How To Navigate Depression In A Relationship (For Both Parties)

Relationships are challenging in the best of circumstances.

A relationship exposes you to all of the beautiful and not so beautiful things about your partner.

Depression adds a whole different level of challenge to the relationship, because no one really teaches us how to be in a healthy relationship with mental illness.

There’s a lot of stumbling around and figuring things out as you go because different approaches work better for different people.

Depression complicates relationships by the way it affects a person’s functionality and perception of the world.

It’s painful and difficult to watch someone you love suffer through unwellness.

Their opinion of themselves may drop, they may feel hopeless, and like they don’t matter. And it feels like anything you say to the contrary doesn’t have any emotional resonance.

The way that depression smothers emotions and one’s capability to feel makes it seem like a partner can’t contribute to our well-being.

That’s not true. It’s just that the way we need to show compassion for a loved one with depression is different than how we show compassion for those without a mental illness.

Depression can easily damage the relationship if care is not taken by both partners.

It’s easy to take the negativity and disconnect of depression personally if you don’t know better.

So, let’s explore some ways to make navigating a relationship with depression easier, first for the partner without depression, then for the partner with.

For the partner without depression…

1. Accept that you cannot fix your partner’s depression.

Depression is an insidious disease that may need therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes to improve.

It’s not a situation where you can cheer up your partner by telling them good or positive things.

Depression can warp an internal monologue and disrupt the chemical processes that allow a person to take pleasure and feel joy in these types of things.

Being present for your partner with depression is a much better approach, though it can be a painful one.

You likely see many beautiful things about your loved one. Being present for that person when their mental illness is making them feel or perceive ugly things about themselves is difficult, but it is necessary.

You can’t fix your partner’s depression. You can only be present and supportive.

2. Be flexible in the changing of plans.

Flexibility matters because a person with depression may not be able to follow through on all of the plans they make.

Some days are better than others. Some days your partner will be more functional than others.

Plans made last week may not come to fruition this week if your partner can’t get out of bed because they are having a day of severe unwellness.

Depression will sometimes rob them of the ability to function in a typical way.

Understanding and flexibility will go a long way toward keeping harmony in the relationship.

Yes, it’s no fun to have plans disrupted like that, but it will happen sooner or later.

Remember: some days are much easier than others.

3. Pick and choose your battles carefully.

Depression causes a person to think in a black and white way.

It likes to amplify negative emotions, like low self-esteem and self-doubt, and make them more significant than they are.

An innocent comment can be interpreted in a negative way that causes friction. A small criticism can feel like a hurtful rejection or a personal attack.

What you may view as something small or inconsequential can be taken by depression and blown up into something large and overwhelming, like thinking that they will never be happy or never be able to have a healthy relationship.

Depression may also amplify feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, stripping away one’s ability to feel control over their mental illness or life.

Arguments and disagreements will happen in relationships. It’s best to avoid having them when a person is in a dark place because they are not going to be thinking in the same way that they would while more balanced.

That doesn’t mean you should forego your own needs, but understand that a sensitive discussion might need to wait for a better day.

4. Try not to take it personally.

There will be negativity and hurt feelings to wade through. There will be times when your loved one is not themselves because of the way that depression colors their perceptions of the world and emotions.

It will hurt to watch someone you love and think highly of dwell in that kind of space.

The reality is that people with depression cannot snap out of it or just change the way their depression affects them. Improvement with a mental illness can be a long, painful process.

The better you can shrug off the uglier aspects of depression, the easier it will be to preserve and navigate the relationship.

That does not mean that you should accept or condone abusiveness, just understand that there will likely be some ugliness that is out of character for your partner.

An excellent way to do this is to focus on the positive aspects of your relationship. That can help to counter the negativity of the moment.

5. Practice self-care and take care of your mental health.

The balance of care in a relationship is essential. Both partners should be able to lean on one another when they need that extra support to get through whatever life is throwing at them.

A person with depression may not be able to provide that additional support all of the time.

Living with depression requires a great deal of emotional energy to navigate negative feelings while meeting the demands of life.

Monitor your mental health to ensure that you are not overextending and burning yourself out.

There will be times when your partner cannot contribute their full emotional load to the relationship, so it’s normal for there to be times of inequity in emotional labor.

However, that shouldn’t be a forever or all the time thing. There will be times when you need to make time to recharge your emotional batteries.

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For the partner with depression…

1. Remember that your partner is not a doctor or therapist.

Being a person with a mental illness in a relationship is hard because of the guilt and shame that can come with it.

