Updated: Jun 15
If you are in a relationship with someone who struggles with depression, you probably know that there are unique challenges. As with any illness, your loved one may have good days and bad days, but through the ups and downs, there are a few things you can do to help them and keep your relationship going.
Image by Mary Long, courtesy of Shutterstock
1. Educate yourself on their illness
Kudos to you because clearly, you are up for the challenge since you are reading this article. You really cannot learn too much about depression if you have a loved one who is struggling. It may be hard for your partner to communicate their illness, symptoms, and treatment with you, so researching these things on your own could be a big relief for them. Your partner may even find it helpful for you to go with them to some appointments or talk with their care team, and that can be a powerful source of education as well. Even if you have struggled with depression or another mental health problem in the past, you could still probably benefit from learning more (what we call "psychoeducation" in the field) because depression can look different for everyone. Educating yourself on their depression can help you anticipate and understand some of their symptoms and will likely give you more patience and empathy when things get tough. For starters, you can read my recent blog post on the symptoms of depression or watch my YouTube video on the topic.
2. Listen more, talk less
It's normal to want to fix things for your partner when you see them struggling. But jumping right in to try and offer solutions can frustrate them or make them feel criticized. Instead, try genuinely listening when they talk about their struggles. Let them know that you want to understand what they are going through, and encourage them to be open with you about their feelings (even those that aren't pretty). When they do share difficult things, you can thank them for trusting you and allowing you to listen.
It's also okay to ask them if there is something that you can do to help. Let your partner know that you want to be supportive, and encourage them to tell you if there are ways that you can make their life better. Avoid the temptation to say things like "you should think more positively" or "try exercising more." They've probably already thought of those things and may have failed similar strategies in the past. Bringing them up over and over can remind them of these past failures and make them feel hopeless.
3. Express empathy, but don't try to compare struggles
Empathy is about being able to understand and share your partner's feelings. You can empathize with your partner by really listening to them and trying your best to understand and feel compassion for what they are going through. Reflective listening can be a great way to show empathy and forge a deeper connection with your loved one. Empathetic reflection also allows you to avoid advice-giving while remaining engaged in the conversation. You can do this by simply clarifying and summarizing some of the emotions they express. For example, if your partner is telling you about a difficult meeting they had with their boss, you could say, "That sounds like a stressful meeting. I'm here to listen if you want to talk more."
Sometimes people believe that empathy means they need to talk about their own similar experiences. For example, you might be tempted to respond to your partner's concern about their meeting by saying, "Oh, I know how that is- our meetings are always terrible." But responding with your own experience can be invalidating and make your partner feel like you aren't listening.
4. Take care of yourself
Taking care of your own mental and physical health will help you navigate some of these challenges and set an example that might help your partner do the same. Taking care of yourself means moving your body in a way that feels good, fuel yourself with foods that make you feel strong, and taking time to rest and relax. Keeping yourself healthy may also mean that you can't be available for your loved one as much as you may like. Taking a step back, spending some time alone, or setting clear boundaries is a necessary part of any relationship. You may also consider getting your own therapist to help you through any personal mental health struggles or the stress related to having a loved one with a mental illness.
5. Don't take it personally
As noted above, education can be a powerful tool in improving your relationship with someone who is depressed. This is partly because your partner's depression may contribute to significant stressors in your relationship. It can be tempting to attribute their irritability to problems in your relationship or to believe that they've stopped helping around the house because they don't care about you. In reality, these things may be more reflective of their depressive disorder rather than your relationship. Stepping back to understanding the symptoms of their illness can help you avoid blaming yourself or thinking your relationship is worse off than it is. Low libido is another common example of how depressive symptoms can masquerade as relationship issues. If it seems like your partner is no longer interested in sex, it may be tempting to think that your relationship isn't as strong as it should be or that they are no longer attracted to you. In reality, it may have nothing to do with your relationship: low sexual drive is a common symptom of depression (and even some of the medicines we use to treat depression).
6. Learn to separate accountability and understanding
Dealing with depression is incredibly hard. And some of the symptoms of depression can put a lot of strain on a relationship. While empathy and understanding are super important if you want to be a supportive partner, it does not mean that you should excuse anything your partner does solely because they are depressed. Depression does not make it okay for your partner to abuse or mistreat you or for them to cross clear boundaries that you have set. This is another reason it may help for you to have your own therapist, as discussed above. Your therapist can help you figure out where to draw the line between accountability and understanding.
7. Don't try to be their doctor or therapist
Trying to take on the role of your partner's mental healthcare provider is a recipe for disaster. It sets you up for burnout, and it may make the relationship feel less collaborative and more conflict-ridden. Even if you are the best therapist or doctor in the world, you shouldn't try to take care of your loved one. When you are in a relationship with someone, you are too emotionally invested to see things through the lens of a clinician. Instead, it's totally reasonable to offer to help your partner find mental healthcare if they don't already have it. Unfortunately, the mental healthcare system is tough to navigate, especially for someone who is struggling. Making phone calls and screening potential doctors and therapists may be helpful, but, as above, make sure you ask before stepping in. Click here for resources that can help you get help for a loved one.
8. Ask them about suicide
People sometimes fear that asking someone about suicide might put the idea into their heads or somehow increase their risk for suicide. But this isn't the case. Asking someone directly about suicide can save their lives if they are thinking about suicide. And if they aren't thinking about suicide, it simply shows them that you care. You can say something along the lines of "I know that you have been struggling with depression, and I know that sometimes when people are depressed, they start to think about suicide. Have you had any thoughts about hurting or killing yourself?" If they say yes, stay with them and help them connect with a professional, for example, via a crisis line, local emergency room, or their therapist or psychiatrist. Any time someone reports suicidal thoughts, it is important to take them seriously.
Other signs that someone is considering suicide are:
Giving away possessions, especially things that hold a lot of meaning for them
Making comments like "You won't have to deal with me soon." or "There is no point anymore."
Making a will or talking about what they would want for their funeral or end-of-life care.
Obtaining lethal means (for example, purchasing a firearm, stockpiling medications, etc.)
Visiting or calling family or friends to say goodbye or writing a suicide note.