Advice for dating someone with clinical depression
November 6, 2015 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Most of the posts I found here were by posters suffering from depression themselves. I'm interested in those perspectives (what a partner can do to help) but primarily those of people who've been in relationships with a depressed person, but aren't depressed themselves. More specifics inside.

I'm in a relationship with a person who has suffered from depression for all of her adult life. We recently moved in together, and are committed. However, we have trouble connecting emotionally at least in part due to her condition. I can't really relate (only experienced mild temporary depression at most) and not only do I have trouble empathizing, she is also frustrated by my seeming aloofness, I think.

How can I break through the "dead zone"? When you can see in their eyes that they're receding, is it possible for me to intervene and show that I love and support her?

How do I reassure myself that she loves me and needs me, when she is unable to say so herself?

How do I maintain faith that things will be better eventually, for both of us?

How far do I go in suggesting/pushing her to get treatment? She has occasionally seen a counselor but hasn't tried medication since high school.

Thanks for any and all perspectives. I'm not looking for suggestions to break up. Just on how to find the balance between coping, being supportive, and being proactive.
posted by ism to Human Relations (24 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
how far do I go in suggesting/pushing her to get treatment?

I Am A Depressed Person, but Not Your Depressed Person.

I think we--all of us--owe it to our partners to proactively manage our health as much an as best we can. You can't make her do anything, but I think you can ask that she get into treatment (meds & therapy work best together but meds are between her and a doctor). It's HARD to do that stuff when you're depressed, but it puts a big burden on a partner when you don't--and it's not about "getting well" so much as it is about doing what you can in good faith.
posted by listen, lady at 8:49 AM on November 6, 2015 [7 favorites]

Best answer: (that is, doing what one can is sometimes not enough, and that's okay. that's where i'd want a partner's support and uplift.)
posted by listen, lady at 8:51 AM on November 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: How do I maintain faith that things will be better eventually, for both of us?

Unless she gets help, you can't. She has a condition for which there are many effective treatments, but if she chooses to not treat this, you can't do anything. You can spend years spinning yourself into butter trying to jolly her along and be supportive, but the truth is that there's nothing you can do.

As a couple, you have a responsibility to care for each other but you also have a responsibility to take care of yourself. You can't fix her depression; she has to do this.

I understand that you want to be proactive, but your reality is that you can't force her to get help.

You could have one serious conversation where you explain that she needs to get help. Tell her you love her and you'll help her find someone, but other than that, as long as she chooses to ignore depression there's really nothing you can do.
posted by kinetic at 8:57 AM on November 6, 2015 [26 favorites]

Be careful of getting sucked in to the idea that you can 'make her better.' It's so alluring, and doubly so if you're already the type of person who feels responsible for others' emotional states. It's so easy to be seduced by the idea that if you could just say or do the right things, you'd get her to see what a great person she is, or how things are really going to be okay even if she doesn't see it right now ... but unfortunately it doesn't work that way. There are no magic words that you can give her to make this better.

If she has clinical depression she needs professional help, and she has to be the one to get it. Don't put yourself in the position of 'crutch,' as that can be destructive for both of you. I'd suggest you look into codependency and the idea of detachment with love - not because I think you're codependent (I'm just a random internet stranger and only have your post to go by!), but because I think that when you care about someone who has a problem you don't understand and that you want so much to help, it's easy to fall into the belief that you can fix it, even if you can't - and you would do well to know the signs of this before you get there. Be a loving and supportive partner by taking care of yourself.

You can love her and support her, but you can't cure her. I hope she does get into treatment soon; good luck to you both.
posted by DingoMutt at 9:17 AM on November 6, 2015 [11 favorites]

Nthing all the advice that it's okay to push her to get help, and not useful to try to save or fix her yourself.

