What Can I do When my Partner Suffers From Depression?

I’ve recently been offering my services to a group called Help a Reporter Out (HARO). This helps promote both ShrinkTalk and my book, as well as scratch the surface of the iceberg that is my unquenchable thirst for attention. Speaking of, look for me in the June issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine!

Today there was a very interesting question posted by HARO about tips for helping a spouse or partner who suffers from depression; specifically, what are 3 or 4 useful tips to help deal with this problem? Only mental health experts who specialize in love and relationships were requested. Now you know me, and love is what I hold most dearly, so I felt simply compelled to answer the query. I’m not sure if they’ll use my response, but it is posted below.

Tips for Helping a Spouse or Partner who Suffers from Depression

– Empathy, not pity: As we’ve learned, there is an important difference between getting into one’s shoes and simply feeling sorry for someone. Actively listen to your partner during periods of depression, encourage him to speak more, try to share his perspective. In short, talk less and open your ears. This will help him to feel understood, a colossal component in the talk therapy for depression.

– Behavioral activation: Stagnation and depression are bedfellows, each giving rise and strength to the other. As challenging as it is for depressed people to get active, this is one of the best cures. Gently push your partner to engage in what brings her pleasure. This need not be complex or grand-scale like a vacation or significant purchase; simple, shared activities are fine.

– Abandon the “Power of Positive Thinking”: People with depression often have little energy, and being beaten over the head with “happy thoughts” can often be enough to make a person feel even more down (e.g., what’s wrong with me that I can’t think like you? I must be worthless?) You need not adopt his gloomy mind set, but do not dismiss what your partner is saying with clichés and platitudes about how great life is. It won’t work. Instead, use “balanced” thinking that acknowledges the situation yet promotes the idea that things can change. For example, skip “Everything is fine, stop being so down” and go with “yes, things are very hard for you right now, but maybe if we take certain steps, things will improve.”

– Encourage, or perhaps even demand, your partner seek help: No one is at fault for being depressed. It is an illness, not a weakness. That said, when you get hypertension you either change your diet or go on medicine (or both) and when you sprain your ankle you wrap it up. Treat the problem if you want it to get better. Tell your partner that although she isn’t responsible for feeling the way she does, she does has a responsibility – to herself, to you and to the relationship – to directly address the condition.

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28 Responses to “What Can I do When my Partner Suffers From Depression?”

  1. Not Watching Lost says:

    Thank you for the fourth point. I’ve been doing the first three without the last, and think it’d be most helpful if I rounded it out by insisting on the same treatment I would for any other disease. At this point I feel like an enabler, and appreciate having a next step to help her.

    Also, what about people who feel abandoned and betrayed by the depression of their partner? It’s like any other disease in that way.

  2. Rob Dobrenski says:

    @ NWL: I think many people feel a certain, maybe subconscious level of betrayal and abandonment due to medical/psychiatric issues. We’re a possessive species and when we “lose” a part of what is ours, we tend to fight back. Most of my clients ultimately say they feel resentful toward the disease itself rather than the partner, but their initial response is often directed at the one who is ill.

  3. BL1Y says:

    I think the first three points are spot on. But, I don’t think I can get behind the illness thing. Nowadays it seems like everything is labeled as an illness. Many, of course, actually are illnesses. Chemical imbalances in the brain are an illness. An inherited tendency towards addiction is an illness, or at least illness-like. While there probably are some forms of depression that fit a traditional definition of illness, calling your partner’s depression an illness might make him think you’re being dismissive by just slapping a trendy label on it.

    We (lay people) usually think of illnesses as an infection or bodily malfunction, but people who are depressed often think the problem is the outside world. So, calling it an illness is like saying “the problem isn’t your situation, it’s you,” which it may be, but it’s going to alienate your partner.

    Also, I think it’s important to understand that your partner’s depression isn’t just feeling sad and drained, it can be incredibly frightening as well. First, it’s scary to think of how much worse things might get if they snowball, which being stagnant and drained can cause (relationships break down, bills pile up, etc). But even scarier is knowing you still have ups and downs, and in the downs you’re not yourself, and you don’t know what even-lower-you might do. Even when you feel like you’re coping okay, you’re still afraid of mood swings and what you’ll do when rationality flies out the window.

