Being in love with someone who struggles with depression is a really tough position to be in, if you’re not sure how to handle it. It may mean loving a person who, while they may love you, cannot always express it in the same way you might. It may mean being confronted with an understanding of reality you cannot share. It may mean helping someone fend off a terrible darkness that you’re not prepared to fight. It may mean feeling frustrated and powerless. Without the tools, knowledge, and total commitment to the person you love, being with someone who has depression can be a very rocky road. But if you’re sure about your feelings and are ready to stick around, then you and your love will be important to helping them get better.
It all starts with understanding that, at times, this may be an uphill battle. But it’s still a relationship. That means you’re there for each other, you for them – and them for you. Relationships go both ways, so as long as you’re both willing to support each other and work hard together, then you’re ready to proceed. Supporting your loved one will require knowledge, time, and self-help. Start by learning more about depression, taking the time to listen to your partner and help them engage treatment options and approach therapy, and learn ways to take care of yourself and your emotional needs as well.
Be More Than a Rock
The first thing I would like to address is that it’s important to take care of yourself when you’re in the role of the caregiver. Relationships where depression becomes a major issue are all extremely different from one another, and depend highly on the personalities of those involved, as well as the severity of the depression and any coexisting conditions. It’s harder to live with and love a partner who regularly contemplates suicide, than it is to be with someone who may have dark days, but can still get up in the morning, and continues to stick to their schedules. But from the point of view of the boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife supporting their loved one, never forget that relationships are not meant to be one-sided, and they don’t have to be, even with depression.
If you’re completely invested in someone else, and commit yourself fully to them, it’s easy to lose sight of your own needs – not just to your detriment, but to theirs as well. It’s a common trope to see yourself as the rock in the relationship – like an unmoving lighthouse illuminating the dangerous rocks in the ebb and flow of your partner’s depression, keeping them safe from harm.
But you’re not immovable or unyielding. You’re human, with human needs and vulnerabilities. And in a relationship, two people work together to provide each other with love, comfort, and happiness.
You must be certain that the person you love makes you happy, despite moments of depression. You must ask yourself if what the two of you have is worth investing in, because once you commit, it is far too cruel – and very difficult – to pull away.
After that, it’s important to remember to take care of your emotional needs as well. We can’t rely on our partners to bring us happiness: a relationship isn’t about serving your significant other, and it’s cruel to see your partner as nothing more than a way to be happy. If you’re going to help them with their depression, you have to work on your own emotional balance as well, and seek out what makes you happy, and pursue it.
Be more than a rock in their life – be the person who loves them and supports them, but also the person who has the strength to smile and be genuinely happy even in dark moments. That’s not something you can fake and trying to will only tear you down as well.
The first step is to be there. That’s pretty much it, to begin with. Being there does a lot to help out, especially early on, when knowing they’re not alone can make all the difference in the world. The key to being there is to be there without judgment or oppression, without snide remarks or offhand comments that can be hurtful or painful.
A person with depression will often take the punishment without ever letting you know you did anything hurtful, until they snap and break down. Start by understanding how your partner thinks, and what’s most likely to set them off. Depression does make people more sensitive to what might otherwise bounce off a healthy ego, so reserve any “banter” or playful criticism for your friends and understand what you can and can’t say around your partner.
Start by considering how you might feel if a voice constantly criticized you, day and night, for months at a time, to the point where you begin to believe it and let it drive you. Consider how you might take a comment or criticism if your ego was nonexistent, and your pride eliminated. Helping your partner build a healthy sense of self is one of the important goals of therapy, but it can take time to get there. Be more sensitive about how you speak with your partner and consider how they process your language rather than being defensive and not taking responsibility for your words.
Hone Your Communication Skills
Being able to listen is very, very important in any relationship, but being able to communicate is so much more important. Be clear and be explicit. When you have fears, doubts, or worries, don’t hide them from your partner to make things “easier”. Compiling these feelings is the start of a rift that, with time, becomes impossible to close.
Communicate with your partner often – but understand what it means to listen. Not just hear but listen. That means taking into account what your partner says and being accommodating. There is no room for a big ego in a relationship between two people, which goes for both you and your partner.
While this seems like general relationship advice, it’s doubly important when depression comes into the picture. On dark days, depression the bad feel worse, and the good feel nonexistent. On good days, your partner may still have this lingering feeling that they don’t deserve a relationship, let alone a good one. Use your communication skills to work out problems and avoid drawn-out conflicts, coming to terms with one another over disagreements – but also use your skills to impart on your partner how much they mean to you, and never miss an opportunity to express your love genuinely.
Learn More About Depression
Your ability to help your partner with their depression will depend mostly on how much you know about depression to begin with. To that end, learning more about depression is very helpful, both for you to understand why your partner might think they way they do, and for your partner, so you can better support them.
Consider talking to their therapist or asking for a couple’s therapy session, as well, if your partner is okay with that. If your partner doesn’t go to therapy, going together to begin with can be a good alternative to asking them to go alone. They’re more likely to consider the idea if they don’t have to face therapy on their own.
Know the Difference Between Encouragement and Bullying
It’s very easy to get frustrated when your partner is going through a depression, particularly if you have never experienced anything like it. It’s important to understand that there is a difference between feeling down or lazy, and being depressed – and that encouragement, negative reinforcement, and passive aggressive commentary is going to do far more harm than good. Here’s what you should never do when your partner is depressed:
- Yelling at your partner
- Pushing them to get it together
- Accusing them of being passive or slow about their treatment,
- Pressuring them with unanswerable questions or bullying commands (like “get it together” or “just snap out of it” or “do you like being this way?”)
Not only is this type of treatment harmful and painful, it’s also entirely useless. Instead of helping your partner, taking out your anger and frustration in this way only reflects that you’re powerless and angry about it, and that leads to further deepening your partner’s fears and anxieties, causing their depressive voice to grow louder and more powerful.
Negative reinforcement has limited application. You can push an athlete to grow stronger by feeding their pride and competitive drive through accusations of weakness or laziness. But someone who is emotionally vulnerable does not need another voice shouting them down and making them feel worthless.
The key to being a supportive partner is to be supportive. That means building your partner up, showing them their strengths and helping them work through their weaknesses, guiding them along a path that allows them to trust themselves and believe in their own abilities, rather than pummeling them like an old punching bag.