Many couples struggle when one or the other person experiences depression. Depression is like a shark. It swims beneath the surface and though you sense something is there, you may not fully recognize it. You may perceive your love as being distant or withdrawn instead. It’s powerful and feels overwhelming. When you are in the water with depression, it can be hard to see anything else. It poses a distinct sense of danger to your connection, because it clouds your memory of times that things were good or healthy. All you see is shark. A major trademark of depression is isolation and often people with depression say, “I would be happier alone.” To be on the receiving end of this statement can be both confusing and painful.
Being in a relationship with a person with depression can feel terrifying, you may feel unseen or unwanted. At the same time it can be difficult to know how to be supportive. Saying “just cheer up,” is about the same as saying, “just wear a swimsuit in January and the sun will come out.” So what can be done? The following are four things to consider.
Remember this is not about you.
Depression is both neurological and cognitive in nature and cannot be created by any one person. Certain events or situations may spark an occurrence of depression, however the underlying cause is biological. Sometimes in an effort to draw closer you may feel as though you could fix depression by doing enough of the right thing, “If I clean the house a certain way, do a certain task it will make the depression go away.” In the same way that you did not cause depression, you cannot simply fix depression.
Often when one person is feeling depressed the other may experience shame. Shame (like depression) is an emotion that increases our desire to isolate ourselves. The feeling of shame is a reaction to a sense of blame. In an effort to reduce shame, it may be helpful to replace thoughts of shame with the following thought: “Depression is not because of who I am or anything I have done. It is the result of a neurological dynamic in which I have no control. While I cannot fix depression, I can remind my love that I am right with them walking through this hard thing and that they are not alone.”
Ask questions about your partner’s experience.
One way to draw closer to your love is to be curious about your love’s experience. Asking questions is a key that can open you up to your love’s world. What is it like for you when your mood is in this place? Tell me about how you experience depression? When we assume what is happening in another’s world, we often assume their intentions for us as well. One might assume “when he is saying he is tired, what he really is saying is he doesn’t want to spend time with me,” or “she is angry with me and that is why she is not communicating as much.” These assumptions lead us deeper into waters where we sense danger. Then, we react “well if you don’t want to spend time with me, fine.” We develop strategies that create a greater divide. It’s important to consider, “where do I ‘go’ when I feel unseen, unwanted, and alone?” and “is the strategy I’m using drawing her near or pushing her away?”
Start couples and individual therapy.
A therapist is an excellent guide for navigating the waters of both individual and relational fear and distress. Sometimes when a couple cannot see their ‘dance’. A therapist helps to map out the steps. So that at home you can identify the old dance and gain new steps to draw closer to one another. A couple’s therapist helps you find each other, and glean information about the other’s experience. Couples therapy gives new strategies for old scenarios that simply feel impossible when you are in the water with the sharks. While couples therapy is pivotal in a relationship where depression is present, individual therapy helps relieve the symptoms of depression. For the person with depression, an individual therapist will explore the emotions and beliefs that have developed as a result of having depression. Individual therapy helps the individual develop a global sense of how depression is impacting the world around them and gives them a guide for monitoring their own symptoms.
Maintain healthy self-care.
It can be all consuming when depression effects the connection in a relationship. Exhaustion and anxiety are common trademarks of being in a relationship where depression is present. The best antidote for burnout is caring for yourself. Are you feeding yourself in a way that fuels your body? Are you resting so you have energy for the next day? It is far better to take a sturdy, well-built boat into the ocean, then one that has weathered many seas without a tune up. When you are navigating the seas of depression with your love remember to maintain your vessel.