Being in a relationship with somebody with major depression is challenging. Often, it can feel as though you are also suffering from depression and that the disease is taking away the person you know and love.
A key thing to remember is that your partner is not their depression, and the person you fell in love with is still there.
So, what can you do to help them get through this and feel supported?
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We all get depressed sometimes, usually due to some kind of negative incident or life change. However, experiencing a major depressive episode is a different thing.
Major depression causes severe symptoms, affecting everything in your life. Somebody who has depression¹ will not be cheered up (at least not more than momentarily) by a vacation, cute cat pictures, or other attempts at lightheartedness and fun.
The two most common forms of depression are:
This article is going to focus on major depression.
Major depression comes with several symptoms, some of which will be obvious, especially if you and your partner live together.
In some cases, your partner’s depression symptoms may be more obvious to you than to them. Dr. Gregory Fricchione, director of the Division of Psychiatry and Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, notes, "A man with depression is more likely to practice denial of feelings, often trying to mask them with other behaviors."²
The signs of major depression you should watch for are:
Loss of interest in activities usually enjoyed. This symptom might manifest as an ongoing lack of enthusiasm towards something which typically sparks enjoyment, such as their favorite TV show or a trip you are planning.
Changes in sleep patterns, such as over-sleeping, persistently waking up too early, or insomnia.
Changes in appetite, such as "comfort eating" or not finishing dinner.
A decrease in energy
Difficulty with concentration and memory.
Mysterious aches or pains, often including headaches, back pain, and digestive problems.
Loss of interest in sex.
Even if your partner is in denial or hiding their feelings from you, the above signs may indicate that it’s time to sit down and ask how they are feeling.
You can approach this by asking questions like:
How’s your energy level lately?
How’s your appetite/quality of sleep?
Can you help me understand how you’re feeling at the moment?
Men sometimes show different signs of depression, such as anger or increased risk-taking behavior, such as having unprotected sex, or using drugs, especially alcohol.
Depression is diagnosed in persons who experience the above symptoms every day, nearly all day, for at least two weeks. One of the main indications for clinical depression is a depressed mood or a loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities.
If you think your partner is depressed, it’s important to encourage them to seek professional help.
First of all, your partner's doctor can check for physical issues that might be causing depression. For example, an underactive thyroid can cause symptoms that mimic a depressive disorder, including a depressed mood, changes in appetite, difficulty with memory, and more.
In addition, if your partner is on any medications that might cause depression as a side effect, they should examine that as well.
If there's no underlying physical cause, depression is often treated with a combination of medication and counseling therapy.
Other treatments might include a prescribed increased physical activity that releases hormones to help rebalance the brain, light therapy to regulate melatonin, improved nutrition, meditation, sleep therapy, or acupuncture.
For depression that does not respond to therapy and medication³, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) therapy may be prescribed.
Depression is treated holistically and is rarely treated with medication only. Antidepressant medications are meant to help rebalance brain chemistry and are generally taken for a short time while your partner receives cognitive behavioral therapy.
Ideally, lifestyle changes and coping strategies should be practiced every day and become permanent, as they help get your partner out of depression and help prevent a relapse.
Some symptoms of depression, such as irritability or loss of interest in sex, profoundly affect intimate relationships. However, being a supportive partner can be vital to helping your loved one get their life back together.
There are, in fact, quite a few things you can do that will help.
Couples therapy can help strengthen your relationship so that you both can navigate new challenges and address other issues you might be having.
You may also want to explore some joint sessions with your partner's therapist so that all three of you can work together.
It can be tricky knowing what to say to support a depressed partner. First, try to make sure that you never slip into “the blame game.” In general, a few things to avoid saying⁴ include:
"Just get over it/snap out of it."
"I didn't think you were that sad."
"It can't be that bad" or any variant implying that it's not a real/serious problem.
"It's all in your head." While depression does affect the mind, it can not be simply ‘thought away’ and is very real and exhibits symptoms like chronic pain.
"It's become all about you." That can make a depressed person feel a lot worse and isolated.
"You'll get over it." Hopefully, they will, but that doesn't help them right now.
Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all, and just to listen.
People drop out of depression treatment prematurely a lot—and often end up worse off. If your partner has been prescribed medication, gently remind them to take it. If they are feeling better, also remind them that their medication is part of the reason why. Then, help them get to therapy appointments.
If their doctor has told them to exercise more, find a fun activity you can do together. You will both get into better shape, and most people find it easier to work out with a buddy. Aim to be encouraging and supportive.
Do what you need to do to keep yourself well and resilient, whether that means doing some activities away from your partner, enjoying a hot bath, or buying that box of fudge.
It’s important that you also have someone to speak to and discuss your own thoughts and stressors, so don’t hesitate to seek counseling on your own.
Finally, it helps simply to read up on depression⁵ and increase your understanding of it. It will help you adjust your mindset and form a more genuine, non-judgmental understanding of what your partner is going through.
If your partner has major depression, this can have a big impact on your relationship. You are a vital part of their support network. Your support can help them get through it, comply with treatment, get better, and make positive lifestyle changes that support their mental wellbeing.
Supporting a partner with depression takes patience, but it is also an act of kindness that is well worth it. Feeling listened to and knowing that they have someone in their corner can help your partner recover from depression and possibly come back even stronger than ever.
Depression | NIH: National Institute of Mental Health
Men: Don't ignore signs of depression | Harvard Health Publishing
Depression | National Alliance on Mental Illness
The Worst Things to Say to Someone Who Is Depressed | Very Well Mind
Depression Treatment | Help Guide