Loving someone with depression is constant balance. Watching the person I love fall down the deep well of depression was the one of the most painful and helpless feelings I’ve ever felt. It was also incredibly frustrating and lonely. It was emotionally draining, and left me exhausted and unable to do much else. It was a heavy toll on our relationship and as a highly sensitive person, it was difficult not to become depressed myself.
One of the most important things I realized was that despite how bad my husband was doing, I had to prioritize taking care of myself first.
I’m going to use the airplane oxygen mask analogy here. When airplanes lose cabin pressure and oxygen masks fall from above, adults are instructed put their own mask on before helping others, including their own children. The reason for this: you won’t be able to help anyone if you are passed out.
Recently, I have found myself on both ends of this helping/needing help relationship. And in a way, seeing someone struggle with depression helped me communicate what I needed when I was suffering.
Note: This article is for people who are already in relationships, those who knew and loved someone before they became depressed. If you’re just meeting someone who is already depressed, as good as your intentions may be, the best thing for both of you is not to pursue a relationship and instead encourage them to get help.
What you can do to help the one you love
- Listen and keep them company. Touch them if they are receptive to it; intimacy helps. Go for a walk together or partake in other light activities and exercises.
- Don’t pretend to understand what they are going through unless you have experienced depression yourself. In fact, let them know you don’t know what they’re going through but that you’re there for them regardless.
- Don’t discount their feelings. Don’t try to “logic” them out of it. The reality of their situation may be exaggerated or may not even be real at all. But depression makes it real in their heads, and that reality is real enough.
- It’s okay to be frustrated, angry, etc. It’s okay to let your loved one know how you’re feeling.
- Make time for yourself. Regain your strength and energy and remember that you are alive as well. This is especially vital if you are highly sensitive!
- Talk to close friends or family you can trust. You’d be surprised how many people have gone through similar experiences. Knowing you are not alone will help you cope. Knowing others have survived similar situations will give you hope. It’s never easy to start these conversations, so just be upfront about it: let them know that there is something you’d like to share with them and can you take them out for coffee/dinner/etc. to talk about it. There also support groups such as this one: Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
- Help and encourage them through their therapist search. It may take several tries to find one they can connect and feel comfortable with.
- Go with them to the appointment even if you’ll just be staying in the waiting area, or try couples therapy to deal with the effects of depression on the relationship.
- Accept that you cannot heal their depression, only they can. When they’re begging you to help they aren’t asking you to cure them; they are asking you to help them help themselves. This is probably the most difficult part of loving someone with depression. Only time and understanding will ease the pain for both of you.
- Encourage and remind them of the things they love when they are not depressed. Loss of motivation is one of the main effects of depression, so encourage them to do things that keep them motivated, no matter how small. Remind them of their passions.
Affects of depression on a relationship
Depression makes everything feel worse than it really is. It can create huge problems out of thin air and the next thing you know you are fighting over stupid/trivial things. Couples therapy can really help both of you deal with the situation and understand each other so that you can separate any serious relationship problems from the trivial ones. One of the main things we learned in therapy is how to get to the root of the problem and how to stop a fight before it starts.
A quick fix to help deal with depression: remember that everything is worse at night. Once I realized that most of our fighting occured around bedtime, I put an end to all serious topics of conversation after 9pm. And in the daytime, when a fight started stirring, one of us would stop and ask: where is this coming from? Most of the time it was our own fears greatly exaggerated by the depression , not anything that actually happened. Crisis averted.
What if they refuse treatment?
What can you do when the person you love refuses to get help? Dr. Noonan has some great advice, such as:
- Try to understand their reasons for not seeking treatment. These reasons may not be obvious, and sometimes your loved one may not even know him or herself. Remember that there is still a social stigma with depression and may be unknowingly influencing them.
- Be patient. Pushing them into a treatment will just cause them to dig in. Provide information and support and then give them space to process it.
- Set boundaries. If they continue to refuse treatment and do not improve, they will drag you and the relationship down with them. Know where to draw the line, whether to stay in the relationship or not.
Ultimately, the final decision to get help is theirs.