Coping with a partner’s (undiagnosed) depression

Guest post by Esmerelda
By: Kevin DooleyCC BY 2.0
My partner of two years has been struggling with patterns of feeling moody, withdrawn, and overwhelmed. We both have high-stress jobs and live thousands of kilometres from our (very different) home countries. But his bad feelings endure even when he is on holiday or goes back to Spain to visit family. He’s recently admitted that he thinks he might be depressed, but he is still reluctant to see a doctor or therapist to figure things out.

I’m trying to help him and encourage him to see someone, but his moods and attitudes are having a negative effect on my life, too. He can become so withdrawn that we barely speak for days, he loses his temper far more easily than usual, and his sex drive can be non-existent. All of these things make me feel so upset, and I’m working on not taking them personally, but it can be very difficult. I want to be there for my partner, whom I care about deeply, but at what point do I need to step back and look out for my own emotional well-being?

I know the first step is getting him to figure out where his depressed feelings are coming from and how he might go about coping with them, but then what? I’d appreciate any advice from those who have helped a friend partner with depression or had to encourage someone to seek therapy.

Comments on Coping with a partner’s (undiagnosed) depression

  1. I’m a bit late on the response, and I didn’t read all the comments, so I don’t know if anyone already suggested this: Marriage Counseling!

    My husband had undiagnosed PTSD for the first three years of our relationship. We eventually completely fell apart, and it took me leaving with our daughter for him to go seek help. The biggest relief that he found (from what he has told me) is having a professional tell him that he didn’t have to feel the way he felt. That there was something going on in his brain, but if he wanted he could control it. It helped him with the intense amount of guilt he was full of because he couldn’t feel that he loved me and our daughter. Since then (two years later) things are still often difficult, because things will be going really well and we get busy so we let therapy slip and then things get bad again. I noticed that if I encourage/nag him to go he resists and things get bad. But if we go to marriage counseling together, then he will often do his own therapy as well. Marriage counseling is great, because I found out that his PTSD was giving ME depression and anxiety. I was able to safely tell him how I was being affected, I was getting help, and our therapists was always helping us come up with simple ways to deal with each other. Every session was wonderful (truly!) we felt closer, happier, and most importantly, more hopeful that we can have the kind of marriage and future that we want together!

    So as a recap: Try out Marriage counseling! You can go together and focus on the fact that this is something that you need as well. Because if you’re dealing with someone with depression, then you do need help too. It takes a toll on you. Ultimately, you can’t force him to go with you, but if you’re willing to seek help, you’ll receive it and learn how to handle your situation better, and hopefully he can see that and want to join you.

    I wish you the best of luck! : )

  2. I’m in a relationship where both of us have issues, and both of us are cocky, arrogant punks who hate being told we have problems and want to fix everything on our own. For my spouse, it came down to being unable to pull his weight in our relationship and suceed in his projects. Again – commitment is key in moving forward together. It took about 3 months of my pointing out to him that he was not living well – for himself, let alone me. Ultimately, he began to consider “coping skills in a bottle,” as therapy had been ineffective and irritating in the past. For me, I have to exercise regularly for the endorphine/self-esteem boost. And he encourages me. A big fear we both have/had about dealing with the dark side is that it would “change” who we are – and we’re artists, so that’s huge. But really, it’s just about getting what it takes to roll with the punches – his in a jar, mine from the treadmill, and acknowledging that we needed them.

  3. One really huge problem for how people think about mental illness treatment is how they view therapy. There’s this huge aversion to it, like you’re weak or lazy or “can’t handle life” if you go to therapy.

    I think it would be much more productive if we thought of mental health therapy in the same way as we think of massage therapy. People get massage therapy for all kinds of different reasons – from people who have very serious and immediate issues who absolutely require massages, to people who do it as a fun luxury, something that just feels really good (even if it might hurt a little bit at some moments). Mental health therapy can be a fun luxury, too. It’s incredibly nice to sometimes have someone you can talk to about anything, without worrying about gossip or making someone unhappy or social dynamics. You also don’t have to worry about reciprocation – if a friend or lover gives you a massage or listens to you, you usually have to decide how much you’re willing to accept in part based on how much you’re willing to give back. With a therapist, you’re paying for a service, so it’s already decided and you don’t have to worry about that part.

