How to be a good partner when you're the depressed one
December 9, 2017 11:00 AM   Subscribe

Whenever I do a web search for, like, "how to be a good partner with depression," I get resources for how to support a depressed person. But I am the depressed person, and I'm looking for resources/advice on how to communicate with and support my partner while also taking care of myself. (That pretty much sums it up, but snowflakes below, of course!)

I'm in the midst of a depressive spell and doing all the things I know to do to take care of myself (therapy, exercise, going outside, etc.). I'm also in a relatively new serious relationship (9 months so far), and this is the first major depressive episode I've experienced since we started dating.

This is also my first serious relationship after a traumatic heartbreak two years ago; my depression was a strain on that relationship, and I'm experiencing some gnarly flashbacks and fears about what it will do to this one. I have mood swings and weeping episodes; I experience anxiety/irritability/misplaced anger; I shut down in the middle of dinner and feel unable to explain. I'm afraid of becoming emotionally manipulative or even abusive (I don't think I am, but I don't know if I would know?)

I guess I'm looking for resources on how to act right when you're the one with depression. How to communicate without burdening the other person. How to accept support but not rely on them too much. Like, depression's gonna do what it does, but how can I be a good partner while also taking care of myself?
posted by adastra to Human Relations (7 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
You could write down a “depression action plan” with your partner to help deal with the situation in depressive episodes.

For example:
When I seem irritable, <do something>
When I start crying, <do something else>

Some of the actions could be things like saying a code word to make you aware of your behaviour in the moment, calling a timeout and having your partner go for a walk, suggest a calming activity for you, etc.

You can print it out and tape it to the fridge as a depression playbook, so you’ve got a neutral arbiter in emotional situations.

Also if you are not capable of supporting his emotional needs you should encourage him to spend time with friends, family, etc without you so he doesn’t burn out on depression. Hire people to help with chores if you’re not picking up your end on that.
posted by crazycanuck at 11:10 AM on December 9, 2017 [9 favorites]

As someone is depressed and anxious who lives with and loves someone who is depressed and anxious- an action plan is a really good idea. When you're having a moment with less funk, you should tell your partner straight up. Maybe like hey just a heads up, I have depression and I'm not going to be at my best for a while. Please don't take it personally, there's nothing you can do to fix it, I just have to ride it out. Maybe warn them how you're likely to behave? If there's anything that helps you, you can tell them. Personally I like cuddles, they make me feel more optimistic. Just reassure them that you're doing your best to take care of yourself and ask then to be patient. And then do those things.
posted by Bistyfrass at 12:14 PM on December 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

I've never been seriously depressed myself, but I have been in an ultimately unsuccessful relationship with a depressed person. In retrospect, some of the things I would have appreciated were talking to me before things got really bad to explain that this was something he dealt with and was independent of me and our relationship, not the result of something I'd done; making me aware of situations and behaviours that he already knew to be difficult or triggering so that we could make plans to either avoid them or deal with them; and--a fine line here--welcoming help without making me over-responsible for his emotional state.

Our breakup happened when he got angry with me for going solo to an event in my honour that had been scheduled for months, and I realized that while I wasn't depressed, I would be sooner or later if I stayed with that relationship. In retrospect, we could both have done a better job of recognizing and enforcing boundaries even before his illness started to manifest, and I've made a point of doing that in all my relationships since then.
posted by rpfields at 12:19 PM on December 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

When you're able, encourage friendships between your partner and other people. Sometimes in relationships people can get all sorts of strange ideas about what's right and wrong in terms of emotional support and even just good times coming from people who aren't their SO. That is a great way to strain a relationship between the most mentally healthy of people.

Make it clear that you know you can't be everything to your partner and they can't be everything to you. Not only is that okay, it's normal, and whenever you can you'd like them to help you with your friendships as you will help them with theirs. That way when you need extra support your partner will be able to call in friends for you as well as lean on their own friends and family. And when you don't need that support your partner is happy for you to spend time with your friends and family to strengthen those relationships (and have fun!) without seeing it as a lessening of your relationship with them.

It's emotional labor, and it's hard, and depression is really adept at lying to you and encouraging the erosion of those friendships. If you and your partner can build a relationship that includes a lot of friends and found family, you'll have a better chance at shoring up against that erosion.
posted by Mizu at 3:17 PM on December 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You know the saying about how depression lies to you? It also tells you to lie to other people.

For me that takes a lot of forms. Depression makes me turn down help that I know I need. It makes me tell people I don't know what I want when I know perfectly well but am too nervous to ask. It makes me want to say "I'm abusive" or "I'm manipulative" when the honest truth is I'm just gut-wrenchingly ashamed of how helpless and needy I feel. It makes me push people away that I love having around — or makes me tell them "I know you don't want me around" when, um no actually, on some rational level I'm pretty sure they do. It makes me say "of course I feel safe" when I'm making plans to kill myself.

