No one teaches us how to navigate a relationship when mental illness enters the equation.
My personal take is that the author simply wasn’t equipped to deal with a partner coping with depression. Most of us aren’t.
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 there were very few out there, and what currently does exist approaches the topic in a “you vs. your partner and his or her depression” way. We weren’t comfortable with that, and set out to find a different approach — a way that would give him insight into my experience and allow him to support me, while giving him what he needed as well.
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 was equipped to deal with it.
Our experience inspired this list of 5 ways to grow together rather than apart when navigating through depressive episodes with your partner:
1. Get On Your Partner’s Team
Another common advice mode that makes my blood boil is one I call the “broken and lucky” model.
It operates on the notion that the not-depressed partner is wonderful and selfless for standing by the partner with depression.
The message to partners dealing with depression is there’s obviously something inherently wrong with them (they are broken) that could justifiably make a “normal” person not want them. They should therefore feel so lucky their partner is generously taking them on — ergo, broken and lucky.
This unhealthy model only results in anger, resentment, and destroyed relationships.
To avoid this, remember your partner doesn’t want to be clinically depressed any more than you do (in fact, he or she probably wants it even less than you).
Instead of acting as adversaries, get on each other’s team.
This means trying to follow each other’s lead. Listening more than you talk. Trusting each other. Believing your partner when he or she describes their symptoms. Learning about what depression is. Meeting your partner where he or she is. Recognizing your partner isn’t his or her diagnosis. Being open to communicating differently.
Clearly, it means a lot of things.
Getting on your partner’s team is making the mental leap from thinking of your partner as someone who “has depression” to recognizing symptoms of depression as they show up in your partner and being able to ask informed questions when they do.
To get started, check out How To Help Someone With Depression by Steven Skoczen. It’s probably my favorite thing anyone has ever written on the topic.
2. Create a Common Language
Those individuals dealing with depression are living in a whole different world. Getting angry at them for not showing up for you the same way they did before a depressive episode struck is like getting mad at your dog for not being ice cream —–futile, frustrating, and kind of mean.
To continue engaging in a relationship you need to start speaking the same language and, as we’ve already established, your partner can’t speak yours right now.
One of the first things I taught my partner was the Spoon Theory. Created by Christine Miserandino (who I consider the patron saint of folks with chronic invisible ailments), the Spoon Theory gave my partner a concrete understanding of my limited physical, mental, and emotional resources, as well as a simple language with which to ask about them.
The other resource that we found most helpful in understanding the unique language around depression was, well, a video game! Seriously!
When I first played Depression Quest, I wept because I’d never felt so understood.
When my partner first 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 from the outside. The word “dystopian” may even have been used…
Is Depression Quest’s story universal? No. Does it describe everyone’s depression? No.
Depression looks different from person to person and even from episode to episode, but I have never seen anything else evoke the feelings of depression the way that game does.
3. Let Each Other Know It’s OK to Be Wherever You Each Are — Often
Depression can turn us into people who don’t want to go anywhere or do anything. It can make us a person who gets angry easily. It can make us cry a lot…all the standard things people picture when they think “depression.”
What we don’t talk about as often is the excessive guilt and shame, which can both be a big part of the depression package.
When your partner feels like her or she is ruining your plans, not fun to be around, crying yet again, both may kick in.
Let your partner know that wherever he or she is at is okay and you still love and support your partner. Then repeat. A lot.
When your partner texts that he or she doesn’t want to go to the concert after all, a reply as simple as “I’ll miss you but I totally get it. Do you need me to bring you anything before I go?” makes all the difference in the world, because it lets your partner know it really is okay to be wherever he or she is.
4. Take Responsibility for Your Own Social Life
Jumping off that last one — sometimes your partner won’t want to go places when you do, 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 of depression, because I am an introvert in a long distance relationship with a pretty intense extrovert, so we were already used to socializing separately. However, for many people the “I can’t go places without my partner” mentality puts extra strain on relationships that involve someone dealing with depression.
This is especially true for partners who live together. It’s a recipe for resentment if the choice comes down to one of you forcing yourself to brave social events you don’t have the emotional capacity for or the other skipping events to stay home with while growing more and more resentful of missing out yet again.
The solution here is so simple, though: take responsibility for your own social life.
Don’t make everything you do contingent on whether or not your partner does it, wants to do it, or can commit to the plan three months in advance. (Spoiler alert: if someone is dealing with depression, he or she probably can’t).
Make the plans you want to make, let your partner know he or she is welcome to join but wherever your partner is, is okay (remember?), and then go have a social life.
This may sound like I’m telling you to go out and leave your depressed partner behind, but actually, I’m suggesting you simply take the social pressure off your partner by letting him or her know he or she is not responsible for your social happiness. You can still exist out in the world even if your partner is not up to it right now.
You may need to discuss this idea with your partner if separate socializing is new for you, but ultimately, this can lift a whole lot of strain off of you both of you and give you each much-needed self-care time.
5. Find 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.
What about when you need to vent?
What about when you need someone to be your soft landing place and during a period of time when your partner just CANNOT do it?
How do you stop that from filling you with frustration and resentment?
Make sure you have your own support network. Hopefully your partner has a therapist, and you may want to consider one for yourself. Or maybe you have a really strong network of family and/or friends you can talk to. Maybe there’s just one person in your life who really gets it, or who even doesn’t understand it at all but with whom you can shut off you brain and do something else entirely.
Make sure you’re 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 him or her to do so at times.
Overall, when it comes to navigating depression together, think about what will make you each stronger. These ideas are all about standing in solidarity with your partner, validating your partner when he or she feels vulnerable, and ensuring support for yourself.
When we talk about depression and relationships, we tend to talk about frustration, anger, and confusion. I firmly believe getting on the same page with one another can remedy a whole lot of that, because I believe people have more capacity for empathy and mutual support than we give them credit for.