Dating someone with depression is undoubtedly challenging. From tears and social withdrawal to stormy moods, changes in appetite, sleepless nights and a lowered sex drive – depression can have a devastating effect on your partner, but also on you and the relationship between you. In this article, we describe the symptoms and treatment options for depression before taking you through 7 ways that you can support your partner through their illness.
What is Depression?
Depression is a psychiatric condition that usually comes with intense feelings of sorrow, hopelessness, worthlessness and/or guilt; and these may come on gradually or suddenly – not only following a traumatic or stressful event. Importantly, depression is more than just about of everyday sadness – an emotion which we all experience from time to time. Beyond what you feel emotionally, depression also affects your thoughts, behaviors, and self-esteem, making it incredibly difficult to live a normal life.
- Persistent feelings of sadness
- Feeling tired all the time
- Altered sleep patterns: you may find yourself sleeping more than usual or struggling to sleep
- Changes in the way you eat: you may eat less or have more food cravings, leading to weight changes
- Feeling hopeless and/or worthless
- Thoughts of suicide which may be accompanied by suicide attempts
- Difficulties with concentration, which may make it difficult for you to perform your job, or even smaller daily tasks
- You may lose interest in activities that you previously enjoyed
- You may experience physical sensations, such as aches and pains
Research shows that both medication and therapy affect the brain in similar ways and are equally effective in reducing depressive symptoms. While there are many medications and therapy modalities out there, these are some of the more popular options for treating depression:
- Medications: your GP or psychiatrist may prescribe antidepressants such as Prozac, Lexapro or Zoloft. Medication is often combined with talk therapy because the antidepressants put you in a space where you’re able to take full advantage of the benefits of counseling.
- Psychodynamic Therapy: this common form of talk therapy explores how your life’s history may be affecting your current difficulties. The psychodynamic approach also focuses on how your unconscious – aspects of your mind that you’re not always aware of – might be causing or worsening your symptoms. This is a good option for people who want to heal by understanding themselves on a deeper level.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): this is another popular form of talk therapy that focuses on changing negative thoughts patterns which underlie your symptoms. During this process, you will learn specific skills and techniques that will help you to cope; and CBT is a good option for people who are looking for straightforward and practical solutions.
Does My Partner Have Depression?
While some people tick all the boxes and qualify for a diagnosis of clinical depression (also known as major depressive disorder), others may have just a few symptoms, falling short of the full diagnosis. If your partner is showing signs of depression but isn’t ready to be assessed by a professional, you may be unsure as to whether they have clinical depression, symptoms of depression or another condition altogether. Regardless of the diagnostic label that we use, there are certain things that you can do to help your partner cope with these upsetting symptoms.
How To Support a Partner With Depression
There are several things that you can do to show your partner that you’re there for them as they walk this difficult path. Here are some pointers:
Depression is Complicated
If you’re dating someone with depression, it helps to understand the complexity of what they’re going through. This involves acknowledging that ordinary sadness and depression look similar but are actually very different experiences. While sadness is a transient and normal (even healthy) part of life, depression is a psychiatric disorder that may not pass without proper treatment. This also means accepting that the things which you might use to get over a bad mood – taking a jog, catching up with friends, watching a movie or just thinking positively – are probably not going to work for your partner. Furthermore, unlike sadness, depression is not something that you can simply talk your partner out of: it’s only by listening and showing that you care that you can indirectly help in your partner’s struggle against this disorder.
It’s Not About You
A person with depression may put on a brave face when they bump into a friend at the supermarket or when their cousin pops over for coffee, but this does not mean that everything is okay. The closer you are to a person with depression, the more likely you are to witness their real and raw emotions, from melancholia and hopelessness to irritation and angry outbursts.
If you’re dating someone with depression, it’s easy to take things personally and assume that, for example, you’re not able to cheer up your partner the way their friend or cousin can. You may also take stock of the fact that the unpleasant feelings are only expressed around you and assume that this is because you’re causing the depression. The fact that your partner is expressing their darkest thoughts and feelings to you and not other people means that they feel safe enough in your presence to do so – not that you’re eliciting these feelings in them! To support your partner, you need to acknowledge that this is not about you.
Not Everything is Because of Depression
Separating your partner from their depression can be therapeutic: this is the difference between saying ‘you’re a depressed person’ versus ‘you have depression’. Speaking of depression as a separate entity can help your partner feel better about what they’re going through. For example: “it’s the depression that’s sapping all of your energy” or “you feel hopeless right now because your depression is affecting your thoughts”.