    Once I started thinking about therapy this way, most of my aversion to it vanished. I usually feel so much better after going to therapy that it’s basically like a treat for myself, a special indulgence. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing that you force yourself to do.

    I should mention, of course, that this depends on having the right therapist, and that it won’t work for everyone – just like one needs to find the right kind of massage and the right person to do it, and not everyone enjoys going out and getting massages. Either way, though, there’s no harm in trying it.

  4. When my husband (then boyfriend) and I were in a very similar situation several years ago the solution ended up being almost absurdly simple. He went to his doctor for a physical, the doc prescribed a generic version of welbutrin and xanax. Basically he had a textbook response, and it has made EVERYTHING in our lives easier. No therapy, just a brain chemistry tweak and follow up appointments to confirm the dosage. Obviously it can be much more complicated than that, but sometimes its not.

  5. Thank you so much for starting this discussion! My problem is that both my boyfriend and I have significant mental health problems and deceptively poor social skills. (That is, people meeting us for the first time would say that we’re both friendly and good at making conversation, but more advanced things like setting boundaries and understanding social nuance are hard for me and impossible for him.) I’m in therapy for my own issues and I spend my free time reading self-help books. He refuses to do either and says he can figure it all out on his own. I pushed and begged him to go to therapy and six months later he went for about six weeks. It was some kind of short-term CBT course focused on increasing his energy and motivation. Now he refuses to go back for long-term treatment and I’m at my wit’s end.

    He claims he can figure his depression out on his own, but it’s the lack of social and emotional skills that impacts our relationship most. It’s hard for me to figure out how much of his behavior is genuine mental illness, and how much is just selfishness or immaturity. He’s done some horrible things to me and claims he had no idea they were wrong; I’m not sure I believe him. He’s spent the past ten or fifteen years with a really toxic social circle, so I think his understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior is pretty skewed. He claims that he’s unable to stand up for himself, or for me, against his friends because he never learned how to use his words. I’ve been telling him that I think therapy will help him figure all that out, but he doesn’t believe me.

    He desperately wants a future with me but I can’t commit to him unless he makes some major changes. Any suggestions? Is the relationship doomed? Are there viable non-therapy ways to work through these issues?

  6. Many of these comments are just plain horrifying to read as someone with depression, and part of the reason why I am unsure I could ever enter into a serious relationship with another person. When someone is struggling with a serious medical condition like depression, even the smallest things can be /impossible/. Not difficult, /impossible/.

    And constant suggestions and comments about how someones depression is affecting you would be the absolute worse thing to hear. The same goes for suggestions that happiness is something they have to choose for themselves, that this isn’t really who they are, that they need to be fixed to be loved, ect.

    People should be encouraged to get better for themselves, and not everyone gets better through meds and therapy (and don’t get me started on every asshole who says things like have you tried yoga or crossfit or green tea or a raw diet…just don’t). Not everyone is cut out to be in a relationship with somebody with a chronic illness or mental health difficulty, and if you can only be in a relationship with someone if and only if they are at their best, than you may want to re-eavulate whether or not you are truly the person with the capability to support another human being with a struggle like this. Otherwise, you might end up hurting everyone involved.

    • …But she is asking for help *as* the partner of someone with depression.

      I understand how reading this as the depressee (if you will) is dreadful, but the point is to help the letter writer, who is not suffering from depression.

      And you’re right, not everyone is capable of partnering with someone who has a mental illness/chronic illness. And that may be part of the letter writer’s solution–maybe she does, in fact, need to leave this relationship.

      But it’s not about only loving someone when they’re at their best–it’s figuring out where your own boundaries are and working through those–and that is totally and completely okay.

      My husband has depression. We worked through this together for seven years before we got engaged. But there were many, many times where I had to pull away in order to help him, and help me. Sometimes, the best conversations we had involved gently reminding him that his depression didn’t affect him alone. It is because of this that he finally sought medical intervention–everyone is different, and what hurts you may not necessarily hurt someone else.

      Esmeralda is trying to figure shit out, and everyone’s suggestions are helpful in further understanding her situation and ways that other folks have handled this–including yours, and the reminder to be cautious with language.

