Dating Someone with Major Depression: Cultivating Understanding and Acceptance
Dating someone with major depression is never easy. But by supporting your partner during their struggle in healthy ways and learning to support yourself, you will come to better understand yourself and your partner. The end result is a healthier relationship that can thrive while your partner undergoes the healing process.
“When your partner has depression, it’s easy to make them the center of your world,” says Shari, whose husband suffers from major depression. “You want to do everything to pull them out of their hurt. But you’ve got to take care of yourself, too, or you won’t be in any shape to support either of you.”
As Shari illuminates, although self-care should be at the top of everyone’s priority list, it too often falls by the wayside when partners choose to focus all of their attention on their loved one’s health—often to the detriment of their own. Although it may seem selfish to do otherwise, it’s a choice that tends to do more harm than good.
If you find yourself in this situation, it’s important to take a step back now and again to get a clearer view of the role you’re playing in the relationship. There are adaptive ways and there are harmful ways to act in this situation, and sometimes what you think are positive behaviors are just the opposite. In order to prioritize your health while still caring for your partner, it’s crucial to learn how to help them without doing so at your own expense.
Supporting a Depressed Significant Other
Putting yourself first doesn’t mean neglecting your partner’s needs—it just means addressing them in adaptive ways. Just because something feels right doesn’t mean it is good for your mental health or the relationship as a whole.
Some important things to keep in mind:
Don’t take their symptoms personally.
Remember that your partner is struggling with an illness that makes them persistently unhappy. This can affect their mood, energy levels, and sleeping habits, among other things. “I used to get so mad when I would come home and the garbage hadn’t been taken out and the dishes hadn’t been washed. It’s so easy to see it as laziness and not what it really is,” Shari remembers. “Sometimes I still get frustrated. But I know that he’s doing his best, and so am I. He doesn’t forget because he’s lazy or doesn’t care. If anything, it’s like he cares too much.”
It’s important not to feel personally attacked if they seem down or unattached to the relationship. It can be hard, especially on the worst days, to see through the mental fog of depression and be fully present and engaged, even with the person you love most. Instead of being offended or chastising your partner for their distraction, try to focus on investing positive energy into strengthening your bond and supporting them on their healing journey.
Don’t try to “fix” your partner.
No matter how many times you argue with them, trying to convince them that they’re actually incredible despite their negative thoughts, your partner is not suddenly going to wake up one day and be “cured” by the force of your will and your positivity. Repeating the same arguments over and over may cause a sense of disconnect that weakens your bond, while constantly challenging their depression may inadvertently result in generating feelings of guilt in your partner when they feel they cannot live up to your hopes and expectations.
As Shari points out, “For every answer you think you have, they can see another problem. That’s the trick of depression—it traps a person into thinking there’s no way out, even when the exit sign is so clear to everyone around you.” Instead of trying to logic your partner’s depression into nonexistence, focus instead on supporting and accepting them and their struggle. Let them know that you are there for them, and that their feelings are legitimate and real, and that you are there to listen if they need to talk.
If your partner is not already in a mental health treatment program, consider talking to them about the possibilities of healing with professional medical support. You may not be a trained psychologist or psychiatrist, but in a residential treatment facility, your loved one will have access to an entire team of medical professionals with years of experience helping others suffering from major depression and other illnesses find their way out of the dark and navigate toward a brighter, healthier future. Take care to be open, not prescriptive—focus on how treatment can help your partner, not on why you think they have to try it. Presenting it as an opportunity for healing, rather than a last resort in an otherwise hopeless situation, can make all the difference in helping your loved one find their own motivation to seek help and begin to recover.
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Learning to Support Yourself
Learning to support your partner while they struggle with depression will help them recover. And by helping them during through this process, you’re also helping the relationship and yourself. Remember: depression affects both people in the relationship.
With that being said, you also need to set boundaries and focus on your own well-being. “Depression isn’t just hard on the person who has it. It’s hard on both of you, and it’s hard on the relationship itself,” says Shari. “It took me awhile to figure it out, but it’s okay to admit that you’re having a tough time. It’s okay to admit you need support, too.”
- Family or couples therapy is a great way to engage in counseling that will help you work through conflicts and deepen your bond with your partner. This is especially important for those that have trouble expressing their feelings with their depressed partner. You might feel guilty about burdening them with your problem or scared that you will negatively impact their mental well-being. In a therapeutic setting, you will have the opportunity to express yourself without these fears.
- Individual therapy is just as important. While couples therapy can be a crucial part of recovery for you and your partner, you need your one-on-one time as much as they do. Give yourself time to express your personal problems and fears outside of the context of your relationship. Not only is this important for you, it will help you better cope and support a partner struggling with depression.
- Taking a break. Although it’s probably not something you want to consider, sometimes time apart is necessary. If your partner is at a point where they need to walk their road to recovery alone, or the stress is too much for you, you might need to take a break from your relationship. As difficult as this can be, remaining connected to the therapists and psychiatrists that you meet during your time with your partner can make all the difference.
Understanding Yourself and Your Partner
Addressing your partner’s needs, your own, and making sure that you’re both walking on the right path can be difficult. It can be tough to make a relationship work in general, let alone when the stress and emotional strain of a mental illness is present. But with a comprehensive residential treatment program, the illness doesn’t have to drag you down.
Will the road to your partner’s recovery be easy? No, but you will never have to worry about being on the wrong path. When you support your partner, you can be confident in your choices because you’ll be using tools you learned from professionals. If you’re stressed, you will have access to therapists who can help you manage better. When you’re partner experiences bouts of depression, they will have personal and professional supports to help them out of it, taking the pressure off of the both of you. And ultimately, you will be healthier and happier, making it easier for you to be confident in yourself and your role in the relationship.
“At the end of the day, you’re still the same person, regardless of who you’re with,” says Shari. “You’ve got needs, too. It’s tempting to play the martyr, but ultimately that just hurts you both. There are two people in your relationship; both of you deserve to be happy in it.” By walking side by side down the road to recovery, you can begin to heal and find that happiness—together.
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.