It’s natural to feel concerned about a loved one who’s experiencing symptoms of depression. You may be wondering what the best way to support your partner is and how to take the first step.
In this process, it’s common to feel hurt, lonely, or confused as you watch someone you love go through a difficult time and behave in a different way.
If you wish you could take your partner’s pain away, you’re not alone. In the United States, in 2017, 17.3 million adults over age 18 years live with depression, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). When factoring in the families and close friends of these adults, it’s easier to see that this condition affects many millions more.
Depression can be treated, though. And many people fully recover with the help of a healthcare professional. The support of a loved one can also play a major role in this process.
Even though seeking the help of a healthcare professional is highly advisable to help prevent the side effects of untreated depression, there are a few things you can do to make a positive impact in helping your partner living with depression.
Learn about depression
The more you know about depression, the better you’ll be equipped to respond to the potential changes in how they feel, think, and act.
Depression may be diagnosed if your partner has experienced symptoms for at least 2 weeks, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
The condition can be caused by a number of factors, from genetic predisposition to a major life event, like a job loss or a death in the family.
Some symptoms of depression include:
- feeling down, worthless, or guilty
- loss of interest in hobbies or usual activities
- weight or appetite changes
- too much, or too little, sleep
- trouble with concentration
- increased alcohol or drug use
- crying spells or angry outbursts
- loss of interest in sex
- talking about self-harm or suicide
These symptoms may be present all the time, or they can come and go. In fact, not everyone experiences all of these symptoms or with the same intensity. Everyone’s experience with depression is different.
Also, there are different types of depression. Some of them, like persistent depressive disorder, may be more difficult to detect because people can go on with their usual routines. Others, like postpartum depression, may be directly linked to life changes.
Learning more about these types of depression and their symptoms can help you understand your partner better.
You may also want to try the free, interactive, nonfiction game Depression Quest to see what living with depression feels like. While not a fun game, it is an illuminating one and has been played more than 1 million times, according to an article in the New Yorker.
Keep it in perspective
Loving someone with depression may feel challenging at times. It may be important to remember that this is more than just the blues. Depression is not a personal choice — it’s a medical condition.
Depression is not about not making an effort to feel better. Your partner cannot snap out of it or get over it with enough willpower. This is just like someone with a broken arm can’t mend it back together at will. If they could, they would have probably done so already.
If your partner is having a hard time keeping up with chores, for example, they aren’t being lazy or trying to get away with doing less around the home. Depression can make even the simplest tasks feel exhausting, which means your partner may need to be more selective about what they take on.
It may be helpful to liken depression to working with a bucket. Right now, your partner is carrying a smaller bucket than the one they typically use. It’s not a “bad” bucket for holding less water; it’s just what’s available right now. It may work better on smaller jobs, and it needs to be refilled more often.
As you might have guessed, the bucket represents emotional capacity. A similar analogy is the Spoon Theory, popularized by Christine Miserandino. If you’ve ever heard someone with depression say, “I don’t have the spoons,” this is where that comes from.
Ask how you can help
When you’re feeling down, you may love a shoulder massage. Then again, you may not.
It may be particularly important at this time not to assume what your partner needs or doesn’t need.
It may be a good idea to ask them directly.
Some questions may include:
- What do you want to do right now? (and it’s OK if you don’t want to do anything at the moment)
- How is your energy level today?
- Would you like to spend time alone today, or do you prefer hanging out with others?
- What activities felt good the last time you felt this way?
- How can I best support you? What do you need from me right now?
As you ask these questions, it’s important to be open to the answers and don’t follow the need to convince your partner otherwise.
Be an active listener
Depression may impact cognitive functioning, like concentration and decision-making. It can also be hard for some people to put feelings into words.
If your loved one seems like they want to talk, offer to be present and provide a listening ear.
It’s important to validate their experience by reflecting what you’ve heard back to them. If they say something like, “I feel like there’s no reason to get out of bed,” try saying something like, “It sounds like you’re searching for a sense of meaning.”
