Depression affects not only how you think and feel, but also how you act — meaning it can definitely take a toll on your relationship. But the most important thing to remember is that you are always capable of giving love and worthy of receiving it, even when you’re depressed. There are so many things you can do to feel closer and more connected to your partner, so according to experts, it’s absolutely possible to maintain a healthy relationship when you have depression. The first step is to recognize how depression might be impacting your bond.
Since depression can cause intense feelings of sadness, decreased energy, a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, difficulty making decisions, and irritability, experts agree it’s not surprising if your relationship is impacted.
“When you’re depressed it’s really hard to do things for yourself, let alone anyone else,” says Aimee Hartstein, a licensed psychotherapist and clinical social worker.
Not only that, but since your emotions and thoughts are affected, you may react to your partner in different ways than you normally do.
“When someone is depressed, they will likely have difficulty truly seeing their partner for who they are, often inaccurately assessing their actions, feelings, and the relationship dynamic through a depressive filter,” explains clinical psychologist Dr. Jordana Jacobs, PhD.
Dr. Dominique Samuels, the resident psychologist for relationship-health app Emi Couple, adds that people who experience depression sometimes lose hope about the future, which can cause them to doubt whether or not their relationship is capable of surviving. Plus, if anything feels like it needs work in the relationship, that can be overwhelming to address since depression can cause a decrease in motivation.
With all of that in mind, experts are adamant that the first step to strengthening your relationship is focusing on self-care.
“One has to put their oxygen mask on before they can put it on others,” says Jacobs. “Ask yourself, what do I need to do first in order to show up more fully and be more present for my partner? The answer will look different for each person — with some needing alone time, others needing to work out, clean their home, talk to their therapist, etc. Regardless, I always tell my patients that caring for themselves is not just necessary, but actually a prerequisite for caring for others.”
Given that many of the things that previously brought you joy may not cut it while you’re depressed, Hartstein advises finding simple pleasures that help to energize you or bring you feelings of belonging and comfort — whether that’s reading a book, taking a bath, watching a warm and fuzzy rom-com, or FaceTiming with a friend.
“The sooner you feel better, the faster you can be back to the work of the relationship,” adds Samuels. “In therapy, we talk a lot about ‘opposite action.’ When you are depressed, you just want to stay in bed, isolate, and do nothing. Doing the opposite to feel better might mean going outside, getting dressed, and seeing people. Anything to force you to break your cycle of depression.”
Of course, experts agree that all of these efforts should always be done with your limitations in mind. So, be aware of when you’re pushing yourself too hard, because doing so could very well defeat the whole purpose of self-care.
The more open and honest you can be with your partner about your needs and limits while you’re depressed, the more supportive they can be. If your partner is already aware that you struggle with depression, it can be helpful to communicate exactly how it’s been making you feel, as well as what you need from them. If your partner knows what specific thought patterns, emotional states, and behaviors you fall into when you’re depressed, they’ll also have an easier time identifying when you’re struggling. And if your partner has no idea you’re depressed, it’s especially crucial to fill them in on how you’re feeling, because they may be wrongfully assuming that something is wrong in the relationship.
“Tell your partner what you need to hear and feel, and be as specific as possible — even if that feels extra vulnerable,” says Samuels.
For example, if this resonates with you, Samuels suggests saying something along the lines of, “When I get depressed, I feel unworthy of love. Can you remind me that I am not a burden?” or, “When I feel depressed like I am now, I may try to withdraw and isolate. Can you ask me to do small things, like offer a hug or invite me to take a walk with you?”
If your SO has a tendency to jump into action and try to “fix” a situation, Jacobs also suggests gently reminding your partner from time to time that it’s not their job to come up with a solution.
“When sharing about your depression, remind your partner your emotional state is not their fault,” adds Jacobs.
Seeing as depression can affect your energy levels and emotional bandwidth, it’s critical to be upfront with your partner about what you are and aren’t capable of. So, if your partner is planning a trip for you both to visit their family and you’re dreading it, Hartstein says it’s important to let them know. If you can, you might try coming up with a smaller, more realistic compromise, such as letting your SO go on the trip themselves and joining them for just one dinner or afternoon. While you may want to avoid disappointing your partner, passively allowing things to happen that don’t feel good to you will not only drain your energy. This not only makes it more difficult to be the partner you want to be but may also lead you to harbor resentment over time.
If there’s one thing that experts want you to know, it’s that there’s no shame in asking for help. If you feel like you’re unable to manage your depression on your own, they highly advise finding a licensed professional to talk to about how you’re feeling.
“When depressed, it is very important to feel you have a space in which you can share fully, honestly, and openly without worrying about how doing so will affect the listener’s feelings,” explains Jacobs. “Therapy provides such a space, as opposed to talking to your partner, which may inhibit you or stunt your exploration, ultimately interfering with the process of moving through your pain and gaining insight into the reasons you are depressed in the first place.”
Not only that, but Samuels notes that a therapist may help you to figure out how to better communicate with your partner while you’re depressed, as well as allow your SO to shift away from a caregiver role and simply be there to love and support you.
Sharing how you’re feeling may be challenging when you’re depressed — but experts concur it’s well worth it.
“If your partner is able to connect with you and love you through your sadness, this process in and of itself can be healing and may help alleviate some of the loneliness, social withdrawal, and worthlessness inherent in many depressive episodes,” explains Jacobs.
The bottom line? By being kind to yourself and transparent with your partner, you’re far more likely to maintain a healthy bond, regardless of your depression.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.