Depression, or any other mental illness, is a really, really terrible experience. Ask anyone who’s been there. It stinks.
It also stinks being the partner of someone with depression. It’s an awfully hard job. And it sometimes feels all the harder because you feel like you shouldn’t be complaining – after all, you’re not the one who’s ill! And yet… well, it’s just hard.
Then there’s the confusion about what you’re supposed to be doing to help. Encouraging? Hugging? Carrying on as normal?
Let’s take a look at the options in front of you for helping your depressed partner. Please remember, though, that you are not responsible for your partner’s mental illness, and you cannot make it go away. The best you can do is try to help. If things don’t get better, it’s not your fault. Like anything else in life, all you can do is try your best; you cannot make their problem go away by force of will, by nice gestures, or anything else.
- Ask your partner what they want.
- Try different things.
- Try to understand, but don’t assume you’ll get there.
- Read up on depression.
- Encourage them to seek help.
- Keep life going.
- Take care of yourself.
Ask your partner what they want.
This might seem kind of obvious, but everyone is different.
There really is no one way to provide support to a depressed person. Your spouse might want extra space; or they may want more closeness. They may want you to handle some extra household responsibilities; or they may want you to give them chores to do so they feel useful.
Rule #1: just ask them what they want.
That said, you may not get a clear answer back. Especially for the severely depressed, things like wants and preferences can be so squelched that there’s not much they can offer by way of response. Still, don’t assume that’s where it is. Start by just asking them.
Try different things.
If they don’t have a good answer for what would help (or even if they do, really) – try something. Consider their Love Language – do they like to be touched? Maybe some extra foot rubs would help. Are they an Acts of Service person? Make them lunch, or take care of the laundry. Then ask for feedback. Was that helpful? Should I do more of that?
Again, you may not be able to elicit a positive reaction from someone who’s really struggling. This can be exceedingly frustrating. Remember, all you can do is try your best. Hopefully something will produce some positive feedback, however minimal. If they don’t like what you’re doing, stop. Just because you like breakfast in bed doesn’t mean your partner does! (Remember that thing about everyone being different?)
If you get zero response, it’s kind of up to you. Do you enjoy massaging your partner’s shoulders? If so, and they don’t express a positive or negative sentiment about it, go for it. But if you’re only doing it because you hope it will help and it’s not – stop. Pouring effort into a problem you can’t solve by engaging in a behavior you don’t enjoy will only leave you more frustrated and more resentful.
Try to understand, but don’t assume you’ll get there.
If you’ve never been there, you will not fully understand what it’s like to go through depression (or anxiety, or any other mental health condition).
But that doesn’t mean you can’t try. One of my mentors said, “the effort you put into understanding someone is a demonstration of love.” Let them talk if they want to. Hear them out. Ask them what it’s like. Try to put yourself in their shoes. But don’t say, “I know what you’re going through.” You almost certainly don’t.
If they are responsive to your attempts at empathy, ask directed questions. “What’s it like for you when the kids come home?” “Do you sometimes feel worthless?” “Are you in physical pain?” Just explore their world with them in a nonjudgmental way.
Of course, if you have been there yourself, you can surely relate. But that still doesn’t mean you can experience what they are experiencing 100%.
Do say, “it sounds so hard.” “I’m sorry for what you’re going through.” “Thanks for sharing with me.” “I love you.” Again, if they are feeling too low to be able to respond positively, don’t take it personally. Give what feels right to give, try your best, and then don’t lose sleep over whether you could or should be doing more.
Read up on depression.
It helps if you know what you’re up against. Depression is not the same as feeling sad. Depression is not something people choose, nor is it necessarily something they can control. Knowing what it’s actually like can help you feel less adrift and can prepare you better for what you may have to face.
It can also help you feel less resentful to know what’s going on when your partner says they’ll do the dishes but then doesn’t (can’t). No really – it’s possible they can’t. It’s possible they are unable to get out of bed and it’s not just that they aren’t trying. Depression is a rotten thing.
Reading up doesn’t mean that you have to find the answer all by yourself (or with Google’s help). It’s not about solving things; it’s about getting clarity about what’s happening so you feel less confused and less angry about the way your partner is behaving.
Encourage them to seek help.
There are many treatments that can help relieve depression, and they are constantly being refined. Depression can get better, even if your partner can’t imagine or believe it at this point. Several therapies have been proven to help, as well as medical interventions such as antidepressant medication, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), electroshock therapy (it’s not what you think), and others.
(This begs the question, which one should you choose? The best answer is probably, “try something.” Anything is better than nothing, and if it’s not the right fit, try something else! You can always start with your GP and get some guidance there; or go online to find a therapist or psychiatrist to consult with.)
Don’t try to convince your partner that “it will be okay” and they “just need to [fill in the blank].” Instead, express confidence that the two of you will get through this together, and that there is help available.
Note that “encourage” doesn’t mean berate, coerce, or put them down. Calm, confident, and supportive statements are a better approach. That sounds like this:
- I know you feel terrible. We’re going to get through this.
- I believe we can find some help together. You may not think anything can help; I think it’s worth trying.
- I don’t know what the answer is, but I am confident we can find something that will help.
Note that if your partner is severely depressed to the point where they cannot function at all, or if they show signs of suicidality, that’s different – you may well need to act on their behalf. Consult with a mental health professional or your own doctor for guidance.
Keep life going.
One of the most helpful things you can do is to keep things going.
If your partner is falling apart and isn’t able to function as well as they used to (or at all), it can be some comfort to them (if not now, then in the future) that their life didn’t fall apart as well. Make sure the bills get paid. Get the kids to school and back. Remember to shop for food.
You may have to scale back on some things. The yard work may not get done; replacing the carpet may have to get pushed off; Christmas cards may have to be skipped this year.
You also may have to get some extra help, whether it’s with childcare, or food prep, or anything else that you really need to keep afloat. Make a list of priorities. Know what has to happen and what doesn’t.
Take care of yourself.
This above all: you must care for yourself as well. If you overload yourself trying to help and support your partner, you’re both going to sink.
It may be hard for you to leave your miserable partner at home while you go out with some friends, but at times this is simply necessary. You need some time away from your beloved but depressed significant other. You need some space to breathe. You need to keep your spirits up even during these tough times.
This means eating well and sleeping well. Get enough sleep! People do a lot of harm to themselves by trying to do, do, do all the time and skimping on the rest.
Exercise if you can, even if it’s just a daily walk around the block. Keep in touch with friends. Try to live as normally as possible. If you aren’t able to keep going, both of you are going to suffer for it. It is not wrong of you to enjoy yourself while your partner is depressed. You both need at least one of you still ticking.
At the end of the day, there are no easy answers. Depression is hard for a person to go through; it’s hard for a couple to go through. Know that help is available. If you need some guidance and/or support for yourself, feel free to reach out to us, or to anyone in your life who can help.