It sounds like a lot of that stuff isn't foreign to you either.

Anyway, I think a big part of the answer here is being honest about that stuff even though depression tries really fucking hard to keep you from being honest about that stuff. You won't manage it 100% of the time. You aren't a bad person if you don't manage it 100% of the time. But the more often you can manage to tell the truth about it, the better you'll be able to talk out all the other things you and your partner need to talk out.

In practical terms, something that's helped me with this is the "interpersonal effectiveness" skills from DBT — which you can probably find a bunch of stuff about online even if you're not doing a DBT program. Basically they're about communicating in a clear, convincing, not-manipulative way even when your brain is totally fucking you over and trying to make you lie or yell or mope.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:41 PM on December 9, 2017 [10 favorites]

This is such a great question.

I would verbatim read this paragraph to your partner:
This is also my first serious relationship after a traumatic heartbreak two years ago; my depression was a strain on that relationship, and I'm experiencing some gnarly flashbacks and fears about what it will do to this one. I have mood swings and weeping episodes; I experience anxiety/irritability/misplaced anger; I shut down in the middle of dinner and feel unable to explain. I'm afraid of becoming emotionally manipulative or even abusive (I don't think I am, but I don't know if I would know?)

One thing, just make sure your partner knows it's not their responsibility and it's not their fault. (Even though you might, in the depths, believe that it is or even say that it is. That's the Black Dog talking, and it doesn't tell the truth.)

Does your partner have Florence Nightingale syndrome? They may have it and not know it until you present them with this challenge. It can be a problem if they start to feel there must be some way they can "fix it" and if they're not fixing it, they're failing. Then their continued attempts to fix it can become... onerous. Make sure they understand that the fix, if there is one, is not theirs to make. Make sure they know that the oxygen mask rule applies, and that if they feel overwhelmed, they can take a break and not be breaking you.

You might develop a really simple code, for when your partner doesn't know what to do but wants to be doing something. So, like, making cocoa, for instance. You don't have to drink the cocoa or even be in the same room with it. You can just hear somebody humming quietly and a spoon clinking in a mug in another room and know you're cared for and someone is thinking about you.

You might want to schedule a therapy appointment to include your partner, so that you can get input when you develop your plan.

I don't know if any of that makes any sense or will be in the least helpful. I very much appreciate your asking this question.
posted by Don Pepino at 4:49 PM on December 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

My s/o is very similar position as you and we are trying a lot of different things to work through it. One thing that has really helped is when one of us has a meltdown, we try our best to recognize that it is happening asap, and physically separate from the other person - like go to another room. While we are separate, the person who is melting down does whatever it is they do to calm themselves. This usually involves some independent introspection (via thinking or writing) about the emotions. We usually try to suss out the source of the emotions (including irrational depression-fueled thoughts, deep dark fears, insecurities, etc). Then when we are both ready, we reconvene and check in. What happened? What do we both need individually?

This separation and calming down process has been a huge help, and has taken months of practice (and help from therapy). When we do this, I can halt my urge to go into mega-comfort mode, or to try to fix the situation. We are still learning the safest ways to deal with things.

Overall, it is really helpful when my partner can tell me the truth about how she is feeling, when she is in a calmer state and can state & confirm her rational thoughts on the matter (even if the irrational thoughts are still the ones dominating her brain). It is very helpful to hear the dark, evil (Black Dog like Don Pepino said) thoughts, and THEN to also hear the rational thoughts that she knows are true at the same time. For example, "I got overwhelmed at dinner because of XYZ, and I bet that's related to my deep dark fear about ABC, anyways I know the truth is that ABC is not going to hurt me, and at the same time I still felt terrible at dinner."

Sometimes depending on the situation, she can help me by saying stuff like:
- "I am having a hard time and might need xyz from you."
- "I am having a hard time and not sure what to do."
- "I am having a hard time and and I don't need you to do anything."

As far as communicating without burdening, I want her to communicate the whole truth because I know she's well-practiced at concealing it. If she conceals her feelings, that is more of a burden for me because then I worry about what's going on. I feel like it's is my job to keep myself safe in response to her feelings, and let her know when I need space or when our dynamic is pushing my limits. I try to keep her posted on how I am doing and take care of myself. Then it's her job to respect my needs, and also communicate her needs. It's a total feedback loop. We are still figuring out good ways to maintain and keep our boundaries. Lots of good suggestions in that realm from the thread so far.

(You are not alone! Thank you for writing and I'm looking forward to any more responses.)
posted by sweetjane at 9:13 PM on December 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

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