Also: See a therapist yourself. Seriously. Not because there's anything "wrong" with you, but because being the healthy partner of a seriously, chronically ill person is a major stressor, and you deserve support in dealing with it — and that stays true whether the chronic illness is physical or mental
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:25 AM on November 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

Hi, I've been in the position of your girlfriend, and the way I've been able to sustain healthy relationships is by, firstly, managing my depression properly (seeking treatment when necessary), secondly by making sure the best I can that my partner understands it enough that they feel able to tell me if they think it is not in control, and thirdly by giving my partner (and indeed close friends) as much information as possible about my "warning signs" that indicate I need to step up how much I am managing it.

This might not work for everyone, but I find that, due to the still nascent understanding of mental illness in society, it can help to do thought experiments with people where you substitute depression for a broken leg. For example, would you expect your colleague to come into work while they were in the middle of a severe depressive episode/severe bout of back pain? The answer to both should be very similar if not the same.

So, applying this to your current situation. If your girlfriend's ailment was back pain, would that change your approach? How would you feel about her seeking treatment, or not? How much would you be ok with it affecting your relationship, and how long would you be ok with it affecting it in that way for?

These are No Right Answer questions, by the way. But that might help you frame them to be able to think, and talk, about them.
posted by greenish at 9:31 AM on November 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

I had a 5 year relationship with someone who suffered from severe anxiety and depression.

In many ways he was a wonderful partner, and I think he worked hard to keep the depth of his problems from me for a long time, but his mental health took a massive toll on our relationship. It was hard to go to every party and event alone and live a separate life because he was too anxious to leave the house, and to always be the one bringing the energy and conversation, and constantly be trying to prop him up and anticipate his moods.

I tried very hard to get him to seek help, which he did intermittently when I threw down ultimatums.
But his heart was never really in it, and it was impossible to keep him going (therapy/meds/self help) long term. And if he tried something that didn't work it was like a nail in the coffin for him, proving that he was somehow broken and would always be that way.

Eventually I realised that I had to accept him, and our life together, the way it was. I couldn't delude myself into thinking that this was a temporary problem, and once he had it fixed we would be perfect and happy. I couldn't keep the parts I liked and ignore or leave what I didn't. It was a package deal.

I'm not saying people with depression can't improve or be happy, they absolutely can. But I couldn't wish my life away when there was no promise that he would ever want to get better.

However, I don't think that was really the advice you asked for. In my experience, the only thing that worked was going nuclear, making it all about me (the tendency towards 'tunnel vision' in depressed people can make them forget that you also have feelings), and telling him in no uncertain terms that his condition was making me utterly miserable, and I wasn't going to live that way forever. When he did seek help, I was very supportive, praised the courage it took to take that first step, be it research, making an appointment, or picking up a prescription, commented on small steps in the right direction that he sometimes couldn't see himself in the moment, like going out to a place he had previously avoided, and tried to be a sounding board for his achievements and frustrations. These things worked, but as I said only short term. Just like I couldn't be miserable forever for him, he couldn't be happy forever for me.

Breaking up was incredibly painful, and I still miss him 3 years later. It's a horrible part of growing up I think, realising that someone is wrong for you no matter how much you love them.

I'm not saying that will be the case for you AT ALL. But if she doesn't take responsibility for her health there is a possibility that your relationship will stay how it is. So ask yourself if you're prepared for that.
posted by Dwardles at 9:32 AM on November 6, 2015 [20 favorites]

How can I break through the "dead zone"? When you can see in their eyes that they're receding, is it possible for me to intervene and show that I love and support her?

Nope, not really. You will want to, you will recognize the pattern, you will see the spiral start and you can't do anything to stop it. You can try to show how much you care, but it hurts even more when they reject that effort. Bonus: your efforts to show that you care just feel like more pressure and failure to them and can deepen the spiral.

How do I reassure myself that she loves me and needs me, when she is unable to say so herself?

You can try, but it gets harder every time. The sadness often translates to anger and that anger is used against you. Because you are in a relationship, they know exactly how to bring you down. Depression is contagious. The good days almost make it worse when the bad days happen.

