Earlier this week I read a Washington Post article about by a woman whose relationship was torn apart while she and her partner tried to deal with his depression. Reading it I could see that, at one point in my life, this article would have made me very angry but now- hips-deep in writing a book about depression, sexuality, and coping with it all in relationships- I instead spotted the problematic elements in the story immediately and understood exactly what went wrong. Whereas in the past I would have told you the author was selfish and didn’t understand, I will now say the author was not equipped to deal with a partner who has depression – most of us aren’t.
No one teaches us how to navigate a relationship when mental illness enters the equation. Last year when I plunged into a depressive episode my partner was at a loss, he had never dealt with this and wanted so badly to help but had no idea what to do. We went looking for books and found that there’s very little out there and what currently exists approaches the topic in a very “you vs. your partner and their depression” way. We weren’t comfortable with that. We set out to find a different way to do it. A way that would give him insight to my experience, allow him to support me, and give him what he needed as well.
Our experiment worked. Sure we hit bumps along the road but in the end I felt loved, supported and understood in a way I never had during a depressive episode and he felt like he knew what was going on (a big deal in this situation) and felt equipped to deal with it. Our experience, as well as the work I’ve been doing on my book inspired this list of 5 steps to take to (hopefully) make navigating depression with your partner make a bit more sense.
1. Get on your partner’s team
I mentioned earlier my dislike for the “you vs. your partner and their depression” mentality. There’s another common model that makes my blood boil, I call it the “broken and lucky” model. It operates on the notion that the not-depressed partner is wonderful for standing by the partner with depression who is, in turn, so lucky. The partner who is dealing with depression is left to understand that obviously there is something wrong with them (they are broken) that would make a “normal” person not want them and they are so lucky their partner is so good and taking them on- broken and lucky.
Both of these models are terribly unhealthy and have the potential to result in anger, resentment and, ultimately, destroyed relationships. How to avoid this? Remember your partner doesn’t want the depression to be there any more than you do (in fact they probably want it there even less than you) so get on their team. What does that mean? It means following their lead. It means listening more than you talk. It means trusting your partner. It means believing them when they describe their symptoms. It means learning what depression is. It means not trying to fix them. It means meeting them where they are. It means recognizing that they aren’t their diagnosis. It means being willing to communicate differently.
Clearly, it means a lot of things.
Getting on your partner’s team is making the mental leap from frustratedly thinking of your partner as someone who “has depression” to recognizing the symptoms of depression that show up in your partner and being able to ask the right questions when they do. To get started on that check out How To Help Someone With Depression by Steven Skoczen from Ink and Feet. It’s probably my favorite thing anyone has ever written on the topic.
2. Learn a common language
Someone who is dealing with depression is living in a whole different world. Getting angry at them for not showing up for you the same way they did before depression is like getting mad at your dog for not being ice cream – futile, frustrating, and really, kind of mean. In order to continue engaging in an actual relationship you need to start speaking the same language and, as we’ve already established, they can’t speak yours right now. Thankfully we live in the age of the internet and there are so many resources available to us!
One of the first things I taught my partner was Spoon Theory. Created by Christine Miserandino (who is, I think, now the patron saint of folks with chronic invisible ailments) from But You Don’t Look Sick. Spoon Theory gave my partner a concrete understanding of my limited physical/mental/emotional resources and a simple language in which to ask about them. “Do you have the spoons for this?” became a common question in my house. Learn about Spoon Theory here.
The other resources that we found immensely helpful in getting him on my page and understanding the unique language that is depression were, well, video games and comics! Seriously.
When I first played Depression Quest, I wept because I had never felt so understood. When my partner played it, he called me, sounding shaken. He asked if it was accurate, if that’s really how it felt. I told him yes and he admitted that depression was so much harder, scarier, and more frustrating than it looks- the word “dystopian” was used. Is Depression Quest’s story universal? No. Does it describe everyone’s depression? No- depression looks different person to person and even episode to episode- but I recommend Depression Quest whole-heartedly because I have never seen anything else evoke the feelings of depression the way it does.
3. Let them know that it’s ok to be wherever they are -often
Depression can turn us into people who don’t want to go anywhere or do anything, it can make us people who get angry easily, it can make us cry a lot – the standard things people picture when they think “depression”. But symptoms that we don’t talk about often are guilt and shame. Excessive guilt and shame can be a big part of the depression package and when your partner feels like they are ruining your plans, not fun to be around, crying yet again, they can both kick in. You need to let them know that wherever they’re at is okay and you still love and support them and you need to repeat it. A lot.
When they text that they don’t want to go to that concert after all, they need you to text back “I’ll miss you but I totally get it. Do you need me to bring you anything before I go?” Why? Because it needs to be okay wherever they are. When they apologize for crying or yelling or whatever, they need to hear “Hey, we all have feelings and you get to be wherever you are” Why isn’t a simple “it’s ok” sufficient? because we’ve all said that when we didn’t mean it and answers that may feel like no big deal to you have to potential to turn into huge, guilt-inducing balls of shame for your partner. Let them know it’s okay to be wherever they are.
4. Take responsibility for your own social life
Jumping off that last one – sometimes your partner won’t want to go places, and that’s okay. We live in a world that is really intense about the whole “couples must do everything together” thing. I really don’t get this. I was lucky heading into my last episode, I am an introvert in a long distance relationship with a pretty intense extrovert, we were already used to socializing separately. However, for a lot of people the “I can’t go places without my partner” mentality puts a lot of strain on relationships that involve someone dealing with depression- this is especially true for partners who live together. It’s a recipe for resentment that either features one of you forcing themselves to brave social events they don’t have the mental or emotional capacity for, or the other skipping events to stay home with their partner and growing resentful as they miss out to sit home yet again.
The solution here is so simple, though: take responsibility for your own social life. Do not make everything you do contingent on whether or not your partner does it, or wants to do it, or can commit to that plan 3 months in advance (spoiler alert: if they are dealing with depression, they probably can’t). Make the plans you want to make, let your partner know they are welcome but wherever they are is okay (remember?), and then go have a social life. I know this sounds like I’m telling you to go out and leave your depressed partner behind but, actually, what I mean is take the social pressure off your partner. Let them know they are not responsible for your social happiness, you can still exist out in the world even if their not up to it. For some of you, you may need to discuss this idea with your partners if separate socializing is new for you but, ultimately, it can lift a whole lot of strain off both of you and give you both some much-needed self-care/unwind time.
5. Get a support system for yourself
This is a lot of work for one person and you are doing some serious heavy lifting in this relationship so, what about when you need to vent about it? You can, and should, still be talking to your partner but what about when need someone to prop you up? What about when you need someone to be your soft landing place and your partner just CANNOT do it. How do you stop that from filling you with frustration and resentment? You make sure you have your own support. It’s possible your partner has a therapist, possibly consider one for yourself. Or maybe you have a really strong network of family or friends who you can talk to. Maybe there’s just one person in your life who really gets it or, conversely, doesn’t understand this at all and you can go see them to shut off you brain and do something else entirely- whatever you need. Make sure you are getting support too because you need it, you deserve it, and no matter how much your partner may want to provide it for you, depression can make it near-impossible for them at times.
When it comes to navigating depression together, think about what will make you stronger. The items on the list above come down to standing in solidarity with your partner, validating them when they feel vulnerable, and ensuring support for yourself. When we talk about depression and relationships we tend to talk about frustration, anger, and confusion but I think that getting on the same page with one another can remedy a whole lot of that. I think everyone feeling validated and supported could make the whole thing a bit more doable. I think people have more of a capacity for empathy and mutual support than we know.
In short, I think you can do this.