Is Depression Interfering With Your Relationship?

Depression, and its common symptom of low energy, can cause significant problems for relationships. 

Depression can include feelings of irritableness, hopelessness, and lack of pleasure as well as feelings of sadness or unhappiness. Depression can affect a relationship directly if it is the source of argument or if it leads to distance between partners. Depression can also affect a relationship indirectly when one partner is not able to function at his/her typical level, resulting in added stress on the relationship. 

Below are how these common cycles can play out for couples experiencing depression as well as tips for breaking out of these cycles. Because every couple is different, it’s important to read through each cycle. You might find that more than one applies to you or your partner’s behavior.  

Cycle 1: DEPRESSION THAT CREATES CONFLICT

The non-depressed partner can become bothered by the tendencies of the depressed partner. The non-depressed person may try to help, but if the help they offer isn’t what the depressed person wants, the non-depressed person may feel frustrated.  At the same time, if the depressed person notices the non-depressed partner’s frustration, his/her depression might become even worse.  Attempts to decrease the depression may just start the cycle all over again – with both partners being frustrated (and even angry) with each other.

Cycle 2: DEPRESSION THAT CREATES ACCOMMODATION

Sometimes, instead of creating outward conflict between the two partners, the non-depressed partner changes his/her behavior to help the depressed partner reduce his/her depression.  While this can be good in small doses, it can become a problem if the entire relationship becomes organized around the depression – a process called “accommodation”.  For example, if the depressed person has trouble getting out of bed, the non-depressed partner may start doing all of the shopping and things that are necessary to keep the household running.  While that might feel good to the depressed person in the short term (even being viewed as a caring act), it ultimately robs the depressed person of physical activity – which is one of the best cures for depression.

 

Cycle 1: DEPRESSION THAT CREATES CONFLICT

Tips for the Non-Depressed Partner

Just snap out of it!

The more your partner withdraws, the more you criticize and push him/her to talk to you and be more active. You may feel that instead of being in a relationship with your partner, you are in a relationship with his/her negative emotions.

  1. Try to understand. Try to empathize with the depression your partner is feeling. Tell your partner you see how difficult it must be for him/her to deal with this. Having an open conversation about how difficult it is for you both can start moving things in a more productive direction and out of the frustrating cycle.
  2. Don’t criticize. Give your partner some time and space to recover, rather than blaming or criticizing when your partner seems to let you down. It can feel like a frustrating pattern when your partner has depression, but realizing it is the depressionnot your partner, at fault is key.
  3. Focus on self-change.  Focus on making decisions about things you can control, like how you’ll respond and what you’ll do when your partner is feeling down. Often times the best way to get the change you want is by changing yourself first. If you aren’t sure, discuss with your partner what he/she thinks a helpful reaction to his/her depression might look like. Or, maybe you need to make a plan to do some things on your own you haven’t been able to do because your partner’s depression.

Tips for the Depressed Partner

Leave me alone – you don’t understand!

The more your partner pushes you to be active, the more frustrated and worthless you feel, and you pull away so you don’t have to talk about it. Even though you know your partner’s actions come from a place of love and care, they may sometimes make you feel worse.

  1. Remember to share. Tell your partner how your symptoms affect you. Many people don’t really understand what depression is and what it feels like. Depression can also look very different from person to person. Share with your partner the symptoms that you experience. Is it sadness and other negative emotions? Does it impact you physiologically by influencing your sleep, appetite, or energy? Clueing your partner in will help give him/ her chance to understand and to empathize with you. Although it is natural and tempting to hide how you’re feeling from your partner to prevent a negative reaction, if he/she is aware what is going on with you his/her reaction will better match what you are feeling.
  2. Be active. Think about whether there are any activities you both used to enjoy that you could try doing together, even if it doesn’t seem fun at first. Getting active again is one of the best ways to improve your mood. Brainstorm with your partner what you can do together like going for a walk or bike ride, cooking dinner together, or going to a movie or show together. 
  3. Seek help. Would advice from a therapist or treatment from a physician be an option for you? There are many medications and therapies that work well for depression. Additionally, self-help books or other online programs, but specifically for depression may be an option for you.  We list some of these at the end of this post. 

Cycle 2: DEPRESSION THAT CREATES ACCOMMODATION

Tips for the Non-Depressed Partner

I’ll help, but it’s starting to bother me!

The more your partner seems depressed, the more you feel you have to arrange everything so he/she doesn’t have to deal with things that might increase the depression, which is very stressful for you.  

  1. Discuss your changes.  Before you do anything differently, talk with your partner about why it’s important to change the way the two of you act because of your partner’s depression.  Be sure to communicate that you really care for your partner. But it’s BECAUSE you care that you’re going to try to let your partner handle his/her depression more independently. 
  2. Accommodate less. Instead of taking on everything yourself, try asking your partner to do one small thing. You can help him/her get a bit more active, step by step. Things aren’t going to change overnight and some days will be better than others. Using a kind, non-demanding tone, ask your partner to help with the dishes, to go for a walk, or join you for dinner. 
  3. Show love.  When you have a partner who is depressed, sometimes one of the ways you show your love is by taking the lead when they’re feeling down. Instead, show you care with other actions. Leave him/her a supportive note on the mirror in the morning, give him/her a back rub after a long day, or text him/her to show you are thinking about him/her during the day. And, when your partner is depressed, be sure to support him/her when he/she tries to do things – even if not entirely successful. 

Tips for the Depressed Partner

If you love me, you’ll help me!

The more your partner gets stressed about your depression or takes over activities that you used to do, the more frustrated and worthless you feel, and you pull away so you don’t have to talk about it. 

  1. Communicate openly.  Let your partner in on how unhappy and worthless you feel. Give him/her a chance to empathize with you. Although it is scary to admit these feelings to yourself and your partner, starting an open and honest conversation about what you are going through is a key first step.  
  2. Try old-new things. Think about whether there are any activities you used to do that you could start doing again (especially if they would make things easier for your partner) – even if it seems difficult. Every bit counts! Try taking out the trash, folding the laundry, or making the morning coffee.  
  3. Seek help.  Would advice from a physician or therapist be an option for you? There are many medications and therapies shown to work for depression. 

 

Extra Resources

Here are a few more resources to help you break the cycle you and your partner are struggling with:

  1. Complete a Free, Online Self-Help Program.  Consider working on your relationship using our proven, self-help relationship program. Our program is developed by leaders in the fields of couple therapy and pre-marital education and has been shown through extensive research to improve relationships – more than in-person classes and almost as much as marriage counseling. You’ll work with your partner to complete online activities and receive free support from one of our program coaches. Our program is developed by leaders in the fields of couple therapy and pre-marital education. So, you can be confident that it’s the best thing you can do to strengthen your relationship without the hassle and cost of a therapist. Not sure your partner would go for it?  Take a look at these tips for how to introduce the idea. To find out more about our program, go to our home page.
  2. Online programs:
    https://moodgym.anu.edu.au/welcome
  3. For the depressed person to read/do on their own:
    – Overcoming Depression One Step at a Time by Drs. Michael E. Addis and Christopher E. Martell
    – Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by Dr. David D. Burns
  4. To help cope with depression as a couple:
    – Is He Depressed or What? by Dr. David B. Wexler
  5. As depression can often be a difficult problem to solve, the two of you may feel that you would benefit more from working directly with a therapist – either individually or as a couple. You can use the following link to find a therapist in your area: https://www.ourrelationship.com/home-page/referrals/therapy-resources/.