How do I maintain faith that things will be better eventually, for both of us?

They might not be. Even if they seek help. Even if everything is improving on the outside. This isn't a tunnel you reach the end of eventually, it's a mine field covered with sunflowers.

How far do I go in suggesting/pushing her to get treatment? She has occasionally seen a counselor but hasn't tried medication since high school.

You can try, but don't be surprised when your efforts are turned around on you during a bad spell. "You think I'm crazy!" "You don't love me for who I am" "I've done all the hard work, what have you done?", etc. It's a very, very delicate dance. Depression is a really selfish illness. Remember who you are.
posted by chuke at 9:33 AM on November 6, 2015 [9 favorites]

Also, over time it's massively disheartening to be around someone depressed, and you might not realise it as it happens but it can gradually chip away at your own happiness.

You know that old clique about how when they give you the safety rundown before taking off on an aeroplane, they always tell you to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others? Do that. You can't take care of someone depressed, or yourself, if you start to slide into slide into depression yourself.

Make sure you take really good care of yourself- exercise, see friends, do whatever you love. Maybe see a therapist yourself if you're that way inclined. Even if she's not, even if it means going without her. Obviously be compassionate and don't leave her crying on the sofa every night, but do you really want to be crying on the sofa with her every night? Like Chuke said, depression can be very selfish and it's easy if you love someone to put everything on hold when you see they are in distress, but you can be a better partner and a better source of support if you're in good working order yourself.
posted by Dwardles at 9:46 AM on November 6, 2015 [8 favorites]

I think taking really good care of yourself is the best thing you can do - so the usual relationship advice but taken to a larger extent, i.e. maintain your friendships, your hobbies, do things together and apart. You need your own outside sources of support so that you aren't overly reliant on her giving you what you need. This will also reduce the pressure she feels and hopefully keep from feeding negative thoughts she might have about herself. Being compassionate to her is all you can really do. It's not selfish to make sure you're taking care of yourself too.

You say she feels you are being aloof but it sounds like you're trying to stay connected with her. Do you have daily and weekly rituals you do together? I think those things really help even if it's just a movie night in together. Have you asked her what you can do?

Re: medication, there are studies showing that for some people exercise, gratitude journals, and meditation can work just as well or better, and medication helps some people but not all so try not to think it would solve the problem.

Source: my mom has suffered serious depression her whole life.
posted by lafemma at 9:49 AM on November 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

I had to all but literally drag a partner with depression to a doctor and therapist to get treatment and it basically came down to myself and some close friends doing an intervention. They're doing much better now, but the years of unhappiness with the situation on my part has done a lot of damage to the relationship. If they hadn't gone at that point, I would have been done.

Expect possible sexual side effects if they go on medication. If their depression is mild enough, I heartily endorse the theory that antidepressants are something to kickstart the effects of therapy and lifestyle changes and then weened off of. Do this with the assistance of medical council; going cold turkey can increase the chances of suicide.

If you haven't read it, read the hyperbole and a half comic on depression.
posted by Candleman at 10:02 AM on November 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

"How You Can Survive When They're Depressed: Living and Coping with Depression Fallout" Paperback by Anne Sheffield & Mike Wallace is an excellent guide for a situation like yours.
posted by Carol Anne at 10:27 AM on November 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

One thing I did when I was in this situation was to get myself into therapy. It was useful for giving me a place to vent, to talk about strategies and boundaries, and to make sure I was taking care of my own emotional state.
posted by gingerbeer at 10:41 AM on November 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Been there, done that, since 1969. Married since 1972.

Depression is a highly variable condition. It can be a one-time thing, it can come and go, it can be more or less constant. It can be helped by therapy or not, it can be helped by medication or not. It can require hospitalization or not. I say this to emphasize that advice you get may or may not be relevant to your situation.