However, if you’re dating someone with depression and find that you’re using this line of reasoning to invalidate genuine concerns that they might be having, this can be incredibly hurtful to them and to your relationship. A person with depression is still in touch with reality and they may feel appropriately upset or angry about what’s going on in their lives.
Your partner may, for example, want to discuss an issue about your relationship, pointing out what you could be doing differently. If you defensively invalidate this sort of statement by saying that it’s the depression talking, you are disempowering them by implying that having depression means they can’t have a valid opinion on anything.
Understand You Can’t “Fix” Them
If you’re dating someone with depression, it’s natural to feel an urge to “fix” them. But to truly support them, you need let go of this idea. Why? First, there is no quick fix for depression: the process of recovery takes time and works in ways that brain scientists have not yet fully understood.
Second, depression is a medical condition. You wouldn’t try to “fix” diabetes or cancer and the same rules apply for depression: support your partner, but let the professionals take responsibility for effecting therapeutic change.
Third, by trying to fix them, you’re setting both of you up for failure, which might lead your partner to feel guilty and this could further fuel the depression. Fourth, by simply being supportive without trying to “fix” them, you’re sending out the message that you love them unconditionally and that you’ll be with them whatever they’re going through. On the other hand, by trying to fix them you’re communicating that you’re not okay with the situation and that you need them to change.
Keep Open Communication
Connecting with someone who is depressed can be challenging because during those moments you’re opening yourself up to the possibility of feeling their pain. You may also feel unsure of what to say or you may worry about saying the wrong thing and making things worse. But if you’re dating someone with depression, communication really is key.
Focus on listening and being fully present while they speak. Maintain eye contact and ask questions when you don’t completely understand the situation; and try not to give practical advice or judge what they say. If it feels appropriate, encourage your loved one to describe what they’re feeling emotionally – but be open to the possibility that they may not want to be ‘counseled’ and might prefer to chat more generally or perhaps simply watch TV or spend time alone.
At the end of the day, however, what you say doesn’t matter all that much. This is because effective communication amounts to far more than just saying the right thing. Good communication is about sending the message – verbally and non-verbally – that you’re present and that you care.
Depression Can Affect Your Sex Life
If you see a psychologist for the first time, there’s a good chance that you’ll be asked about your sex life. Why? Sexual functioning is like a health barometer: it’s difficult to keep functioning normally in the bedroom if something is not quite right when it comes to your health. Depression is no exception and people with this condition are more likely to experience sexual dysfunction and a lack of sex drive. This is not just because it’s hard to become aroused when you’re not in a good mood, but because depression affects our hormones, brain chemicals, and bodily functions.
Furthermore, many antidepressant medications list lowered sex drive as a side-effect, so it really may feel as if you’re stuck between a rock and hard place in this situation. Naturally, this can put extra strain on your relationship. To support your partner, however, you need to recognize that changes in sexual functioning are par for the course and that they do not imply that your partner has lost interest in you. Address this by finding other ways to be intimate. You can do this by, for example, having an open conversation, sharing dinner and a movie, giving a non-sexual massage or even initiating a good cuddle session.
Don’t Forget Self-Care
Dating someone with depression can be challenging: your lifestyle changes, as does your relationship and sex life. You’re suddenly spending much more time listening to and experiencing a range of difficult thoughts and emotions. You’re probably also feeling that you’re unable to speak about your own experience through all of this or any other issues that you might be grappling with, in case this makes your partner feel like a burden.
Ultimately, however, you need to be practicing self-care, which means taking deliberate action to support yourself emotionally and/or physically. You can do this by, for example, actively taking time to do something that you enjoy. Make sure that you’re eating healthily, getting enough exercise and sleeping properly; and if you’re carrying a lot of stress, find a friend, family member, counselor or support group that you can debrief with when needed. It’s important to recognize that you’re only going to be able to support your partner effectively if you’re looking after yourself at the same time – a car won’t go far if the fuel tank is running on empty.
We’ve all heard the adage that nothing good comes easy. This is true when it comes to dating someone with depression – a potentially confusing, challenging, exhausting and even scary experience. But the depression also gives you an opportunity to connect on a deeper level; and by showing that you will be there for them through even the toughest of times, your relationship is likely to grow and strengthen considerably.
Remember: it’s not your role to treat their depression. By simply being there for your partner, you’ve got the best chance of quickening their recovery while strengthening your bond at the same time.