Are you living with a depressed partner? Here’s what you can do

One partner suffering from depression is not easy for the other; but there are ways to deal with it. A marriage and crisis counsellor offers her advice

man consoling his depressed partner

Living with a depressed partner is full of challenges; some people feel cheated by the changes in their spouse’s actions and attitudes, others feel heartbroken and many become emotionally disconnected, eventually ending the relationship. As a relationship and crisis counsellor, I’ve helped many couples whose lives were impacted by depression. Allow me to shed light on the signs of a depressed partner, give you a glimpse inside their world and outline contributing factors for depression, which will equip you both with the strategies to improve your relationship and your lives, despite depression.

What are the signs of a depressed partner?

Has your partner changed and become negative, often pessimistic, about almost everything? Has he or she become quieter, emotionally withdrawn, simultaneously making themselves unavailable for many family activities? Have they cut down on socialising and seem disinterested in work, family and life? Have they increased emotional eating, alcohol intake or drug usage? Has your partner become moody and is easily angered?

One client said, “My husband seems to be a shell—as if he has no soul,” and another said, “He’s no fun anymore; he’s just not the same person he was five years ago, before the depression.” One woman said, “He’s always angry.” One man said, “My wife is constantly sad, and hardly talks, yet she has so many great things in her life.” These sentiments are common. While the contributing factors in depression vary from person to person, the way depression appears ‘from the outside’ is strikingly similar.

How does it feel to be the depressed partner?

The daily walk with depression is a crippling one; relationships with self, family members, friends, colleagues and life in general, all become more difficult and painful. The depressed partner usually feels oppressed and caged in, either by self-imposed restrictions or perceived or real external limitations placed on them.

In most cases, unresolved grief and loss is at the core of depression. For men, it is often the loss of a relative, job loss or loss of emotional/physical intimacy in the primary relationship. For women it is often the loss of a child or feeling trapped in the primary relationship. He or she lives in the shadow of self-condemnation, anger and frustration. As they over-focus on their defeats and weaknesses, causing their self-esteem to plummet, they compare themselves with others unfavourably—adding more bricks to the wall of isolation around them. This anger at life eventually points inwards, as prior goals seem unattainable. They feel pressured by most obligations, leaving them feeling ‘stuck’, struggling to make decisions, and fearful of the future.

This lack of fulfilment, and a feeling that life is ‘bland’, sometimes becomes the catalyst for a ‘mid-life crisis’ or an affair; creating a change, then a temporary spark.

The depressed partner usually feels oppressed and caged in, either by self-imposed restrictions or perceived or real external limitations placed on them

However, a devastating backlash of increased alienation from their spouse, self-disgust and confusion make matters worse. All these negative, repetitive thoughts create an avalanche of sad emotions, impacting the body. As depression sets in, restless sleep, reduced sex drive, impaired sexual function, appetite changes, aches and fatigue are common. Feeling numb and disassociated from life, it is common to hear a depressed person say things like, “I don’t know who I am anymore” and ”I don’t know what I want.”

How can you help your depressed partner?

Some partners tell their spouse to ‘harden up’ or ‘get over it’, which only exasperates the situation. Ideally, if your partner has depression, you can assist them by encouraging them to see a psychologist or counsellor for therapy or a doctor for medication. Keep talking to your spouse and keep listening: avoid nasty ‘put down’ comments.

Depression is not just ‘in the mind’, but is physical as well; be gentle and assist where you can in practical ways around the household. Being empathetic is important, but knowing strategies is essential. I have a tool that I encourage you to use. It’s called The Crisis Wheel. I talk about it in my book Are you listening: Life is Talking to You!.

Keep talking to your spouse and keep listening: avoid nasty ‘put down’ comments

Ask your spouse how they are doing in the following areas:

  • Thought Patterns: Are they predominantly positive or negative?
  • Self Esteem: Do they have strong self-esteem?
  • Past Grief and loss: Are they frequently emotional over a past loss?
  • Emotions: Are they mostly experiencing positive emotions?
  • Brain chemistry: Are they eating well and exercising at least three times weekly to improve brain neurotransmitters?
  • Support networks: Do they have friends they regularly socialise with?
  • Passions: Are they enjoying passions/hobbies?
  • Lifestyle/Career: Do they enjoy their day job and are they suffering any financial stress?

When using this Crisis Wheel for assessment, I ask the client to give me a ‘coping ‘or ‘not coping’, response, which I translate to a tick or a cross. In my book I offer strategies for these eight vital areas. Ask your spouse how they are coping in these areas. Tragically, a person who is not coping in five or more of these areas is likely to be experiencing suicidal thinking, so be brave and ask them if they have had any suicidal thoughts. Other signs to watch for that your spouse may be suicidal are: Do they feel hopeless, are they saying goodbyes, giving away possessions, putting legal affairs in order, or frequently talking about dying?

When a person is coping well in most areas in their life, depression symptoms usually subside

How medicine and therapy can help

Science suggests that depression is related to an imbalance in the levels of the following neurotransmitters in the brain: serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, and that depression can be hereditary. So, does depression cause the reduction in these neurotransmitters or does the reduction in the neurotransmitters cause depression? It is much like the chicken and the egg—which came first? Regardless, it is crucial that a person with depression has improved power over thoughts, emotions, and relationships, and to do this, therapy and strategies are required. When a person is coping well in most areas in their life, depression symptoms usually subside.

Your doctor can assist with antidepressant medication, which often works well in improving the balance of neurotransmitters. Overall, you need to work on two levels:

  1. Keep these brain chemistry levels correct and
  2. Equip the depressed spouse with strategies for coping with their relationship and life.

Many of my hundreds of counselling sessions have involved a client with depression. When you know what to look for, what you can do to help, what to avoid doing and the psychological strategies for improvement, you can make a huge change in your partner’s life, the relationship and your life. Keep talking, keep listening and keep connected to each other. Now that you know more about what your partner is going through, and that depression is an illness, not a choice, this should help you stay empathetic. Use therapeutic strategies, have hope, and support each other, through sickness and in health.

This was first published in the April 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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