    One last piece of advice. Suggest your partner switch to vodka and club, and hawaiian pizza as his go-to coping mechanisms. Beer and pepperoni will fatten you up quick, which just makes you more depressed.

  4. Tracie says:

    I further emphasize the effectiveness of small shared activities. My fiancé has suffered from depression for most of his adult life. It waxes and wanes, but gets particularly bad during the winter. When we first met, I tried my best to “take the load off” by handling more of his daily tasks. I ran a lot of errands for him and made sure that he always had food, clean clothes, and that the cat was taken care of. Although my actions were purely out of love, I can see now that I was missing a valuable opportunity to help him. Now when I know he’s not doing well I make an effort to include him in these tasks. Even something as small as walking with me to get the mail gets him out of the house. It can have a snowball effect; if he can feel good about going to get the mail, he might feel well enough to help cook dinner. If he can do that, he sometimes feels okay enough to go to the grocery store, or tell me about his day. Baby steps are better than nothing at all.

  5. Wayland says:

    Very good sir.

  6. Too much insulin = hypoglycemia
    Too little insulin = hyperglycemia
    Too little serotonin/etc = depression

    Which one of these things is not a medical condition?

    People may object to the term “illness” because of the stigma, but I’d be on someone who is DM-II (type-II diabetes) just as much as someone who is having a depressive episode.

  7. Paula says:

    I hope they do use your article. Very apt. Positive platitudes don’t make the grade. As hard as it can be, it is important to find supportive health care professionals that can be part of the journey.

  8. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by DrRobD: New piece at ShrinkTalk.Net: “What Can I do When my Partner Suffers from Depression”. Take a look if you have a minute..http://bit.ly/9Ckcvy

  9. Chater says:

    This looks good. I’m happy to see you abandon the power of positive thinking. It doesn’t work. Form helping people out myself and being by their side, I have learned that it NEVER has worked — not well anyways. As for your fourth point, I have a question between the type of phycological help you’re talking about I’ve asked at TiB in your thread, about the difference been a shrink and taking psychiatric medicine.

  10. Rob Dobrenski says:

    @Chater: Check out this post as a starting point…


  11. Dreams says:

    You’re gonna be in Cosmo? SWEET!

  12. BL1Y says:

    Ramblings: If I get punched in the face I will have a broken nose (medical), a nose bleed (medical), maybe a black eye (medical), and possibly a concussion (also medical). But, getting punched in the face is not an illness.

    Likewise, if you’re depressed because life punched you in the face, it’s not a medical condition and it’s not an illness, even if there are bio-chemical components.

    Now, when depression is purely the result of some sort of chemical imbalance, I’d agree it’s proper to call it an illness. But feeling bad because your life is going poorly? …I have a real hard time calling that an illness.

  13. Shay says:

    Pimped on FB as per usual, Dr. Rob.

  14. Amber says:

    Wonderful advice Doc!

  15. Julie says:

    That’s some really useful advice – seems like it could be applicable to close friends as well.

    Also, glad to see you’re on HARO! That’s a great way to try to get more press. You probably do this already, but in case you don’t, you could also try following health reporters on Twitter – sometimes journalists will tweet about needing a source.

  16. Lamont Portie says:

    This is great post with lot of info. It’s easy to find material on depression, but only for the sufferers.

  17. Freida Vicars says:

    I really appreciate your writing style. This is a great post! Any more material on depression?

  18. Dr J says:


    That doesn’t follow. You acknowledge that all the injuries resulting from getting punched in the face are medical issues i.e. illnesses. The act that caused them – a punch to the face – isn’t an illness. No it isn’t, you are correct.

    But the analogy should be with the results of the cause, not the cause itself. The illness of depression, as Therapeutic Ramblings aptly pointed out, is a chemical imbalance in the brain causing symptoms, just like the black eye, broken nose etc are illnesses in your example.

    Life being shit – losing a job, financial trouble, losing boyfriend – those aren’t illnesses; they’re causes of an illness (depression). Just like the punch in the face isn’t the illness, it’s the cause.


  19. Nastia says:

    I’d like to add one more thing – patience. If someone in your family goes through periods of depression, staying by their side can be difficult too because getting them to feel better or go into therapy takes time.