My opinion is that if you really love her, and she really loves you, the best thing you can do is be the most authentic version of yourself that you can. Don't change from being the person she loves. You are not her doctor, you are not her therapist, you do not sit in judgement upon her. You are her friend and lover, and in your presence, she may find some sort of sanctuary, at least sometimes.

Do your best to figure out how to communicate. It can be tricky. Way back about 1974, there was a seminar at my job about communicating with troubled persons. The instructor listed about 15 ways to communicate such as offering suggestions, trying to cheer the person up, etc. They were all wrong according to the instructor. The only correct answer is Reflective Listening (which you can look up). I went home and, at an appropriate time, uttered a single sentence of reflective listening, and my wife said "don't try that shit on me." So there I was with nothing to say. But the most important thing really is that they know that you care.

Also, help her avoid stressors. If she doesn't want to shop, do the shopping. If she doesn't want to travel on Thanksgiving, stay home.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:50 AM on November 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

One of the traits of depression is irritability, so knowing that may help. I used to ask my partner to go on walks when I was depressed; exercise and sunshine are very helpful, nature, too.

Be a healthy, loving person who is fun, has fun, and is sweet. You do not have to be sad or avoid being happy.
posted by theora55 at 10:55 AM on November 6, 2015

There's a lot of cruel generalizations about people with depression going on in this thread. Ask your partner what helps her. Talk to her about this. Show her this question, even. I'm going to be she's a better expert on her own illness than you're giving her credit for.
posted by ariadne's threadspinner at 1:29 PM on November 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

I've been on both sides of this. My advice: accept that her depression is part of who she is. Believing that it is fixable is setting yourself up for frustration, and potentially setting yourself up to be judgmental toward her if she does not improve.

Ask her how much she wants to be encouraged toward treatment. She may have good reasons for not being interested or she may be more interested if she has someone helping her research options and supporting her through the process. (Note that while depression is treatable for many people, for many others it is not. So not getting treatment doesn't necessarily mean she's preventing herself from getting better, and getting treatment doesn't mean it will help.)

This may sound contradictory but it has to do with you, rather than your partnership. Some people stay with people who have mental health issues that ruin both of their lives. If someone were a substance abuser, many people would expect their partner to leave eventually if they couldn't get their life back on track, whether because they refused treatment or found treatment ineffective. The same goes for this. If you partner's depression becomes intractable and prevents you from living the life you want to lead, think about what you would do if she was an alcoholic instead. Save yourself before letting yourself drown.

Everyone is different, but when I am depressed, I want my partner to mostly leave me alone but to be available to talk if I want to and to check in and do nice things for me intermittently. YMMV.
posted by metasarah at 4:25 PM on November 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of cruel generalizations about people with depression going on in this thread

I disagree, at least with the characterization "a lot."
posted by listen, lady at 4:36 PM on November 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Regardless of whether someone has depression or not, the best advice when looking at your relationship is to accept the person you are with, and the relationship you have in this moment, as the true relationship. Not the image in your mind, not the relationship you think you'll have "when things are better", but that the relationship you have right now is the best the relationship will ever be. Are you okay with that? You can't have a healthy relationship if you have regrets over broken hopes.

The other part I would recommend, which sounds harsh and is not popular with many people suffering with depression, is to not lower your expectations of your partner because they use the word depression to justify behaviour. They are fully able to be a healthy partner; supporting themselves, caring for their well-being, considerate of your needs, and interested in you. Lots of people with depression are in healthy relationships; someone that cannot have a healthy relationship may find it convenient to blame their depression, but it is really their choice of how to act in the relationship, just as you also control your own behaviour.
posted by saucysault at 4:51 PM on November 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you so much, all. And more welcome. With things this complex any person is going to have a nuanced outlook on it and I am glad to be informed by those of y'all.
posted by ism at 10:27 PM on November 6, 2015

