When your spouse has depression, you might be very worried, and feel utterly helpless. After all, depression is a stubborn, difficult illness. Your partner might seem detached or deeply sad. They might seem hopeless and have a hard time getting out of bed. They might be irritable with a swiftly shrinking fuse. They might be tired all the time and say really negative things about everything.
You also might be confused. “[M]any symptoms of depression can be poorly understood, particularly irritability or apathy, which partners can mistakenly label as ‘being crabby’ or ‘lazy,’” said Melissa Frey, LCSW, a therapist who specializes in depression, anxiety, relationships and chronic illness in Northfield, Ill.
“Depression can seem very abstract if you haven’t experienced it, and thus really hard to understand,” she said.
Depression lies on a spectrum, from mild to severe. And regardless of where your spouse stands on the spectrum, it can be overwhelming. It’s natural for you to feel powerless, anxious, afraid, frustrated and confused. But there are many ways you can help (both them and yourself). Below, you’ll find various concrete suggestions.
Don’t be a cheerleader. The biggest mistake partners unwittingly make in trying to help is to say things like: “Our life is so good—there’s nothing to be depressed about,” “Just cheer up” or “I know today is going to be a good day, you just watch,” said Colleen Mullen, PsyD, LMFT, a psychologist and founder of the Coaching Through Chaos private practice and podcast in San Diego.
Of course, you’re just trying to be positive, likely hoping that your positivity becomes contagious. But these statements invalidate your partner’s illness and their feelings, she said. Because being positive (or not) isn’t the problem.
People can’t think their way out of depression. Depression has nothing to do with having bad days or not having enough good things in one’s life, Mullen said. There doesn’t “need to be a perceived ‘reason’ to be depressed.” Depression is a complex illness, caused by a combination of factors, including biological and genetic vulnerabilities, stress, trauma, and medical conditions.
Don’t personalize your partner’s negativity. Even though your partner might make all kinds of negative comments, they’re not making an active choice to be negative, Frey said. Their negativity is a symptom of their illness. As Mullen said, your partner “has an illness, not a bad mood.”
Frey uses this analogy when talking to clients whose partners have depression: You’re standing in a dark hallway. At the end there’s a bright, shiny something that you really want and love. But instead of walking toward it, you have to sit down because you’re so exhausted and sick, you’re unable to move.
“Not walking down that hallway isn’t personal; it’s an indicator that depression has taken over your partner’s brain. They feel that pain in a very real way, even though you can’t physically see it.”
Understand what they’re going through. Frey stressed the importance of trying to understand your partner’s experience of depression, along with their specific symptoms. Talk to them about what they’re going through (without interrupting, or trying to sugarcoat or fix). For instance, you might say: “I’d like to understand what you’re feeling. Pease tell me,” or “Please help me understand how depression is affecting you.”
Focus on small steps together. When someone is having significant depression symptoms, taking certain actions—sometimes any action—can feel overwhelming and difficult and unmanageable, Frey said. If your partner hasn’t sought treatment for their depression, this might be why.
And this is where you can help: Help your partner think of and take small steps, such as making an appointment with their primary care physician, attending one or two therapy sessions to see what they think, reading about depression online, or listening to a podcast about it, Frey said.
Mullen suggested participating in the healthy behavior changes or adjustments your partner is doing to decrease their depression. For instance, you might take daily walks, ride your bikes, or go to the gym—even if you do different things. Just the act of being there as a couple can help your partner feel like you’re working as a team.
Practice compassionate self-care. Don’t forget to focus on your own mental, emotional and physical health. As Frey said, “It’s the whole ‘put your oxygen mask on first’ concept.”
One powerful way to practice self-care is to seek your own support. Frey actually sees about as many partners as she does people with depression. She also noted that partners benefit greatly from connecting with others who are in similar situations, whether that’s through in-person support groups or online.
Small activities go a long way, too. Frey shared these examples: savoring a morning cup of tea or coffee outside; browsing a bookstore; taking a long bath. “It’s good to ask yourself what you would most love to do if you had a free hour, a free day, or even a free 15 minutes, and then focus on building these ideas into your daily life.”
Remember these aren’t frivolous or selfish activities. Instead, it’s critical for partners to have a “strong roster of coping skills…. to be able to deal with the helplessness that they may feel through their partners’ depression episodes,” Mullen said.
Ask your partner for emotional support. It’s OK to ask your partner to support you, too. When you’re going through a challenging situation, Mullen said, don’t internalize it or talk to others. Instead, talk to your partner. For instance, she said, you might say: “I know you’re having a tough time. I could really use some emotional support myself today. Do you think we could set aside some time for me to let you know what I’m dealing with at work later today?”
Similarly, your partner should still be participating in family activities, such as co-parenting and date nights, Mullen said. If your partner can’t “participate in the relationship, this may be a stepping stone to them getting treatment.” At the very least, she said, couples counseling would be key.
Show your love. “People with depression can feel guilty or like a burden to those around them,” Frey said. They may feel absolutely awful about themselves. Keep reminding your partner that they are loved and appreciated. According to Mullen, you might do this by: recognizing that their feelings are real; giving them some emotional space; asking what they need; and offering to listen. She shared these examples: “How can I support you today?” “I can make plans for lunch tomorrow if you’d like some time to yourself,” “I’m always here if you want to talk.”
At the same time, remember that your partner’s well-being is not your responsibility, Mullen said. “Just like if your partner had diabetes, you are not responsible for their high blood sugar, you are not responsible for your partner’s depression, nor can you change it by altering how you act.”
Again, your partner has a real illness that requires treatment.
“Caring for someone with depression can be challenging, but it can also deepen our relationships,” Frey said. “We can use the experience to build the trust that we are in true partnerships where both people have each other’s backs” and are there when times get tough.