Is your partner depressed? Do you wonder how to best support them? Living with a depressed partner can be so challenging and cause an immense amount of stress. Every relationship is different, but there are effective ways you can support a partner with depression without damaging yourself or the relationship.
Here are 6 ways to support a partner with depression:
1. Communicate openly and lovingly
Many people struggling with depression don’t reach out for help because they feel hopeless. A lot of my clients describe their depression as a kind of dark shadow that casts a cloud over their life. Hearing someone you love say something like, “You can always talk to me, I’m here for you.” can make a huge difference.
One of the best things you can do is be open to hearing whatever it is they say, without judgement. Don’t take everything they say personally and avoid trying to convince them that their life isn’t so bad, or that they should be grateful for what they have. It doesn’t matter how objectively wonderful someone’s life is, depression can still cast a dark shadow that taints every part of life.
2. Let them know they’re not a burden
Besides feeling hopeless, another reason someone may not reach out for help is because they don’t want to burden their loved ones. They probably already feel like a burden, especially if you are taking care of the lion’s share (if not all) household duties and chores. They need to be told explicitly that they can reach out for help, that they will receive it, and that it is not burdensome.
Try saying something simple like, “I want you to know that I’m here for you, and that you’re not a burden.” They may need to be told this regularly for it to stick. Knowing they have your support can go a long way into helping them feel like themselves again.
3. Offer encouragement, but do it mindfully
I really like the saying, “If you’re too depressed to do anything, just do the dishes.” A helpful goal for many of my depression clients is a DBT strategy called Opposite Action. This is when we feel the urge to do something (usually unhealthy), and instead we do the opposite. If your partner doesn’t want to get out of bed all day, encourage them to just take a shower. Or just do the dishes. Or any other simple task you can think of.
Something to keep in mind is that encouragement can be tricky because if we’re not careful, it may come off as putting pressure on them to “get back to normal”. It may add to their concern that it’s hopeless they’ll ever get better. It’s crucial that your tone doesn’t imply that an activity is mandatory or that they’ll get in trouble. You’re helping set small, realistic goals as a way to work towards getting better.
What happens if they don’t get it done? Don’t get upset or criticize them as this can actually demotivate them. Instead, be kind by saying something like “It’s OK, we’ll try again tomorrow” and continue encouraging them. You may feel some irritation or an urge to get upset, and that’s totally OK and understandable.
4. Enlist a friend to encourage them
Sometimes we’re too embarrassed to do something until we know our friends have tried it. Take therapy, for instance. There’s still stigma around therapy, despite it being incredibly beneficial for depression. Your partner may not be into the idea, even if they suspect it may help. You may have brought it up several times and gotten nowhere.
Have any of their friends seen a therapist? Reach out and see if they’ll talk about their experience. If they feel comfortable sharing, have them let your partner know the ways it helped them. They don’t have to get specific, but a general idea could be quite powerful. In this way, not only are you helping your partner, you’re also doing your part to end the stigma around therapy.
5. Cultivate your own support system
It’s not easy to support someone suffering from depression. Just as your partner needs you for support, you too need your own support.
That’s part of what makes this whole process so difficult: your depressed partner doesn’t have the capacity to be a strong support system for you. You are putting out the kind of energy that can quickly drain you. If you don’t take good care of yourself, you may start to feel resentful. Your partner fears being a burden, so it’s crucial they don’t inadvertently become one.
Take a moment and reflect on who can support you while you support your partner. Is there a part of you that doesn’t want to burden your friends and family? Just imagine what it would be like if you added that depression cloud over your thinking! This is a great way to model healthy coping to your partner by utilizing your own resources.
6. Remind yourself that things can get better
There will be days where you reach your breaking point. You feel helpless, your chest feels tight, you’re panicked that it won’t ever get better. You start to worry that this is the new normal, forever. Maybe you feel angry or frustrated.
If this happens, take a long, deep breathe. Remind yourself of the love you carry for your partner and the love they carry for you. Mentally send yourself compassion for the struggle and pain you’re in. It is frustrating and there’s only so much within your control. Then mentally send your partner compassion for the struggle and pain they are in.
Call a friend, family member, loved one, or talk to your therapist. Let them know you’re struggling and that today feels hard.