By Seth Meyers, Psy.D.
No matter how psychologically healthy – heck, perfect – you want to believe you are, there’s a little part of you that wants to be your partner’s hero in a relationship. When he falls into a slump, you want to believe that you have the magic to pull him out of it and make him happy. Yet anyone who has been in a relationship with someone who’s depressed knows how no hero exists who’s more powerful than depression. This mental disorder can seep into any relationship and smear sadness and hopelessness everywhere. I’m here to tell you what to do if this kind of juggernaut strikes your relationship.
The Signs of Depression and Common Reactions
First, let’s cover the signs. If your date or your partner is depressed, you’ll see: sad mood; a negative or hopeless outlook for the future; eating too much or too little; crying out of the blue; loss of or low energy; sleeping too much or too little; indecisiveness; and social isolation or withdrawal. For a bad depression phase, the average episode often lasts six to eight months.
When you find yourself in a relationship with someone you realize might be depressed, one of the most common reactions is to take the depression personally. If your girlfriend becomes depressed, for example, understand that something is happening in her brain on a chemical level that even she can’t totally control. Asking yourself if there’s something you’ve done to make her feel that way, or whether she has lost interest in and excitement for you are all very rational, logical approaches – but there is nothing rational about depression. It simply creeps in and the individual who feels depressed needs to 1) do what they can to try to keep it under control (through exercise, etc.), and 2) wait it out, because the heaviness of the depression phase usually always dissipates sooner or later.
The second common reaction when someone you love is depressed is to judge it. In other words, if your boyfriend is depressed, you may be patient for a while but then get to a point where you think, ‘Okay, now it’s time to get over it and pull it together.’ It’s true that there are things a person can do to remain functional when they feel depressed, but it’s often impossible for a depressed person to simply suck it up and feel happy. Don’t judge a person’s depression because the onset is usually beyond a person’s control, and making them feel bad for being depressed is only going to make their depression worse.
If you notice any of these signs early in the dating process, you may want to consider dating someone else unless you have a lot of patience or you happen to struggle with a bit of depression yourself; otherwise, you’re signing on for future frustration. Note that there’s nothing wrong with someone who’s depressed, but meeting them in this stage is simply not a healthy way for you to start a relationship.
For many couples, they’re further along in the relationship when they realize, ‘Oh no, she’s super depressed and I’m afraid it’s not going away anytime soon.’ And you would probably be right.
What to do about the problem:
This is my best and most clear-cut advice when it comes to mental disorders: As long as your partner is following licensed professionals’ recommendations about how to manage it, it’s worth considering keeping this partner – at least for now. Yet the guy who doesn’t take his medication or go to therapy? Child, please. You’ve got better things to do than to babysit your partner and make sure he remembers to take his lunchbox to school.
What to say specifically:
As soon as you identify that it’s probably depression that’s bringing your partner down, draw a boundary immediately. Say, “I’m not a doctor, but I think you might be depressed. If you want, I’ll go with you to an appointment to talk about it, but you’ll have to set it up. If you don’t, we should check in in a week or two and figure out what to do next.”
With depressed men and women, action often becomes the opponent. Depressed people will take forever to get help or to make major decisions, but that’s simply not okay. A week or two after initiating this discussion, sit down with your partner and say that you want him to try therapy and medication together (the two ingredients that treat depression most effectively). Explain that you love him and want to help him through this, but be clear that you aren’t going to let his avoidance of the problem (depression) make you feel depressed, too.
The other intervention that helps the partners of depressed individuals is to get educated about what depression is and the various behaviors that commonly occur with depression. Explore chat rooms and online forums to read about others’ experience with depression so that you can start to figure out whether your partner’s depression is something you can live with – or something that, long-term, would become one of your deal breakers. Above all, always remember to take care of yourself!
About the Author:
Dr. Seth is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, Psychology Today blogger, and TV guest expert. He practices in Los Angeles and treats a wide range of issues and disorders and specializes in relationships, parenting, and addiction. He has had extensive training in conducting couples therapy and is the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.