The Dos and Don’ts of Helping Your Partner Through Depression
By Rodney Robertson, D. Min., M.A., M.Div., Director of Family Services at The Ranch
Deborah was devastated when she lost her job at age 42. She blamed herself for not being capable enough and went from her usual schedule of getting up for work to barely leaving home. She dwelled on all the things that were wrong in her life. Her mind filled with dark thoughts of ending it all.
But she was afraid to tell anyone, especially her husband, Ken, who was typically the most supportive person in her life. One day he came home and lost his temper. “You have to snap out of this, Deb,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world.”
To Deborah, it was the end of her world as she knew it. She was suffering from depression. That meant her marriage was too. Their family life and intimacy eroded, and he felt helpless.
Deborah and Ken, and so many couples like them, find themselves faced with depression. Depressive disorders are one of the most common mental disorders. They affect about 6.7% of the population in the United States, or about 15 million people.
Here are some of the ways to help your spouse — and yourself— through depression.
Learn about depression. Depression is an illness, not just “the blues.” People with depression cannot always put their feelings and experiences into words so keep an eye out for these signs lasting longer than two weeks:
- Inability to concentrate
- Excessive crying
- Loss of interest in activities they usually enjoy
- Excessive sleep, restless sleep or insomnia
- Overeating or not eating enough
- Isolating and keeping to themselves
- Physical pain
- Maladaptive coping behaviors such as alcohol or drug use
Beware of avoidance. Depression causes people to become focused on themselves, which can push loved ones away. Rather than avoiding the problem and letting it fester, address it so that you can both begin to heal.
Open the lines of communication. Studies show depressed spouses avoid challenging situations because they’re afraid of what response they might get. Try to listen without judgment but also make efforts to communicate in an assertive (not aggressive) way, such as “I’m going to tell you how I’m feeling.” When you share feelings it allows your depressed loved one to express theirs.
Stay emotionally healthy. Partners often become emotionally deregulated; for example, they may feel stressed, anxious or angry or they may become all-consumed by their spouse’s depression. Marital difficulties are known to lead to depression so make sure you take care of your own needs too.
Get to the root. While someone may become depressed after a loss, as Deborah did when her work life crumbled, there can be countless reasons your partner is suffering. Mental health professionals are your best sources for helping your spouse get a diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Work together to figure out the underlying causes of depression, evaluating medical issues such as hormonal imbalances and co-occurring illness or addictions, as well as issues related to early trauma.
Share your truth. Without blame or criticism, explain your experience with your partner’s depression, using statements like, “I feel helpless seeing you like this and want to help. When I can’t, I get upset.” You can be honest without being upset and your gentle approach will create a comfort zone for your partner.
Lash out in frustration. Getting angry or upset may drive the person further into isolation. To maintain healthy communication, avoid these common, hurtful phrases:
- What’s your problem? This aggressive language may feel like an attack to your loved one.
- Why can’t you get over this? This statement minimizes the problem. When a loved one has depression, it’s not realistic to think they can just move on and everything will be fine.
- Enough already! Phrases like this are debilitating and harmful.
Try to control your partner. Don’t try to be a therapist, doctor or superhero and resolve your partner’s symptoms. The solution does not lie in taking charge of the person’s day to day existence or trying to control every aspect of their life in hopes that it will make them better. You can’t be the one to “fix “your loved one but you can lead them toward help.
When one partner is depressed and the other is not, it is important to practice empathy and compassion. Sometimes, for the person who is depressed, being heard and accepted is the first step toward recovery.
Elizabeth’s depression and Ken’s frustration were the perfect storm for damaged communication. Ken, realizing he had more resilience and emotional resources, made the first move. He sat down with his wife and said calmly, “I understand that you’re not feeling well. I understand that you’re depressed. Now we have to find ways to help you. I as your husband am not the person but I can support you in finding the right resources.”
Empowering your partner to find the help they need gives them an opportunity to figure it out for themselves and begin making strides. Elizabeth is still dealing with her symptoms but found the combination of help needed to begin rebuilding her life.