If they present a problem and seem unsure of how to fix it, ask them what they are hoping to get out of the conversation. Ask, “Are you looking for my advice on this, or do you need to vent?” Oftentimes, those with depression just want someone to listen, without attempting to fix anything.
As they open up to you about what they’re feeling, you may want to reassure them that you love them and that you are here for them.
Those who live with depression often feel guilty for the “burden” they feel they are putting on others. It may be a relief to learn you aren’t going anywhere.
Find outdoor activities to do together
When it comes to depression, sometimes the little things we take for granted are a win, like the ability to get out of the house. It can be helpful when someone is there to provide a little encouragement.
You may want to suggest doing some fun outdoor activities with your partner. Being in contact with nature may help reduce stress levels and improve mood. Physical activity can also promote the release of feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain.
It can be something simple, like taking a walk around the block or a short bike ride on a trail. If your partner is up for it, you could also go for a swim, try rollerblading together, or take an outdoor yoga class.
You can also do something more laid-back, like go to an outdoor concert, take a camping trip, or have a picnic in the park.
Sometimes they may not be up for an activity. Remember, this is not about you, so try not to take it personally. Be prepared to continue on with some plans by yourself or adapt your ideas to what they need that day.
Perhaps bring a good book, take a journal, or find a good podcast to listen to while you sit next to them. If they prefer to be by themselves, they might need you to accept this without trying to convince them otherwise.
Offer to help with tasks
If you live together, sit down as a couple and figure out how you can work together to get both of your needs met. If something they usually take care of feels like too much right now, you may want to ask them what would feel more intuitive at this time.
For example, maybe they can swap out laundry for paying bills online for the month. Or, instead of doing the dishes, they can water the plants. If you are up for it, you may even offer to take on a little more than usual for a few days.
If it’s accessible for you as a couple, you could find out what things you can automate. For example, grocery delivery services may waive a delivery fee if you place an order large enough for a week’s worth of food. Going to the grocery store will be one less thing for both of you to do.
If you don’t live together, you may also find a way to help your partner with their chores. You could also come up with ways to check on them while taking care of specific tasks.
For example, you may explore the possibility of cooking a few dishes for them so they have some lunches ready for the week.
Come up with an action plan
Depression is not a flat line. You may notice that your partner has some “good” days and some “bad” days. It may be helpful to make an action plan for how to respond to particularly trying times, like how you’ll both rearrange the schedule or communicate with each other.
You may even want to consider a code word. If your partner has a hard time being vulnerable, a code word can let you know that it’s time to take those extra measures. Not only that, but it will also remind you to be extra patient with them — and yourself.
Encourage them to seek professional support
As much as you may want to support them in all aspects, remember, you are not your partner’s therapist. It’s important to know your limits and how to encourage seeking out the support of a professional.
It’s a good idea to try a gentle approach. You may try something like, “I think you’re doing a great job handling this; I know it’s not easy. I want to see if we’re doing everything we can to get through this. What do you think about working with a therapist, to give us more tools to work with?”
You might want to suggest couple’s counseling, especially if the symptoms of depression are affecting your communication or sex life. If your partner would prefer to go alone, let them know that you think that’s a great idea too.
If your partner is not ready for a therapist, you may suggest a support group or scheduling an appointment with a primary care physician.
It’s a good idea to reassure your partner of your motive — you want to see them as happy and healthy as possible.
Support them during treatment
If your partner decides to go with some type of therapy, support group, or treatment plan, it’s a good idea to celebrate it. You may tell them how brave you think they are, for example. Say something like, “I’m so proud of you for prioritizing your mental health. It’s a really big deal.”
To help them in the process, you might want to offer practical help. For example, offer to drive them to therapy, wait in the waiting room while they attend a session, or plan a “debrief” afterward so they can tell you how it went if that is something they’re OK with.
If there’s medication involved, you may want to learn more about dosage, times, and side effects. You could also encourage them to work with a therapist, explaining the importance of getting medical advice, before they make any changes to their medication on their own.
Some symptoms of depression can cause you and your partner to experience a few relationship challenges. But with dedication and some creativity, it’s possible to overcome them.
