It’s estimated that over 14 million Americans have some form of major depressive disorder. But what this number leaves out is the many more millions of family members and loved ones who also suffer as a result. And while much progress has been made in terms of individual treatment, dealing with a depressed partner poses its own set of challenges for even the most patient among us.

Here are some ways you can keep your relationship healthy — even when your partner’s mental state may not be.

  • Remember: Depression is an illness. Although awareness is increasing, depression is still often misunderstood as just being a more severe case of “the blues.” While feeling sad or discouraged at times is a normal part of being human, depression is a real and potentially debilitating disorder in which genetics and brain chemistry imbalances as well as environment and life experiences all play a role. Because it can first manifest anywhere between childhood and late middle age, depression can catch both partners by surprise. If you notice your partner displaying symptoms such as ongoing fatigue, loss of interest in favorite activities, or sadness that persists for more than two weeks, encourage them to seek professional help.
  • Blame the illness, not your partner. Keep in mind that depression is something your partner is struggling with, and is likely causing them more pain than it causes you. It is not something that they chose, and not something they can decide to snap out of. And although its symptoms can make your partner seem inconsiderate, hostile, or selfish, remember that the illness is to blame. You may find it difficult to understand what your partner is feeling, or why, but what they need more than your understanding is your sympathy and support. Listen to them as much as possible. Just showing that you care can go a long way.
  • Don’t try to fix it yourself. Many people often feel like they should be able to cure their partner’s depression if they can just figure out the right thing to do or say. This can lead to frustration and a sense of hopelessness, on both sides. Instead, look for practical ways to help. Depressed people often have trouble managing daily tasks, so consider temporarily taking on a bit more of shared responsibilities such as housework, just as if they they were physically sick. Try to keep your partner engaged in pleasant activities on a regular basis, but don’t pressure them if they’re not feeling up to it. Plan events you can look forward to together and remind them of the things they enjoy. Often, the best thing you can do is to assist your partner with the practical aspects of getting professional help, such as keeping appointments. Depression sufferers can find it hard to follow through with their treatment plan.
  • Take care of yourself, too. In a relationship that may have started out on an equal footing, suddenly having to take care of someone with more sensitive needs may seem unfair and lead to resentment. It is natural to feel this way. Suppressing it is not the answer. Discuss these feelings with a close friend or relative or talk to a mental health professional on your own. Remember, you cannot help your partner if your own mental well-being is suffering. If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed, it may help to have a private space to which to retreat. Gently explain to your partner that you just need a bit of time to deal with your own emotions. There may be times when a case of severe depression threatens to spiral out of control. Setting firmer boundaries at these times may be necessary. Be clear that you will seek outside help at the first indication that your partner may pose a danger to themselves or to others. A mutual agreement on this may help your partner channel their feelings in safer ways.
  • Don’t make rash decisions. Ultimately, you are the only person who can decide if you are willing to cope with your partner’s depression. But before you make any major decisions about the future of your relationship, make a serious effort to get help. A majority of patients respond favorably to at least one of the many types of treatments available. With proper management they often are able to resume regular functioning and live fulfilling lives. Some couples have even reported that working through a partner’s depression ultimately helped them understand each other better and make a deeper connection.

Depression may be rough terrain for any relationship, but it does not need to be the end of the line.

Woman comforts her husband photo available from Shutterstock