I think it's important to draw a distinction between people who actively seek help for depression and those who don't. The former may only very rarely have depression affect their romantic lives. But if the person isn't doing all that can be done to help himself, and as a result the depression is affecting the relarionship, then that's something else altogether. Ultimately the question is this: does the depression affect the way a person behaves in a relarionship in a negative manner? I'm inclined to cut someone in the first camp more slack than the second if it is affecting the relarionship. I say all this as someone who has lifelong depression.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:50 AM on November 7, 2015

The other part I would recommend, which sounds harsh and is not popular with many people suffering with depression, is to not lower your expectations of your partner because they use the word depression to justify behaviour. They are fully able to be a healthy partner; supporting themselves, caring for their well-being, considerate of your needs, and interested in you.

Fantastic comment and it's important to know this as you commit to a serious relationship. You know that your partner has wonderful attributes and can be delightful and the person with whom you want to share your life. You know this. Now, nobody's "on" all the time, and we all have peaks and valleys and bouts of crankiness and selfishness and dickheadedness, but the general baseline doesn't vary. Your partner remains a wonderful and delightful person the majority of the time. Every now and again they get a pass for biting off your head or hiding in bed because they're tired or cranky or pissed off or whatever. Your general expectation of their behavior doesn't vary.

This isn't always the case with untreated depression, as you've seen. And you may find yourself sometimes feeling just so incredibly badly for them. You wish you could take their depression and punch it and make it go away. It sucks to see your partner suffering and you know there's a kernel of happiness underneath those clouds. So you stay home weekend after weekend, doing chores they can't face, running phone interference with their family, not trying a new pub because they can't face it, etc. You give and give and give in the guise of helping her, but what you're actually doing is giving her depression the starring role in your relationship.

You'll tell yourself it's just the depression talking (and depression is an evil fucking LIAR) and that person you love is still underneath that black cloud. In those moments, it's SO hard to put our own oxygen masks on first and recognize that we've let their illness take charge of our own lives. Their depression keeps you at home, their depression has you avoid situations, etc. Their depression is calling the shots and it's not fair.

I'm saying all of this to reiterate my previous point: you can't do ANYTHING for her depression except help her understand she needs to deal with it. And you go from there.

But if in a few months time, you find that her depression is calling the shots then it's time to evaluate if this is fair to you and if it's what you want.

(My bonafides: married to someone with depression who refused to get treatment, then 20 years later engaged to someone else who refused to get help, and I'm the parent of a teen with depression. I KNOW the struggle is real. I KNOW it can tear your heart apart. I know it sucks. But I also know there's only so much you can do and at some point, your partner has to commit to treatment, otherwise their depression will also claim you as a victim.)
posted by kinetic at 2:54 AM on November 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

As a depressed person, let me say that the thing that is most important to me is support. Not to be taken care of, just to be loved and understood. Just to be held and told I love you. Depression can take a toll on a relationship. I just got dumped by my fiance after an 8 year relationship. I tried everything - meds, meditation, therapy, supplements etc - and never got much better. Sorry to tell you that, but you have to be prepared and accepting that things won't get better. I was obsessed with beating my depression. I could never be faulted for not trying to get help.

Everyone is different and I think that communication is extremely important. Depressed people can still be great partners (I was) but they just have a disease. I think that most people who don't suffer from this affliction don't understand it.

I would just try to communicate and make sure that your needs are met too. I suspect that in these types of relationships, that one person ends up giving more and neglecting their own needs and ultimately resenting.

Memail me if you want to discuss further

posted by kbbbo at 12:56 PM on November 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

As a depressed person I second the variations on the "be your authentic self" advice. My wife is amazing in this regard. It's been a real slog (for me and for her) but shes never stopped being focused and dedicated to her career like she's always planned and I'm grateful for that. Feeling like you're a heavier burden because you can see your depression alter your partners path is the worst (for me). Support is good, love is good, giving space is good but what I talk about above has been the greatest thing shes given me in my struggle with depression.
posted by deadwater at 5:45 AM on November 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

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