or feeling something they should not. The best way to be supportive is always make them know that you will listen and only give advice if asked.”
Show your love (but find balance).
“One of the causes of depression is the feeling of unlovability. For that reason, a healthy relationship can be a healing experience for someone with depression,” says Lyons. However, this comes with a bit of fine print: the actual healing is not on you. “While we should all look out for and support our loved ones, be careful about graying the roles between loved one and therapist.”
“I encourage my clients in relationships like this to remember that while you can be an invaluable support to your partner as they navigate their depression, you are not going to be their cure,” says Mike Ensley, a professional counselor in Loveland, Colorado.
It is imperative for someone struggling with depression to seek professional help, though getting to that point may require some delicate encouragement. Here are some helpful ways to phrase that suggestion, according to Ensley:
“Therapy doesn’t make depression go away, it helps you realize you’re bigger than your depression.”
“You need a space that’s just about taking care of you.”
“I don’t need you to not be depressed. I just want you to be taking advantage of what can actually help.”
Help them find balance.
“There is a difference between coming home from work and not being able to go to an event, and not getting out of bed to meet your responsibilities in general,” says Marisa Hendrickson, LMHC.
Your partner, like anyone, deserves a mental-health day here and there as needed, but drawing the line between self-care and neglecting responsibilities is important. Gently encouraging socialization can be helpful. “Brief, uplifting outings — a trip to the store, an afternoon picnic, a walk through a local farmer’s market — can increase a sense of wellness and connection to others,” says Manly. Volunteering is also a great way to get your partner out of the house — it creates both quality time for the two of you and gives them a sense of giving back, which “has been shown to have a positive effect on overall mental and physical health,” adds Manly.
The power of exercise is also not to be underestimated. “Stress-relieving neurochemicals surge throughout the body when we exercise, so it is important to encourage a regular fitness regimen,” Manly says. “Whether you take a walk with your partner after work or encourage a slow run in the local park, exercise naturally helps relieve depression. Exposure to sunlight also increases mood-elevating neurochemicals, so the benefits of exercising outside are especially wonderful. Although your partner may want to avoid activity, exercise in general — and especially in the outdoors — is incredibly curative.”
Just be careful to not be too pushy or aspirational in your outing suggestions. “The idea of forcing oneself out of the house to be surrounded by other people pretending to be happy may be way too draining on your partner and actually make their depression worse,” says Hendrickson, Keep it simple, remain intuitive, and see what works best.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too.
“There is one piece of absolutely crucial advice for anyone who is going to be able to effectively provide support for a partner who is struggling with depression,” says Mark Borg, Ph.D., a psychologist and psychoanalyst practicing in New York City. “You must seek, find, and make regular use of emotional support for yourself.”
Lyons elaborates: “It’s natural that in close relationships we will lean on our partner or they’ll lean on us more at certain times, but if this begins to feel consistent over time, then your needs won’t be met in the relationship. When we become emotional caretakers for our partners, it can rob the relationship of the more romantic and sexual fuel that relationships need to thrive.” In other words, be sure that there’s a balance and that you’re not neglecting your own care to care exclusively for someone else.
“Sometimes the best thing you can do is make healthy choices for yourself, get counseling, stay on top of your mental health, and lead by example,” says Hendrickson. “When [your partner] sees you feeling great and succeeding in life, it may encourage them to take care of themselves as well without you suggesting it.”
If you are experiencing mental illness and are in need of support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-8255.