How To Keep Your Relationship Healthy When You Both Have Depression

mbg Contributor By Kim Wong-Shing
mbg Contributor
Kim Wong-Shing is New Orleans based writer with a B.A. from Brown University. Currently, she is a contributing writer for GO Magazine and StyleCaster.

Image by Dmytro Bilous / Stocksy

Here at mbg, we do our best to help break the stigma associated with mental health disorders like depression and anxiety all year long. But this May—which is Mental Health Awareness Month—we're devoting some extra attention to the topic by highlighting the most innovative ways to boost your own mood on a daily basis and support friends and family members who may be struggling.

One in six people will experience depression at some point in their life, according to the American Psychiatric Association. That means it's not totally unlikely that two people with depression can end up in a relationship with each other. As rates of depression continue to rise worldwide, so, too, do these double-depression relationships.

Dating with depression is challenging no matter what. "When somebody's depressed, they're feeling really hopeless. When you have two people, it's times two or three," New York City psychotherapist and relationship specialist Lisa Brateman tells mbg. "It's a tricky thing."

But it is very possible to have a healthy long-term relationship in these circumstances. With clear boundaries, mutual support, and robust communication, two people with depression can absolutely make it work for the long haul. Here's what two therapists—Brateman and California therapist Kim Egel—say to keep in mind as you navigate your relationship.

Each person's battle with depression is their own battle.

Our mental state always has an effect on our partner, children, and anyone else living in our household. When you and your partner both have depression, it's incredibly important for you to have super-clear boundaries. Each person in the relationship has to take responsibility for their own mental health by cultivating self-awareness, Egel tells mbg.

"Depression shows up differently for each of us, and having awareness as to how your depression presents will help you communicate its effects with more flow and ease to your partner," Egel says. "Allow each individual within the relationship to own and cope with their battle with depression."

It can be tempting to dive into a caretaker role for your partner, especially when you know exactly what it’s like to be in their shoes. But that way lies codependency.

Yes, that means, you should avoid taking on your partner's mental health as your own burden. It can be tempting to dive into a caretaker role for your partner, especially when you know exactly what it's like to be in their shoes. But that way lies codependency. It's not healthy to rely on each other for happiness or support, as it transforms the relationship from two loving adults into a therapy-client or parent-child dynamic.

"You want your relationship to be your relationship," Brateman says. "You don't want to move your relationship into, 'I'm going to be responsible for your depression. I'm going to cheer you up.'"

On the plus side, she says it can be easier for people with depression to not take their partner's depression personally. Because they've been there, they understand that their partner's depression is a part of their partner's own mental state, not a reflection on them or the relationship.

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Self-care is more important than ever.

Image by Alberto Bogo / Stocksy

Self-care in the context of depression may include therapy, medication, support from family and friendslifestyle changes such as exercise or meditation, and, yes, support from your partner. When your partner is depressed too, it means you both need to be especially active when it comes to caring for your own individual mental health.

"Knowing the tools to grab onto when your depressive symptoms kick in is essential for keeping you and your intimate relationship healthy," Egel says. "Owning your individual battle with depression and doing the coping tools that you know to do for yourself to keep your mood as stabilized as possible will affect the state of your intimate relationship."

When both people are entering a depressive episode at the same time, it becomes even more important to ramp up the self-care action plan quickly, Brateman says, before each person's symptoms spiral and affect other areas of life, like employment or friendships. A partner in the middle of an episode is less equipped to help you through yours, so self-care is of the utmost importance at those times. Stay vigilant of your own symptoms and warning signs.

"Because the other person isn't watching this and saying, hey, we need to do something. They both might be just hiding under the covers," Brateman says. "That's why quicker action is important there."

Make clarity and transparency house rules.

Depressive episodes tend to come in waves. You may be in a low state when your partner is not, or vice versa. When you're in the throes of depression, it can be hard to clearly see what's going on with you, let alone tell anyone else about it. It's also difficult to see what's happening with your partner or how you might be affecting them.

The only way to overcome this is to communicate out loud about everything. Guesswork never cuts it in a relationship, but especially not when depression is involved.

"Being verbally clear with your partner about where your mental state of mind is will eliminate any assumptions," Egel says. "Instead of them assuming what's going on with you, being expressive with them verbally will help them understand more about why you're acting and feeling the way you are."

On the flip side, make sure to reassure your partner that you want to know how they're feeling, even if it's bad news. Long-term couples often forget to ask each other simple questions, like "How are you feeling today?" But these check-ins can go a long way toward preventing a depressed person from isolating themselves, which depression tends to make very tempting.

One positive part of a double-depression relationship, though, is that each person may feel more comfortable opening up about their depression once they know that their partner has been there.

If you're struggling to communicate with your partner, try writing your feelings down in a letter or setting aside some time every single week to talk. Couples therapy can help a great deal, too.

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Create a system for how you each want to be supported.

While you should never rely completely on your partner for emotional support, it is incredibly important to show up for one another. Supporting your partner can take many different forms, from verbal reassurances to making joint plans to leave the house.

"Having respect and understanding for your partner as they're coping with their mental health challenges will help to keep a love connection healthy," Egel says. "Your relationship will remain in better standing as you support your partner while allowing them to work through their own individual depressive symptoms."

It can be helpful to make a plan for support ahead of time for each person's depressive episodes rather than winging it when symptoms pop up. Do they want encouragement? A listening ear? Gentle reminders?

Emphasis on the word "gentle." Since you likely spend more time with your partner than most, you may be the first to notice when their symptoms start to worsen. It can be helpful to let your partner know what you see, but you have to tread lightly. Avoid accusations or shaming.

"You can say, 'I noticed you've been eating less. Have you noticed that?'" Brateman explains. "In a very gentle, just, 'I love you, and I'm curious' sort of way. That shows interest but not blaming."

Similarly, do not try to tell your partner what to do to fix their depression. Even if you're right, it'll likely backfire. "Most people don't really appreciate being told what to do," Egel says. "Then they get defensive and dig their heels in, and then there's a conflict, a power struggle. Even if they agree with their partner."

Just remember, your loved one is not a project to be fixed.

"They're not broken," Brateman says. "They're just depressed."

The same goes for you. Both of you are worthy of love and amazing, healthy partnerships—depression and all.

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