      My husband felt the same way you do (and on bad ways, he still feels like that) about being uncertain of whether or not he belongs in a serious relationship because of his depression. He knows that I am sometimes frustrated with the depression–but he also knows that I am frustrated with the chemical imbalance in his brain, NOT WITH HIM. This is the difference, I believe. It is what makes partnering with someone (anyone!) who has a mental illness possible. You acknowledge that the disease is at fault, you express your frustrations in a safe place (like OBB), and you make decisions and goals from there, on your own and with your partner.

      Depression is an asshole, and sometimes, as a partner of a depressive, you just need to know you are not alone–in your struggles or your triumphs.

      (All that said, I sincerely hope that you find a way through/kick the shit out of your depression–I wish it wasn’t so hard.)

  7. This is an excellent blog on ways to help yourself out if you have depression. As the author writes: “This list will not cure you. This list will not flip on the happy switch. God, I wish it were that easy. The theme here is to not to unknowingly sabotage yourself.” As a person with a partner struggling with depression, trying to facilitate and model these things is one way you can help (not cure) them and it will also probably help you. Another helpful thing is acknowledging that you don’t understand what it’s like for them – even those 21 things might well be beyond difficult.

    Maintaining control over my own emotions whilst dealing with the fact that my husband is in the midst of depression is something I really struggle with. Living with someone who is down all the time can obviously make it difficult to stay upbeat – 1) because if it’s just you and them then they are 50% of the atmosphere at home and 2) because you love them, its hard to watch loved ones suffering and it sucks that they are not showing the loveable parts of themselves all the time. Add onto that a long term commitment to the relationship and it’s easy to slip into feelings of helplessness yourself.

    I appreciate that for some people and at some times telling your partner what things are like for you living with their depression is helpful and necessary and can even sometimes be the thing which effects a change. But it’s not always the case and I think there’s a careful balance to be had between emotional dumping and constructive communication.

    Given that my husband already sees that his depression is a problem, dumping all my feelings about it onto him is a terrible idea and, frankly, it’s counter-productive: I’m sad because he’s sad, sharing it with him makes him sad that his sad makes me sad and now I’ve made him sadder which makes me sadder … an infinite vicious circle of sadness! Besides, he’s not in a place to help me deal with those feelings anyway. Not being able to work through difficult feelings with my partner is something it’s been difficult to get my head around – he’s been my first port of call for emotional support for a long time. In trying to avoid emotional dumping I very easily fall into the trap of bottling everything up then exploding (even worse). It’s been a huge relief to me to recognise that it’s ok to rely on emotional support from elsewhere for a time and rather than being destructive to our relationship is actually a way to allow us to share more of life (because less time is taken up with the vicious cycle of sadness!).

    My favourite idea at the moment is “secure your own oxygen mask first”. Sometimes, I just need to spend a bit of time out of the house. And I ALWAYS need to stop looking at other people’s perfect relationships all over facebook. I love my husband just as much as those other super-smiley women with their employed husbands who actually get dressed and leave the house (and in the morning no less) and clean the house and make them dinner. And my husband loves me too. It’s just that he’s also ill so it looks different – sometimes it looks like showering before I get home from work in the evening, sometimes it just looks like him actually telling me to leave him alone when he’s irritable and angry.

    – Take practical steps to help you partner live healthy and model it yourself too
    – Acknowledge you don’t understand what it’s like for them
    – Avoid emotional dumping and bottling up/exploding
    – Find emotional support elsewhere
    – Get off facebook (but then again, maybe this is just me!)
    – Appreciate that the signs your partner cares about you might look different with depression hanging around

  8. May I also highly, HIGHLY recommend this book?

    How You Can Survive When They’re Depressed: Living and Coping with Depression Fallout

    It gave me the ability to draw boundaries *and* the tools I needed to encourage my partner (now my husband, thank God for Prozac!) to not only get help, but to believe that help was possible.

    Everyone is going to have a slightly different experience when it comes to dealing with mental illness, but the baselines are usually the same:

    1) Take care of yourself
    2) Love your partner
    3) Demonstrate to the best of your ability that you are on the same team, and that you will advocate for them when necessary
    4) Sunlight, exercise, good food are helpful for both parties

    Esmeralda–I am so sorry you’re going through this with your partner. It’s pretty shitty. But you are doing the right things, and I hope hope hope life gets better for both of you.


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