Depression can infest your thoughts and feelings, causing you to see yourself as somehow less than or not deserving love. That’s not true at all.

What is true is that your partner is more than likely going to say or do something insensitive regarding your mental illness.

They are not a professional. They can’t provide the kind of support and help that a doctor or therapist can.

They can read all of the articles and educate themselves thoroughly on how to be a great partner to someone with a mental illness…

…yet, all of the articles in the world can’t prepare a person for the emotional load that comes from helplessly watching someone they love suffer.

Bearing witness to the suffering of a mentally ill loved one is emotionally challenging. And with emotional difficulty comes flustered, overwhelming feelings that may not be navigated in the best way.

Things will be said and actions taken that may be hurtful in the moment.

Your partner can be a valuable part of your support network, but they are no replacement for treatment and the work that goes into improvement.

Don’t expect your loved one to do well in supporting you in your darkest moments. It’s something that requires practice and peace with the situation, which a lot of people don’t have.

2. Develop a greater support network outside of your partner.

A romantic partner is going to be someone on the frontlines of your support network.

It would be impossible for them not to be because if things go well, you’ll likely spend a whole lot of time around that person.

That being said, they can’t be your sole means of support in coping with and working to overcome your depression.

It’s just an overwhelming amount of emotional labor that a lot of people aren’t equipped to deal with.

They may want to, but they likely won’t be able to.

After all, everyone has their emotional baggage and load to deal with too.

Do seek to build up your support network outside of your romantic partner. That may be other friends with mental health struggles, a support group, or a therapist.

It may also help to have other regularly scheduled activities to get out and do something physical and active.

While it’s not emotional support in a typical way, physical exercise and having something to look forward to can serve as additional supports to help prop yourself up when you need to.

3. Plan for when depression turns ugly.

The best way to head off the damage when depression gets ugly is to have a plan ahead of time.

Do you know some things that your partner can do to help you get through a bout of severe unwellness?

Exercise? Extra sleep? Activities?

Include your partner in your plan as much as you can so they can help you through it in a way that makes sense for you.

Sometimes depression will cause a person to push away other people so they can just be alone.

Other times it may be because depression is making them feel as though they are unlovable or aren’t worthy of love and support.

Alone time can do wonders for the person that just needs quiet time to themselves to get through it. That can be included in the overall plan.

So make the space and time to do something on your own for a bit, if you know that it will help. It just depends on how you relate to people while unwell.

4. Avoid emotional discussions and decisions while you’re severely unwell.

Chronic depression comes in varying intensities. Sometimes it’s not so bad. Sometimes it’s an ugly, desolate place.

For emotionally healthy people, knowing what battles to fight and when is a pretty important part of maintaining a healthy relationship.

For a person with depression, that gets a little more complicated because depression has such an adverse effect on your perceptions and feelings.

That’s why it’s a bad idea to try to have in-depth emotional discussions or make important decisions while you’re severely unwell.

It’s difficult to think through the perceptions and emotions that depression manifests, which means you will likely struggle to see the situation in a neutral or positive light.

That causes unnecessary conflicts and hurt feelings that don’t need to happen if it can be postponed until a time when you’re feeling mentally better.

But life doesn’t always wait for us. Sometimes you need to do the thing, regardless of how you feel.

In those moments, a fact-based Pros and Cons list can help you sort out the facts from the feelings of a situation.

Facts don’t have emotion to them. Therefore, they make a better metric for making decisions when things aren’t going well emotionally.

5. Contribute what emotional support you’re able to.

A good relationship is about balance. The people involved may balance each other out, lift one another when they drop down, and work to keep the team healthy and strong.

That can be a hard thing to do when you’re also living with depression.

Depression robs a person of their emotional and physical energy at times. There will be times when you feel like you can’t provide the support that your partner needs, and that’s okay. It’s just the nature of the beast.

What’s important is that you make an effort to contribute what emotional support you’re able when you’re able.

It may not seem like much, and it may not seem all that important, but it demonstrates to your partner that you’re doing what you can.

Effort counts for a lot in relationships, so try to show up as much as you can when your partner needs you, even if you’re not at your best.

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About The Author

Jack Nollan is a person who has lived with Bipolar Disorder and Bipolar-depression for almost 30 years now. Jack is a mental health writer of 10 years who pairs lived experience with evidence-based information to provide perspective from the side of the mental health consumer. With hands-on experience as the facilitator of a mental health support group, Jack has a firm grasp of the wide range of struggles people face when their mind is not in the healthiest of places. Jack is an activist who is passionate about helping disadvantaged people find a better path.