Depression and relationships

Mental illness, including depression, is something every person must face and manage in their own way. But it also impacts relationships with friends, family — and particularly partners.

Those closest to someone living with depression can be a huge source of love, comfort, and support. But they can often feel enormous pressure.

Couples face a higher chance of divorce when one or both partners has a mental health condition. A 2011 multinational study found a 12 percent increase in the prevalence of divorce.

But there’s also good news. That difference isn’t generally the result of fault on the part of either partner. Rather, it comes from how they interact and communicate, and how both partners approach the symptoms of the illness. This means there’s a lot you can do to help your relationship beat the odds.

Karen Letofsky has worked in mental health focusing on suicide prevention for over 40 years, she was even granted Canada’s highest civilian honor for her efforts. Julie Fast has bipolar disorder, and has spent her life coaching and writing in the field, including releasing the bestselling book “Taking Charge of Bipolar Disorder.”

We interviewed both to get their advice on this challenging and important topic.

Both agree that communication, empathy, and understanding are the keys to having any successful relationship, and especially important when one or both partners are living with a mental illness.

Karen and Julie both provided some excellent questions to help you and your partner get started on this long, challenging — but ultimately joyful and rewarding journey. Together.

These aren’t questions to “diagnose” whether or not your partner has depression, anxiety, bipolar, or related disorders. That’s something for you both to find out with the help of a mental health professional.

Instead, these questions are designed to help you determine if your partner’s symptoms are getting the upper hand:

  • Are you sleeping more or less than you normally do?
  • Are you eating more or less than you normally do?
  • Are you tasting your food when you eat?
  • Do you feel tired no matter how much you sleep?
  • Are you capable of enjoying things right now?
  • Is it hard for you to do personal grooming?
  • Are you having thoughts of your own death?

Karen reminds us that there’s a difference between simply “feeling down” and experiencing symptoms of clinical depression. These questions help determine which is happening.

Julie says that, as a partner, you probably already know the answer to these questions, but asking them helps your partner feel respected and gives them agency.

It can be tempting to just do things for your partner when they’re in a depressive state, because one symptom of depression is lack of motivation. But Julie Fast warns that this may be a mistake, leading instead to increasing their sense of helplessness and dependency.

Karen and Julie suggest these questions to help your partner find their own way through their symptoms, with you there by their side:

  • What helped the last time you were depressed like this?
  • What do we need to do as a team to get through this rotten downswing?
  • What’s the best way for me to help you?
  • How are you doing with your medications? Are you feeling any difference?
  • Who can we call to help us get through this tough time?
  • What do you need from me?
  • What changes can help you feel better right now?

Both experts also emphasized the use of collaborative language to help your partner feel supported. Avoid placing blame or full responsibility on your partner, but also avoid taking on all agency or responsibility for yourself.

Self-education and self-care are both vital to successfully helping care for and foster a healthy relationship with a partner living with depression.

Julie believes this so strongly she wrote “Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder,” a book entirely about that topic.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reminds caregivers that you must first take care of yourself to be able to take care of the people you love. To do this successfully, here are a few questions to ask yourself in private:

  • Are you getting between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night?
  • Are you drinking or using drugs to cope with the stress?
  • Are you exercising daily?
  • Are you eating well?
  • Are you experiencing physical symptoms like headaches, insomnia, or digestive issues?
  • Do you have people you can talk to who understand what you’re going through?
  • Where can you locate resources to help you?

Karen likens it to the oxygen mask that will drop from the ceiling of an airplane in the “unlikely event of losing cabin pressure.” Any parent would have the impulse to put it on their children first, but that usually results in the parent losing consciousness before they save the child. Both people suffer.

Put your oxygen mask on first, so you can best help your partner with this challenging situation.

Both Karen and Julie are emphatic that partners should avoid any questions or comments intended to “cheer up” somebody in a depressive state. Equally important, never ask questions that may feel as if you’re blaming your partner for being ill.

For example:

  • Don’t you see how lucky you are?
  • Why are you making such a big deal about this small thing?
  • Do you feel better now?
  • What’s the matter with you?
  • What do you have to be depressed about?

Although it sometimes works with someone who’s just “down in the dumps” or “stressed out,” you should never try to trivialize what your depressed partner is going through.

Instead, use language that validates their feelings. If you do that, your partner will feel supported and understood, which in and of itself can help them move forward out of the depressive state.

Jason Brick is a freelance writer and journalist who came to that career after over a decade in the health and wellness industry. When not writing, he cooks, practices martial arts, and spoils his wife and two fine sons. He lives in Oregon.