As I handed my then-boyfriend that little piece of paper, I felt ashamed. What would he think? How would he react? What could he do about it anyway?
Nights before, alone in my home, I had written a letter to myself. I was using my own writing to convince myself not to take my own life.
It had worked, I had fallen asleep and not done the harmful thing I had wanted to do, but days later I was still desperate for an answer.
I hoped, the man whom I loved, would know what to do. He didn’t.
Now I know how difficult loving someone with depression can be. Their black hole of self-doubt, self-pity, and despair has a gravitational pull unlike any other.
So what are you to do? What helps when your significant other feels helpless? How best can you love them without allowing their gloom to encircle you as well? Here are 10 do’s and don’ts of loving someone with depression.
1. Don’t tell them to cheer up
Depression isn’t a moment or a bad day. It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain; one that is lying to its victim. Telling them life is awful and they are worthless. By saying to them to cheer up, or feel better only aids in these depressions lies. Making them feel as though something is wrong with them if they can’t just get better. There will be days when your partner is happy and days when they are sad. These days they are still depressed. Loving someone with depression means you will take the good days and stick around through the bad ones. Always understand that there is a silent 3rd party in your relationship, depression.
2. Be encouraging
Like clouds on a sunny day, sometimes the sun’s warmth can still peak through. Radiate encouragement, and be uplifting and happy even if you feel depressed other half is always pessimistic. They need your positivity even if they can’t absorb all of it. The little bit that gets through will help them thrive.
3. Don’t suggest medication
Any person’s decision to take medication for their mental illness is theirs, and theirs alone. Perhaps they are a creative type, such as myself and worry that taking medication may make it difficult for them to tap into their creative abilities. Regardless, continually nagging them to take medication to improve their mood and state of mind will only alienate them. It will make them feel as if they can’t talk to you about their thoughts and feelings because you will just again tell them “take medication”. Keeping the lines of communication open is crucial to them surviving their illness. Loving someone with depression can make you feel frustrated but remember, you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make them drink.
4. Use the Join Them method
When it comes to loving someone with depression joining them during their negative days doesn’t mean becoming depressed. But if you are always trying to convince your partner that things aren’t so bad, this is more annoying to them than it is helpful. Next time you feel inclined to persuade them to see the good in their bad day, mood, or week, try to join them instead.
For example: “Today was awful. I really couldn’t stay awake, and my boss felt like they were hounding me all day…”
Join Them method: “Really? I bet that wasn’t very good. Your boss can be extra difficult sometimes. What happened?”
Instead of “Well, I’m sure your boss didn’t mean it that way. Maybe you just took it wrong.”
It’s normal for you to feel like they are too sensitive, or too emotional over things. But shut up about it. Join them in their emotions for a moment, and let them talk and validate their feelings. It makes them feel less depressed and more loved.
5. Don’t become co-dependent
Ultimately another person’s happiness does not depend on you. Even as their partner or spouse. Likewise, their unhappiness isn’t because of you either. Loving someone with depression can make you feel like it’s your job always to be their happy partner, keeping them alive. That is draining for anyone. Please don’t treat them like they are fragile. Any relationship takes teamwork, and you will need to be able to unload your bad days, and difficulties as well. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you aren’t allowed to have problems. That’s a slippery slope straight into codependency, making for a very one-sided unhealthy relationship. Not to mention, this will cause a lot of resentment on your part towards your partner.
6. Hold them accountable
If they say they want help, remind them of what was said. How they wanted help. If they suggest trying to work out or do a yoga class to feel better, tell them why they wanted to do that. They may push back and get slightly angry when you do this. But do it anyway, you aren’t doing anything but reminding them of the things they said they wanted. That’s different than you telling them what you feel they should or shouldn’t do.
7. Suggest re-usable date ideas
Join something together, and explain that you are counting on them to go with you. Something healthy like a yoga class, or a volleyball tournament. Something others will rely on you both for as well will help them stick to the commitment. Add a favorite restaurant to eat at afterward or a favorite coffee or donut shop to go to, and it can quickly become your favorite day of the week. Having a regular date night is good for your relationship and healthy for your depressed partner to have something to look forward to.
8. Don’t analyze them all the time
I know it’s difficult, to not wonder if their feelings of inadequacy stem from their family growing up. Or something more going on internally. Telling them about their brain, and their chemical imbalance doesn’t help them feel better about their day or circumstances. It will just make your partner annoyed with you, feeling like they are a patient and you are a doctor. Aim to have a relationship of equals, not a patient-caregiver relationship.
9. Help them see the silver lining
When your partner is going through a good few days, keep it that way. Don’t remind them of the rough time they had the week before or how they are always underneath it all, innately unhappy. As well as, when they have a terrible time, try your best to show them the good. You can show them how even though they felt it was a difficult time, it will make them stronger. Or it showed them they are capable of overcoming complicated things.
10. Don’t stop loving them
I know at times it’s extremely difficult to love someone with a mental illness. But don’t mistake the difficulties you have with your depressed lover as difficulties you won’t have with someone else. Everyone has their faults, and every relationship has its problems. In your relationship, depression plays a role. In other relationships, it’s ADHD, BiPolar, PTSD, or a myriad of other mental illnesses. It’s also character flaws and lifestyle struggles.
People suffering from depression are just people who struggle to cope with the stress of their life differently than others. That doesn’t make them less lovable, or less loyal. It makes them empathetic and giving. Often selfless to a fault, and capable of loving someone else with much intensity.
Loving someone with depression is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary at times. When I handed my then-boyfriend that letter, he was scared. And he reacted out of fear. Try to respond with understanding. When you are faced with what looks like a selfish act from your lover, act with empathy. Understand that their feelings of despair that drive them to suicidal thoughts come from feeling worthless. They are only seeking to make others’ lives more manageable. They think they are a burden to those they love, even though this is their chemical imbalance lying to them. Remind them, how much you love them. How much do you need them. Help them to see their worth, and they will thrive despite their depression.
In my own experience of both having depression and loving someone with it, they can overcome it. But they will need you to help them more than you may be capable of. Be honest with yourself as well, don’t be afraid to let them know you aren’t handling their depression well. Loving someone with depression when you are emotionally unavailable can end up hurting the depression victim worse. Be hopeful with your words and actions. Not desperate or despondent.