A married couple came to psychotherapist Rebecca Nichols, LPC, to improve their communication. The wife was having a hard time concentrating on conversations. In the last few months she’d become increasingly irritable and indecisive. And she constantly snapped at her husband. While the couple’s communication certainly needed work, it turned out that the wife was struggling with depression.
Thankfully, this couple sought help. Nichols helped the wife work through her depression, and helped both of them improve their relationship. But often depression goes unnoticed, especially when the signs are subtle.
Irritability isn’t typically associated with depression, even though it’s not uncommon. Indecisiveness and lack of concentration, which are cognitive symptoms of depression, are hard to spot, according to Nichols, who works with individuals and couples at Urban Balance in Chicago, Ill. Yet these symptoms are often debilitating.
We asked experts to share other potential signs of depression, along with the best ways to respond if your partner appears to be struggling. Depression is a difficult illness, and we may not see it right away even in our closest loved ones. The sooner you help your loved one get diagnosed, the sooner they’ll get better.
Signs of Depression
Another subtle sign of depression is withdrawing or wanting to be alone, said Stephanie Smith, PsyD, a psychologist who specializes in depression in Erie, Colo. Your partner might skip your usual date night to watch TV in the basement, she said. Understandably, you might take this personally. But isolation and lack of pleasure in previously enjoyed activities are symptoms of depression.
Your partner also might stop being engaged. They might stop smiling, laughing or making eye contact, said Susan Orenstein, Ph.D, a licensed psychologist and relationship expert in Cary, N.C. They may have “a look of being vacant” or “not really there.” It might be hard to connect with them, she said.
Instead of their mood plunging, they might be resentful, bitter and get easily frustrated, she said.
They also might exhibit typical signs of depression, such as: unrelenting sadness; tearfulness; changes in appetite, weight or sleep; lack of energy or excitement; and a shrinking desire for sex.
How to Help Your Partner
Talk to your partner. Tell them the specific behaviors that are concerning you and reiterate your love, Orenstein said. “You can even say, ‘I’m not trying to diagnose you or make you feel bad. I’m sharing my concerns, because I love you and I’m concerned that you’re not acting like yourself. I think it would be helpful if you go talk to someone to see what’s going on. I’ll go with you if you’d like.”
Really listen. Listening without talking too much or trying to fix the situation is surprisingly difficult, Smith said. Sometimes, we also interrupt or criticize what our partners say.
But listening — without doing any of those things — is key. As Orenstein said, “You don’t need to lead the conversation or provide any answers. Being there, being present, and listening without judgment can be very healing.”
She gave these examples of what you can say: “Is there anything you’d like to talk about? Is there anything on your mind? I’m here to listen. I don’t want you to go through this by yourself; that’s why we’re a couple. I love you.”
Be open to feedback. Orenstein also suggested saying: “If there’s something about me that’s bothering you, I want to hear that too. I want to help and if I’m getting on your nerves or being insensitive in any way, I really want to know.”
Encourage them to seek help. In some cases individuals with mild depression can recover on their own. But typically help (and a proper diagnosis) is vital. “Encouraging and normalizing therapy for your partner, and advising them to see their medical doctor if needed, is critical for recovery,” Nichols said.
Couples counseling also can help. As Orenstein said, “Sometimes couples counseling is a great way to address an individual’s depression, especially as it impacts one’s relationship and home life.”
Show your love in different ways. According to Nichols, you can verbally communicate your love. For instance, you might say: “I want you to know I love you and I care that you feel happy.”
She also encouraged readers to use specifics, such as: “I love how kind, brave and smart you are.”
Small actions or gestures also are significant. Text your partner during the day that you’re thinking about them, complete a chore you normally don’t do, or leave a love note, she said.
Remember you can’t snap out of depression. While some people can choose to be happy or choose to have positive thoughts, someone with depression cannot, Smith said. Thinking your partner can just snap out of it can lead you to blame them for how they’re feeling, which only amplifies their guilt, she said. “Depression is a highly treatable disorder but it can’t be resolved with an inspirational quote or poster,” she said.
Similarly, remember that having depression is out of your partner’s control, Nichols said. “Yes, they play a role in their treatment but they did not choose to feel depressed. Blaming them for ruining events or experiences does not help diminish the guilt they probably already feel.”
Support your partner through their recovery. Nichols helps her clients with depression break down overwhelming tasks and activities into smaller steps and includes their partner in the process. You can help your partner identify gradual steps and support and praise them as they accomplish each task.
An example of a task is getting a new job. On the first day, your partner’s goal might be to browse job websites. In a few days, they might work on one section of their resume, and so on until they’re ready to submit an application, Nichols said.
Keep up with self-care. Nichols noted that while being encouraging is imperative, it’s also equally vital to maintain healthy boundaries. “You are there to support your partner, but it is not your responsibility to ‘cure them.'” Keep up with your daily self-care routine. This might include seeing a therapist yourself. As she said, “It is not helpful for [your partner] if their depression consumes you as well. This can lead to anger and resentment.” Taking care of yourself also gives you more energy to support your partner.
Take suicide seriously. “If your loved one ever talks about suicide, please do not see it as an empty threat and take the necessary steps to ensure their safety,” Nichols said. Even though it’s upsetting, ask your partner directly about their thoughts to determine the threat level: “Do you have a current plan? Do you know when you would do it?”
If your partner has a specific plan that can be executed, call 911 or a local crisis center. If it’s safe, you can take them to the emergency room yourself. If they’re in danger of committing suicide, don’t leave them alone, she said.
Depression is a serious illness. You may feel powerless watching your partner suffer. But encouraging them to seek professional help (and a proper diagnosis) is key. Depression is highly treatable. If your partner is OK with it, accompany them to his or her first appointment. Support them as they recover. Be empathetic. Remember they’re struggling with a real illness. And be sure to take care of yourself, too.