How to Help Your Partner Through Their Depression
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.”