By Christopher Matteson, MS, LAMFT
When depression strikes people, the relationship with their significant other can quickly become a confusing tangle of hurt and blame. One of my favorite things to ask these couples in a therapeutic setting is, “Tell me about when you first started dating.” For the most part, for a brief moment, it’s like a shroud of darkness is lifted. Faces lighten up, smiles appear and people speak of hope, happiness, and connection. They remember the expectation of the unknown, their bright future together, and the thrills and butterflies associated with those early dates. This was before the rejection from that graduate program, before losing that job promotion that was going to deliver them from debt, or before the little chaotic entropy machines of children started throwing their shoes into the industrial machinery of the relationship, sabotaging all future plans of peace and happiness. Simply stated, they briefly remember the promise of life before life got in the way…before depression set in.
There are many reasons why people may find themselves experiencing depression, also known as Major Depressive Disorder, or Clinical Depression. Sometimes these reasons are not so clear cut and are difficult to understand just as much for the individual suffering from the depression as for the spouse who stands by feeling helpless, not knowing what to do. Understanding what depression in your partner looks like is the essential first step in getting help.
The symptoms of depression range from the obvious to more subtle, less recognizable indicators, including:
- Disturbance in normal sleep patterns
- Lack of energy
- Daily sadness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Decreased interest in daily activities or things once found pleasurable
- Loss of hope, excessive guilt or self criticism, or feelings of worthlessness
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Irritability and anger
- Substance abuse, or compulsive and reckless behavior
- Unexplained body aches and pains
Being in a relationship where one suffers from depression can be difficult and sometimes contagious. Usually, families are a great source of support and joy, but in my experience as a therapist, they can also be the focus for extra unnecessary pain, misunderstanding, and additional stress. I don’t feel that this comes as a result of partners or other family members willfully trying to add to the problems. More often than not, it’s simply that family members don’t have the effective tools to be supportive, and their efforts to help end up sometimes doing more harm than good. If you find yourself in a relationship where your partner is depressed, here are some suggestions of ways to work towards regaining that hope of a bright future together:
Realize it’s not about you. One of the most crucial things you will need to remember is to learn that this is not a personal attack against you. If your partner is depressed, recognize that this is an illness. Studies report that roughly ten percent of the US population may suffer from some form of mood disorder. It is not willful hostility directed at you. Depression can be frustratingly confusing even to the individual suffering from it. Recognize that they may not be able to explain it and that it does not mean they’re trying to hide something from you if they can’t put it into words. It’s also very important to remember that this is not an easily visible illness. It can be difficult to treat it like an illness because the spouse or others around the individual want to justify by dismissively saying things like, “He/she looks fine to me.” Even the depressed individual begins to question and shame themselves further by asking, “Why should I be depressed? I’ve got it pretty good. There are others who are far worse off than I am.” It’s important to help the depressed individual understand that their life is unique to them as are their challenges. Even though others have different struggles, your problems are still very real and scary to you.
Learn about the illness. Educate yourself as much as possible about depression. Seek out advice from professionals, read books recommended and written by professionals with appropriate credentials. Read reputable, respected websites from organizations and support groups that focus on mood disorders.
Support their personal efforts towards recovery. Encourage your partner to seek help. This may be a difficult process if their motivation is low. Remember this is not because they are lazy or being stubborn. There may be a lot of feelings of shame associated with the illness. Gently encourage them in a way that shows you support them in their choices, but also offers them hope.
Listen. Find opportunities to supportively talk about the problem, but more important, LISTEN. Remember that one of the symptoms of depression is difficulty in concentrating. There can sometimes be a disconnect between what is being said and what an individual hears their partner saying. When depression is in the mix, that statement is true for BOTH individuals in the relationship. Listening and repeating back to your partner what you heard is crucial before you continue the discussion with what you THINK you heard.
Be a part of their recovery. Do not kid yourself into thinking this is their issue and that they need to fix it on their own. They will need your support and help through every step of recovery. It’s important to find a good balance. You can’t “fix” them on your own either. It’s easy with depression to get into an emotional “tug of war” where each spouse is on the opposing end of the rope. Remind yourself and your spouse that you two need to be on the same side of the rope, and that the depression is the opponent on the other end. Look for ways that you can make sure you’re dropping the opposing side and walking over to your partner’s side to work together …don’t expect them to be the one to drop the opposing end.
So often that tug of war happens in the first place because you’re waiting for them to change some idea and not looking at what you can do differently. When speaking with one of my colleagues about his wife’s depression, he shared that the language used to describe the problem was crucial. He shared that since it affected them both, it wasn’t spoken of as “her problem,” but rather as “our problem.” In his eyes, had it been another, more visible and accepted illness such as cancer, they would have easily both united to fight the issue as “our problem.” He also shared that he realized he had a responsibility to be knowledgeable not only about the illness, but also about the best ways to respond to, and help her sort through the depression.
Recognize your needs. If your partner is suffering from depression, you need to make sure that you are taking appropriate measures to take care of yourself. As I mentioned earlier, depression can be contagious. You need to make sure that you are taking time to do things that you find pleasing and calming to you. Make sure you’re establishing a healthy diet and good sleep patterns. Exercise is important for both individuals in the relationship. It’s also important for you to find someone emotionally safe who you can communicate with when you are feeling overwhelmed so as to not overwhelm the depressed person even more. Recognize that at times you may feel angry or frustrated and exhausted and that it’s okay as those are natural responses to stressors. It may be a good idea that you join a support group in order to process through those feelings.
Get professional help. If you feel that you or your significant other are suffering from depression, please make sure that you seek out an understanding professional. In therapy, individuals are able to have the space to share their thoughts without fear of judgment. They can have certain unhealthy ways of thinking challenged to help them to get past roadblocks that keep them stalled in their issues. A good therapist is someone who guides the two of you out of the darkness to once again see the bright light of hope for the future you both once had.
If you or someone that you love is considering counseling for help overcoming depression, contact us at Utah Valley Counseling by calling 801.407.4134 for an appointment or for a free 15 minute phone consultation with one of our therapists.