Watching your partner deal with depression can feel overwhelming and frustrating. You want so badly to take away their pain, but often feel completely powerless when your partner rejects your help or advice. You might even feel like you are somewhat responsible for your partner’s depression. Your feelings are real, and you are not alone.
Wanting to know how to help a spouse with depression is a common reality for many. More than 264 million people worldwide struggle with at least one type of depression.
But as common as depression is, it’s often misunderstood. One of the best things you can do for your spouse with depression is learn about it.
1- Learn about Depression
Depression can affect anyone regardless of gender, age, or circumstance. It has nothing to do “how strong you are”. The more you learn about your partner’s depression, the better you can understand what is going on for them, and the more deeply you can empathize.
Take time to learn on your own about depression and learn about your partner’s specific experience. Ask them to share what they understand, but don’t fully rely on them to explain everything you don’t understand about depression. Do your own research. Most likely, they don’t fully understand depression either.
Signs of Depression
- Feelings of sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in sleeping habits, whether sleeping too much or too little
- Loss of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyed activities
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Difficulty starting/finishing small tasks
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Withdrawal from others
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
- Thoughts of death, including suicidal thoughts
- Unexplained physical symptoms
2- Validate Their Experience
Don’t trivialize your partner’s experience with depression. Depression is not just “in your head”, it is physically and psychologically complex. Your partner likely blames themselves for their symptoms, so avoid offering overly simple solutions like “just cheer up” or “have you tried essential oils?”.
Reassure your partner that their experience is real. Let them cry. It’s okay to cry.
What and What Not to Say to a Spouse with Depression
- Instead of saying, “Why can’t you just cheer up?”, try saying, “Would you like a hug?”
- Instead of saying, “Don’t I make you happy?”, try saying “You’re important to me.”
- Instead of saying, “Your bad moods are so exhausting”, try saying, “I’m not frustrated with you, I’m frustrated that you are experiencing this.”
- Instead of saying, “It’s all in your head, just stop thinking so much” try saying, “You’re not going crazy.”
- Instead of saying “My life is hard too, and you don’t see me complaining about it”, try saying, “I can’t really understand what you’re going through, but I’m here to support and love you.”
- Instead of saying “You have so much, just be grateful”, try saying, “I’m sorry you’re in so much pain.”
3- Encourage Professional Help
Therapy is one of the single most helpful things you can do to start recovering from depression. Offer to go with your partner, but honor their decision if they’d like to go alone. Pay attention to their progress. If they frequently come home from therapy feeling more hopeful or at least more clear than before, encourage their treatment and celebrate their progress. If they often come home more frustrated and confused, encourage them to find another therapist who could be a better fit. Offer to help with this search.
4- Offer Connection and Quality Time
Connection is one of the greatest non-clinical remedies for depression symptoms.
As their equal partner and friend, not their therapist, ask your spouse about their day. It’s common for a depressed person to feel like their problems don’t matter and avoid “burdening” others by talking about them. Reassure your partner that you want to listen to whatever’s on their mind, even if it’s negative.
Offering your time and attention, whether it’s talking, cuddling, a massage, or a walk in the park, will make your partner feel connected and less alone. It can help them free their mind of ruminating thoughts, even if only for a short time.
By connecting with your partner, you also reap the same benefits. Your partner’s depression can be draining for the both of you. Spending quality time together will lift you both.
5- Take Care of Yourself Too
Supporting a spouse with depression can be overwhelming, and you can’t pour from an empty cup. Take time for yourself to destress and find grounding. When I feel overwhelmed, I like to write in my journal. It helps me understand my own feelings more clearly.
Also, just because your partner is struggling, does not mean you should table all of your needs. Your feelings and problems matter too. Your partner is absolutely capable and worthy of positively contributing to your relationship and supporting you. Let them.
6- Love Unconditionally
Your partner did not choose depression, so don’t resent them for it. Resenting your partner makes their road to recovery more difficult and damages your relationship in the meantime. When you do get frustrated, remind them (and yourself), that you are not angry with them, but with the circumstances. Frequently reassure them that you will not leave or abandon them.
However, loving unconditionally is different than enabling your partner. Depression does not give your partner a free pass to treat you poorly. Your partner can’t always choose how they feel, but they are still accountable for their actions.
7- Don’t Treat Them Like a Project
Your spouse is much more than their depression, and not everything is about their depression. Your partner is complex, so treat their experiences as such. Blaming everything on their depression will make your partner question their identity and keep them feeling incapable of recovery.
You are equal partners, not their therapist or caregiver. Your partners thoughts, concerns, and ideas are valuable and valid. It’s not always the depression talking.
8- Encourage Activities and Choice-Making
Encourage your partner to go outside, eat, stretch, listen to music, write in their journal, take a shower, or any other activity they have enjoyed in the past. It’s important to allow them to make that choice themselves, and don’t make them feel bad if they decline. Simply offer support. They will appreciate your care for their well-being.
Depression is physical. You wouldn’t push a physically sick person to get back to normal immediately. Sometimes sleep or a calm day is needed.
Notice what make them smile, relax, or motivates them, and vocalize it. Helping your partner notice when they feel something positive can bring them hope and grounding. That way, they can also recognize what activities or choices work as healthy coping skills for them.
9- Offer Hope, Not Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity is defined as only allowing positivity and rejecting the presence of negativity in all circumstances. Sometimes we want to act like nothing is wrong or want simple solutions. “No bad days” and “Positive vibes only” is just unrealistic. Don’t condemn your partner, or yourself for having bad days.
Instead, offer hope. Even though we don’t always know when, better days are ahead. They always are.
And remember, you have and will continue to go through hard times together. Appreciate your journey. Read “How to Let Go of the Past and Embrace Change in a Relationship” for more on growth moving forward.
10- Cultivate Endurance
Do not put a timeline on your spouse’s recovery. Your partner may deal with depression for the rest of their life. Accept that this may be the case.
However, this doesn’t mean that every day will be a bad day! And it certainly doesn’t mean that your partner will always feel the way they do. Your spouse is more than their depression and they are capable of a living a full, wholehearted life with it.
Even though depression can be frustrating for you both, spending every day resenting your circumstances only leads down a road of more resentment. Instead, seek to implement healthy coping skills in your daily lives and prioritize hope and healing for yourself and in your relationship.
Remind your spouse that no matter how hopeless they may feel, the time will pass. Though they may not feel it, they can and will be happy again.
For more on endurance and resilience, read “On Being Resilient – An Interview with Karina Okoren”.