How Depression Can Affect Relationships & What To Do About It
Dating someone with depression can be difficult to navigate, and it's not uncommon. It's estimated at least 7% of U.S. adults suffer from depression, causing things like low motivation, low self-worth, and a myriad of other issues.
As a partner, how can you support and love someone with depression without taking on the role of their therapist? Here's what to know about how depression can affect relationships, plus how to handle it.
How depression affects a relationship.
A depressed partner isn't something that can be taken lightly, as it will likely affect all aspects of the relationship. "The partner experiencing the depression often feels a lack of motivation and energy," explains licensed marriage and family therapist Shane Birkel, LMFT, "and then ends up feeling guilty for not having the ability to show up in the relationship in a meaningful way."
There's research that indicates, for example, that depression can cause decreased libido and sexual dissatisfaction, on top of making other everyday tasks difficult. And with one partner depressed, the other is left unsure of what to do.
They can feel like they've lost the person they fell in love with, to the point of questioning whether they can stay in the relationship, Birkel adds. "They feel sad about not having the relationship they once had, and sometimes it feels like a grieving process. This often leads to disappointment and resentment because they feel like they are disproportionately holding up the relationship," he says.
As one partner learns how to manage their symptoms and hopefully improve, the other must also learn how to hold space and support, while finding where their own boundaries are.
Tips for dating someone with depression:
1. Find acceptance.
As Birkel explains, not only does the depressed partner need to accept their situation, so does their significant other. "One of the keys to dealing with this is having acceptance on both sides," he says, where both parties can lean into the struggle and try to work through it.
2. Don't attempt to fix them.
As psychotherapist Megan Bruneau, M.A., previously explained to mbg, no one wants to feel like you're trying to fix them. Rather than constantly offering solutions, practice holding space. "Let them know 'I'm here to listen,'' or 'I want to better understand what you're going through right now,' and 'I'm here for you despite what depression might be telling you.'"
3. Prioritize compassion.
"Having compassion for the person with depression and making an effort not to blame or judge," according to Birkel, is the most important thing you can do to support your partner. It sounds simple, but given these kinds of dynamics can foster resentment, it may need to be a conscious choice.
4. Avoid toxic positivity.
Telling someone to "just stay positive" is simply not effective. In fact, as Bruneau explains, it's quite the opposite. "In actuality," she says, "it will likely make them feel worse—weak, ashamed for feeling sad, and less able to feel safe in your relationship."
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5. Practice honest communication.
This is a no-brainer for any relationship, but it's of particular importance when depression may be keeping one partner from being fully honest. "One thing that happens a lot," Birkel notes, "is they don't say anything and have it hanging over their head all day long. ... For example, the partner with depression may not have the energy to mow the lawn that day, but if they are able to express that and communicate that openly, it will be very helpful to the relationship."
6. Help them find resources.
It's important to note that someone with depression should not be seeking a therapist in their partner. Encourage them to get help, whether through support groups, a therapist or psychologist, or even a life coach. "It will be very helpful to the relationship, and the significant other of the person with depression is making a commitment to take some steps to treat or address the depression," Birkel says.
7. Support their purpose.
Having a purpose is considered an integral factor in one's overall well-being, and depressed people often struggle with a lack of meaning. Supporting your partner's goals and purpose, as opposed to pushing them, can help them feel empowered. If their purpose is their children, for example, Birkel explains you can say something along the lines of, "I know you really wanted to go outside with the kids today. How can I support you to make this happen?"
8. Don't be afraid to ask the hard questions.
And lastly, Bruneau notes it's important not to be afraid of asking the tough questions. Are they eating enough? Feeling hopeless? Maybe even suicidal? "There is a common misconception that if we ask someone if they've been thinking about suicide, we might put the idea in their head or drive them to do it," Bruneau says. "This is untrue. Often, being asked causes great relief for a person who's been thinking about it."
Things to keep in mind:
You are their partner, not their therapist.
Taking on the therapist role can be one of the very things that leads to resentment in a relationship. While of course you want to support your partner, it's important to know where to draw the line. "It is extremely important for both partners to have good boundaries when one person is experiencing depression," Birkel says.
It's important as well to recognize that you aren't responsible for how your partner is feeling, and their depression isn't a reflection of you or your relationship, Birkel adds. This is why it's important, again, to encourage and support them in getting help from a therapist or other mental health professional.
Take care of yourself, too.
You can't pour from an empty cup, and one of the best things you can do for a partner with depression is continue to take care of yourself, so you can show up for them, while also embodying a healthy lifestyle that may encourage them.
As Birkel explains, when you take good care of yourself, it allows you to be more patient with your partner, without feeling responsibility for the depression. "This is moving into acceptance of the depression and letting go of something that person can't control," he says. "It looks like coming from a place of confidence that they are a good partner, not doing anything wrong. From this place they can offer understanding and support."
The bottom line.
Almost without a doubt, depression will put a strain on the strongest of couples. But it doesn't have to be the downfall of your relationship, and you can make it work with acceptance, compassion, and your own attention to self-care. As the two of you figure out what changes can be made to help alleviate some of the depressive symptoms, be patient and understanding, with them and yourself.