  20. Gabriel Bischoff says:

    Being in a close relationship with chronically depressed people takes extreme care. All this empathy can make you blind for the warning signs that the illness is turning your relationship abusive. If you can’t find a way to balance things out, run for your life. Being a helpless helper does noone a favour.

    I had to declare such a battle lost year after nearly 10 years of fighting and it left me feeling being the worst scumbag ever for betraying someone in need of help. Just couldn’t make your illness the center of my life like you did.

  21. Donn says:

    I just came across this post and wanted to comment. 25 years ago I started showing signs of severe depression. Unlike today, people passed my behavior off as any of several unimportant things. I would stress that if someone you love shows signs of depression, please get professional help immediately. We didn’t. It cost me my wife and nearly my life.

    Depression is an illness that can be treated. Left untreated, its a very destructive force.

  22. DeB-2 says:

    I don’t think there are any answers to my post, but I just feel the need to share.

    I did not choose to love a man with depression. I fell in love with a man, the same way any other person does. His thoughts, hopes and dreams resonated with mine; we clicked. His touch, kiss and embrace inspired mine; we fit. I felt that indescribable and un-ignorable essence that compels closeness, as the French say, I felt that ‘jer ne se qua’ for him. And he also felt that for me.
    He told me on our first date that he suffers depression and has had for the past 10 years. We all have moods I thought, some more than others and some need more help with them than others, no big deal. He also told me he was on medication for his problem and had been stable for some time. Good I thought, he knows his issues and does what’s required to manage them, evidence of a strong responsible person. What I didn’t realize was just how insidious depression can be, or that his version of stable was different to mine.
    All feelings are his, and only his matter, rather his matter more because they’re his. If he feels like being out, we must go out. If he wants to stay in, we have to stay in. Happy, sad, angry or excited, you must go along with them and act accordingly or you are wrong, hurtful, unsupportive and ignorant.
    Hypocrisy at every turn; His behaviors are understandable because of his feelings, but yours are not. If you are angry you must express yourself with the upmost of forethought and control, but when he his angry, all is fair because he was angry.
    No win situations; He wants to be alone, so you go out, but if you’re out, he texts asking you when your coming home, complains when you get home that you were out, but now that your back, he shuts himself away from you. “its ok for you, you have friends!” so get some friends you say “no, I hate people”.
    He wants to be ‘better’ but he isn’t sure its possible. He is on meds, he’s tried others, he’s adjusted the dose, sought non-western remedies, got hobbies, cut down on coffee, changed his job… the list goes on; he is trying. But it’s an uphill battle, for both of us, and sometimes the struggle takes over everything else and we loose sight of what we’re fighting for. 3 steps forward, 2 steps back, sometimes 4…No, I did not choose to love this man or live like this. But by the time these things became evident, I was already in love. Not with the manifestations of the disease, but with the man suffering from them. And that is how I choose to see it; I love the man, not the disease.
    Leave him, it’s just not worth it. Would you leave the man you love if he had cancer? Or would you fight along with him, savor every good day, hope for another good day during the dark times, and love him above all else? I’d rather he had cancer, at least his love would not leave me so harshly and frequently, and the love I give him would not be rejected and invalidated repeatedly.
    It’s been a little over a year now, and some of the most painful times of my life have been dealt to me by the hands of his depression. He thinks I should let him go, I deserve better. He holds little hope that he can be any better than he is today, and both of us agree that that’s not enough for either of us. I believe he can be better than today, I see the overall progress even when he’s slipping, but depression robs him of that; he can only see and feel what the depression dictates today, nothing else is valid, nothing else exists.
    His thoughts, wants and perspectives will change as soon as his mood does, but mine won’t. I know he will feel better soon and when he does, I know he’ll feel bad again soon too. I know that he will love me compellingly and adoringly when the depression lifts, but I also know he will feel apathy when the depression sets in. And I know that my feelings will never come first, depressed or not, he just can’t set his feelings aside for fear of loosing control of them. There is no emotional equality in this partnership, I do not get my needs met, moreover, I struggle to meet his, and his are un-meetable. I’m bound to always try and never win. Even if my love breaks through, he will forget and dismiss it next time he’s down. My love is not enough, and it never will be.
    Emotional diseases are insidious because moods affect the moods of those around you. Therefore, to live with a man with depression is to have sudden and overwhelming mood swings too. I have felt the loss of the love of my life more times that I care to recall even though we have never broken up. I’m down about him being down, happy that he’s happy, sad that he’s sad, angry that he’s angry etc. in short I’m suffering a mood disorder, but I don’t have a mood disorder.
    I often wish my love for him would die, then I would have no hesitation in leaving him and his disorder behind. He wishes the same; it adds to his self-loathing that his disease is hurting me too.
    It is not a choice to love him, but it is a choice to stay and continue to give him that love. But is it the right one? No one can judge that except for me… and I’m not sure.

