Mood disorders affect nearly one in five adults yet little attention is given to the impact that these disorders have on intimate relationships. When I say "mood disorder," I'm referring to conditions such as depression, generalized anxiety, and even PTSD.
While there are many forms of mood disorders, depression and anxiety are the most commonly diagnosed. These illnesses can make connecting emotionally difficult and increase conflict and create undo strain on otherwise strong relationships. Common symptoms, such as withdrawing from social interaction, feelings of worthlessness, and lack of interest, can wreak havoc on the very relationships that matter most.
So what’s a couple to do when one (or both) of you is dealing with a mood disorder? These tips can help.
1. Don't pretend things are fine.
For many partners of depressed individuals, there is a natural instinct to protect that person from “difficult” emotions and conflict. In an effort to minimize conflict, couples may hide their frustration with the other person's depressive or anxious symptoms and even the side effects of medication. Unfortunately, this desire to protect often backfires as resentment builds and emotional closeness fades.
Instead of pretending things are fine, it's best to confront the challenges of living with a mood disorder head on. You start by saying something like, "I know that when you're dealing with depression it's hard for you to spend time with me but I get lonely as well. Can we talk about how we can stay connected even when the depression is hard?"
By opening up honest communication, you're able to maintain a sense of intimacy and trust, in addition to creating a foundation for mutual support. Be careful to be honest about your feelings and never condemn the other person. A great way to do this is by talking about depression or anxiety as something that effects you both rather than personalizing it as "your depression" or "your moodiness."
2. Learn about the illness.
Whether only one person in a couple or both have a mood disorder, it's crucial that you both learn about the illness and effective treatments. There are many options available when it comes to treating mood disorders and research has shown the most effective approach involves multiple modalities. By learning about the illness, you can equip yourselves with the information necessary to minimize its impact and develop an effective treatment plan, together.
Organizations such as Mental Health America, American Association for Marriage & Family Therapy, and NIMH all offer a wealth of free and low cost resources. In addition, you can read personal tales that can offer a more intimate look at living with depression or anxiety. Two great examples are Therese Borchard's Beyond Blue and Dan Harris' 10% Happier.
Another thing to realize is that each person is unique. Learn about your partner’s specific brand of depression. Are there triggers, like changes in the season or lack of sleep, which exacerbate the issue? What kinds of lifestyle changes support a better, more stable mood? And how can you help?
Ask questions and remember that learning is a process, not a one-time Q&A session. As a couple, you'll need to share your observations and allow your knowledge to evolve over time.
3. Take care of yourself.
One of the reasons that mood disorders can be so problematic in relationships is that the symptoms do not promote intimacy or closeness. When struggling with depression, as well as anxiety or mania, people can become closed off to others, numb, and even angry or aggressive. These symptoms can quickly create a negative cycle within the relationship causing a lot of conflict and very little loving support.
Making self care a priority is crucial for both partners in order to avoid these pitfalls. For the person with a mood disorder, this means seeking professional advice, and developing and implementing a comprehensive treatment plan that is effective. Take time to focus on yourself and pay attention to your body’s signals about stress, sleep, and diet. A licensed therapist can be a wonderful ally in this process.
These same tips apply to the supportive partner. Particularly in cases of severe depression, taking care of someone with a mood disorder can feel like trying to fill a bottomless bucket — you give and give and it’s never enough. Love and kindness are important parts of taking care of someone with a mood disorder but it is not enough.
As a caretaker, you must remember that you alone cannot “cure” someone else’s depression. Everyone must make time to replenish themselves or there will be nothing left to give. With ongoing self-care, together you can face the challenge of mood disorders.