Here are some areas of the relationship that depression may impact and what you can do to mitigate these challenges.
Depression can cause some people to shut down or withdraw emotionally and physically.
As a result, you may feel lonely, even when you are right next to your partner.
One way to prevent a loss of intimacy is with loving gestures, like small tokens of affection, leaving little notes around the house, or sending a love letter via email.
It’s also important to understand this is not something your partner is doing to you. This is a reflection of the challenges they may be experiencing within themselves. It may also be a good idea to let your partner know you understand the difference.
Communication is key. These days, your partner may seem aloof or have a hard time staying present during conversations. They may also be quicker to anger or snap at you over small things. All of these factors can make communication tricky.
You may ease into conversations by letting them know that you only need a few minutes of their time, say 5 minutes. This can take some of the pressure off.
You might also want to try writing down notes of exactly what you want to say. Then, if things escalate, take a breather and come back to the discussion later.
Depression can make it hard to leave the house, let alone put on your best attire to wine and dine your partner.
Consider dates that are more low-key, like a midday movie, a trip to the farmer’s market, or a visit to your local bookstore. Special moments can be found anywhere.
A lower sex drive may be a symptom of depression, and sometimes it can also be the result of antidepressant medications.
If sex isn’t happening as regularly, there are other ways to stay physically connected. For example, holding hands on walks or cuddling on the couch.
If you do have sex with your partner, you may want to reassure them you’re just happy to be there in the moment.
If the cause of lowered libido is antidepressants, you may want to talk with a healthcare professional about other medications that might be available.
When the person you love is experiencing depression, it can also affect your mood. That’s why it’s important to carve out time to take care of yourself, too.
It’s as the age-old idiom goes, you have to put on your own oxygen mask first, before you put on someone else’s.
These are some of the ways you can practice self-care:
- If possible, eat whole, nutrient-dense foods.
- Keep up with the hobbies you love.
- Stay connected to your friends and family.
- Get alone time and manage social exhaustion, especially if you’re an introvert.
- Journal or talk about your feelings with a confidante.
- Engage in relaxing activities, like a bubble bath or massage.
- Get plenty of sleep, between 7 and 9 hours a night.
- Get 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, 5 times a week.
Try to practice loving detachment as well. Recognize that your partner is not behaving this way on purpose; this is not a reflection on you or how you’re showing up in the relationship. It’s not your partner’s fault either — it’s the depression.
Most importantly, try being patient with yourself. It’s natural to feel however you feel, be it angry, overwhelmed, confused, helpless, guilty, or any other emotion that’s coming up.
If you need to, you can always reach out to a therapist for added support.
In some cases, symptoms of depression may become more severe or intense. It may be a good idea to seek the help of a healthcare professional in these instances.
Only a mental healthcare professional may be able to determine the severity of a symptom and the necessary intervention.
Some of the signs you may be able to recognize include:
- rapid changes in mood
- increased or unusual alcohol or drug use
- internet searches on self-harm or suicide
- talking about thoughts or plans for suicide
- interactions feeling “final”
- persistently pushing loved ones away
You may also want to review these suicide prevention and crisis support resources.
It’s natural to be concerned if your partner is living with symptoms of depression. Although it doesn’t replace the support of a mental healthcare professional, your help may make a great impact on your loved one.
Making sure that your partner knows you’re there for them is an important first step. This may include learning more about depression, helping them with specific tasks, and listening to what they feel and want.
It’s also a good idea to take care of your own needs and emotions, so you can be better equipped to lend a hand when needed.
Here are some resources you might find helpful for you and your partner:
- American Psychiatric Association’s Find a Psychiatrist tool
- American Psychological Association’s Find a Psychologist tool
- Asian Mental Health Collective’s therapist directory
- Association of Black Psychologists’ Find a Psychologist tool
- National Alliance on Mental Illness Helplines and Support Tools
National Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline Directory
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Inclusive Therapists
It may also help to join a NAMI Family Support Group near you, so you can connect with others who are going through a similar experience.
At the end of the day, remember you and your partner are on the same team. Symptoms of depression can be managed and treated, and you can both look forward to better and brighter times.