  23. Gigi85 says:

    THANK YOU FOR SHARING THAT DeB-2. I’m in love with a man who suffers from depression. At first I didn’t know how to deal with it, so my response would be pity and frustration. This didn’t help one bit. It either made him more depress or angry. I started to read up on the illness and realized it’s was more complexed then I could have imagined. I’m still learning, and we are doing better then we were a few months ago. It’s along hard road for not only the person suffering from the illness but the people in his life who love him. Because you never know when you are going to be the emotional punching bag again… No one ever said life was fair…

  24. larag says:

    I have just read deB-2 ‘S feelings and thoughts about living with someone you love who suffers depression. I can relate to everything you say and feel somewhat comforted that they are similar feelings to mine.
    I feel that I am coming to a crossroads now and don’t know which way to go.. My husband has been suffering anxiety/ depression for nearly two years now. I affects us all, we have two kids. I feel I cannot help him anymore and we / I am drifting away. I find it hard to consider this lasting any longer.
    Can you give me any advice

  25. nyza says:

    I am so glad I read your stories of having a spouse suffering from depression, I thought it was something wrong with me and I wasn’t being considerate because of how my fiances depression had me feeling. I would think if I cant make him happy I am not the one for him, maybe he doesn’t want to be with me, he is not in love with me because he gives me no affection. A lot of times I feel unnoticeable. But now that I am doing a lot of reading on depression I know that its not me, it is something that he really is suffering from. It has changed how I react to his depression. I used to fill down and think I was fat and ugly and boring because he didn’t seem interested. But for those who has a spouse that suffers from depression please don’t blame or down yourself, it is not you at all!!! You have to remember that! But I have learned to cope with this and him so much better. I know depression has him feeling lonely I let him know all the time how wonderful of a man he is that I am in love with, and that I will always be there for, he will never be alone because he will always have me. Perticipating together in small daily activities is also a plus. If you want to be or feel you are the woman/man for your spouse do what you know to do to stick by their side and understand them. It gets hard and sometimes you have to take some time for yourself, maybe get away for a day r 2 but make sure u check in with your spouse. Overall love yourself, love your spouse, and stand by them because they need you the most. Don’t let depression ruin love. Most importantly seek professional help, because it does help a lot for the both of you

  26. cmm says:

    thank you for all your opinions.i myself almost at wits end with my boyfriend, we’ve been together a year and a half and we’re not kids…im 57 hes 66, and its a wonderful relationship , but the winter (SADS) is so bad..the depression is worse then and i feel so helpless as i watch him suffer and fall into what i call the black hole…most of the time i could roll with it and be very supportive but sometimes i have a pity party by myself because i feel our relationship suffer. he doesnt want to go out, he doesnt want to have me over or come visit me and the phone calls or text go unanswered for hours..sometimes i push and it sparks him and other times not..i guess im the one that needs to strike a balance? i try to accomodate his “moods”, and i guess most time it works and then other days, nothing short of dynamite will even get him out of bed…thanks you all for your different input, maybe it will help me maintain…

  27. its so hard says:

    its so hard when the depression comes on it cant sleep cant contrentrate on anything my husband is left to wonder what has happened to his wife I wae him up in the middle of the night and cry that I cant sleep and then we both don’t sleep

  28. anon says:

    my husband of 24 years has been diagnosed with prostate cancer has had the surgery as a result we have also lost a source of our income due to ther factors not reating to his illness as a result of this I have had to take on a second job which has left him bored and lonely in the evenings without me what can I do to help him ward off depression he has never been depressed before im the one that usually suffers from it. Anyone have some good tips