Top 9 Things to Consider When Dating Someone With Depression
Dating someone with depression can be an intimidating prospect, but by understanding a few basics you can set the stage for a strong and loving relationship. It’s imperative to recognize that depression is complicated and real, stay flexible, acknowledge that depression is not about you, and remember that not everything is about depression. Although you can’t fix your partner’s depression, you can accept their feelings as they navigate their illness and your relationship, including the effect it can have on your sex life. By acknowledging your own needs and getting involved in their healing process, you can support both your partner and yourself as you embark on this new adventure.
Starting a relationship can be an exhilarating time; everything is new and exciting and there is so much to discover. But when you’re dating someone with depression, things can be a little more complicated. If you’ve never experienced depression yourself or been close to someone who has, you will have to learn about the illness fast. While it may seem daunting at first, taking the time to understand how depression affects the person you’re dating and the relationship can help you set the stage for a compassionate, healthy, and meaningful connection.
1. Depression is Complicated and Real
Everyone feels sad from time to time, but depression is different than normal mood fluctuations. It is pervasive and disruptive and compromises one’s ability to engage in life the way they want. Understanding the reality of depression is vital to being a good ally as you embark on your relationship. Educate yourself about the illness; there are endless online resources where you can read about depression from both medical and personal standpoints to help you gain a deeper understanding of what the illness looks and feels like. Also, remember that each person’s experience is unique and take care not to make assumptions about the person you’re dating. Instead, ask them about their experience and respect their boundaries.
2. Stay Flexible
Depression can profoundly interfere with someone’s ability to participate in normal activities. Its unpredictability means that they may really mean to go out with you on Saturday, but by the time Saturday comes, their mood has shifted and they can’t get out of bed. This is not because they’re not trying hard enough or because they’re flaky, it’s because they are experiencing a painful psychological illness that compromises their functionality. Don’t blame or shame them for breaking plans. Stay flexible and consider activities that are within their comfort zone. Instead of going out to dinner, have a nice meal at home. Instead of going to that party, stay in and watch movies. Sometimes they may simply not be up for socializing at all and need some alone time; try to be respectful of their needs without taking it personally.
3. It’s Not About You
When you’re dating someone with depression, it’s normal to wonder if you have done something wrong when they are upset. However, depression isn’t about you. Depression is a complex illness that affects mood in myriad ways. While environmental factors can indeed play a part, convincing yourself that their mood disturbances are the result of your actions not only makes you feel terrible, it also makes the person you’re dating feel misunderstood. Recognizing their illness for what it is is essential to being an ally.
4. Don’t Blame Everything on Depression
It’s important to recognize that the person you’re dating has thoughts and feelings unrelated to their illness and that may include legitimate grievances about your relationship. Discounting their feelings by automatically attributing them to depression only serves to hinder honest conversation and emotional connection. If the person you’re dating is expressing discontent with your relationship or your actions, don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that it’s their illness talking; listen and reflect on what they are saying. Invalidating their feelings by always thinking it’s the depression talking is likely to push them away and make them feel powerless.
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5. You Cannot Fix Them
You cannot fix someone’s depression. It is heartbreaking to see someone you care about in pain, and your natural reaction is probably to try to make it all okay. But depression is not cured by love or kindness. It’s also not cured by suggestions that they just take a 30 minute walk every day or try that herbal supplement you read about on the way to work or listen to that one TED talk that really changed your perspective on life. The truth is that there are no quick fixes for depression.
However, there are many things you can do to support someone struggling with depression. Figuring out what those things are requires open communication. Ask them what they need from you to make them feel supported. Ask them what their triggers are, what they do to cope, and what part they want you to play in their coping strategies. What helps them may be very different than what helps someone else and honoring their individual needs is important, even when what they need is to not have you do anything at all.
6. Accept Their Feelings and Their Confusion
Allow the person you are dating to have their feelings. It can be tempting for people with depression to hide their emotions because they don’t want to disappoint you or be a burden, especially if you have gone out of your way to try to make them feel better. Make sure they know that you don’t see their illness as a personal fault and that it’s okay to feel however it is they feel, even if they’re not sure exactly what the feeling is. “I can’t always explain why I feel how I feel, so talking through the feelings like a normal couple might is sometimes twice as frustrating,” says Anna Breslaw. “It’s not like ‘Oh! I feel sad because XYZ happened. Mystery solved!’ It’s more like, ‘I basically feel awful about everything right now no matter what I do, and there’s no external cause that’s causing it, therefore, let me sleep.’”
7. Depression Can Affect Your Sex Life
Both depression and depression treatments can affect a person’s sex drive and ability to enjoy sex. These effects can be very frustrating and even embarrassing for the person you’re dating and they may fear that you will cut off the relationship as a result. Being open and understanding about these issues is vital to nurturing your relationship.
8. Acknowledge Your Own Needs
When you’re dating someone who has depression, it can be easy to believe that your own needs, wants, and problems have to take a backseat. After all, your bad day at work seems like nothing compared to mental illness. But the fact is that everyone is going through the ups and downs of life and it’s okay to feel sad or happy or angry or disappointed or any other way you may be feeling because that is part of the human experience. You cannot turn it off because your partner is depressed, nor should you have to.
Make sure you have your own supports in place that give you space to express yourself, such as friends, family, and support groups. At the same time, don’t be afraid of sharing your authentic self with the person you’re dating. Sure, if they’re in the midst of extreme depression it may not be the time to talk about how upset you are that the barista got your coffee order wrong, but make sure there is room for you in your relationship. That includes acknowledging your feelings about your partner’s depression. “Sometimes you’re going to hurt. Sometimes, you won’t be able to handle it, and you feel like you need to hide it from your loved one,” writes Hope Racine. “Don’t. Express to them that this is hard, but you’re in it with them. Find a healthy way to get the stress out.”
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9. Take Part in Their Healing
Participating in depression treatment can be difficult when you have an illness telling you recovery isn’t possible and you barely have the energy to get out of bed. Recognize the hard work your partner is doing and be their biggest cheerleader as they seek the help they need to heal. Tell them you are proud of them for going to treatment and respect their limits when it comes to talking about what they are doing in therapy. Some people will be very open about what they are learning and discovering, while others prefer to keep it private.
If the person you’re dating isn’t getting better with outpatient care, it may be time to consider residential treatment. Whether or not you feel comfortable bringing this up will, of course, largely depend on your level of intimacy; telling someone to seek residential treatment on the second date, for example, may not elicit the best reaction. But if you have built a strong foundation of trust, respect, and care, suggesting they take their treatment to a higher level of intensity could be the best gift you could give them. It may help if you do your own research into depression treatment options first so you can provide guidance; for your partner, making those decisions on their own while they are gravely ill could be extremely difficult and feel exhausting.
If the person you’re dating agrees to it, get involved in their treatment process. The family and couples therapy offered by some residential treatment programs provides an ideal space for you to learn more about each other and how to navigate your relationship in a way that promotes healing. With the help of compassionate clinicians, you can develop strategies for supporting your partner in meaningful ways that will aid them on their recovery journey while also establishing healthy boundaries.
Dating someone with depression can be difficult, confusing, and painful at times. But you already know there is much more to them than their illness, and getting through the hard parts together can give you a deeper appreciation for each other. With the right kind and quality of treatment and support from friends and family (including you), your partner will have a real chance at recovery—and you’ll have the opportunity to forge a more loving relationship, together.
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance abuse and eating 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.