Depression and relationships
Dr. Jeff Young, Director, The Bouverie Centre
Depression has a significant impact on relationships. In couple relationships it will impact on both the person experiencing depression and their partner. In fact, sometimes it can feel like the depression is taking over the relationship. The challenge is to maintain and focus on the good parts of the relationship while managing the depression. It is about making the focus of life more than the depression and ensuring that other aspects of life are not neglected, denied and/or forgotten; as Brendan O’Hanlon from Bouverie puts it, couples need to find a place for depression and put depression in its place. The key to relationships, whether undergoing stress or not, is that both partners need to take responsibility for their role in the relationship and find ways to contribute that are both meaningful and constructive.
It's important to remember that depression is seldom uniformly severe. It can be helpful to notice what you and your family are doing when the depression is less dominating and encourage everyone to do more of what’s working and likewise do less of what doesn’t work when the depression is more dominating. Remember, depression is also usually episodic so when the depression passes there will be an opportunity to enjoy a relationship that isn’t dominated by the depression.
Living with depression isn’t easy; the passivity of depression can be harder to deal with than more overt conflicts and difficulties. Whether you are experiencing depression or supporting your partner through it, knowing what to say, how to say it and what to do can be hard. Depression does not usually just go away, and nor can people just snap out of it, but not everyone knows that. It’s important for both of you to understand depression, what impact it can have on life and importantly, what helps. This understanding helps you both to have realistic expectations, while also creating opportunities for you to discuss what is going on in an open and frank manner.
So - what does depression look like? Well, it can be different for everybody but some of the key symptoms include a noticeable change in someone’s mood, behaviour, energy levels, habits and and/or personality. And in terms of the impact of depression on relationships - people often describe problems in communication and a noticeable change in intimacy. The person living with depression can have difficulty thinking about others, instead focusing on their own personal experience. This focus on self often means that they have little left to give to a relationship.
For those with depression the experience can be completely overwhelming. Their sense of control can feel like its slipping away, while their confidence can dissolve and be replaced by a sense of anxiety, fear and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Their once active life might begin to be filled with sleep, sadness and a lack of interest in many of the activities that the person once enjoyed. And while watching this all unfold their partners reaction to the situation can be mixed -from caring and empathic to anger, frustration, guilt and fear. And on top this they may also experience feelings of helplessness and at times, may feel quite lonely.
While the symptoms may be present, identifying the problem is often the first challenge. Not everyone understands what depression is, what it looks like, and how to manage it. And some people do not want to talk about what is happening, or find it too hard to discuss. But, that does not mean you should not talk about it. If you are worried about someone it is important that you talk to them about this; tell them what you are worried about, how you have noticed change, and importantly that you are willing to help. When you do this though remember to do it when you are feeling concerned not when you are feeling resentful. Find a place that is quiet and a time when you are not going to be interrupted. Listen and be curious. Just acknowledging what your partner says is often therapeutic; ensure you listen carefully rather than jumping to give advice too soon. Working out what is going on and how to get help may take a few conversations. You might also find a tool like the beyondblue Interactive Depression Checklist a helpful aid to your conversation.
It might take some time before someone is willing to talk about how they feel, and at times, you might find listening to their sadness quite confronting, but it is important to keep the communication lines open. There might be a point where another person may be of help too – whether a friend, family or a health professional. A doctor can help to rule out any physical cause for the depression and provide information about depression and the treatment options, the two most common being counselling (talking therapy) and medication. A doctor can provide the information you both need to make informed decisions about what treatment approach to try.
Talking openly about what is happening is important – but so is talking about other things, like the community, your friends and the world around you. Keeping physically fit, with a balanced diet and exercise, and maintaining your social activities is also important for you both. In fact a calendar that highlights the plans you have might help you both to maintain a balanced amount of activity in your days – not too much, but something important every day. And when it comes to daily tasks, look at what has to happen, needs to happen and would be good to happen. Experiment! See what works best: doing things independently; doing things together. Be realistic but aim to keep active and social even if your activity is a little modified for a while.
While you will need the support of each other to overcome a period of depression, some personal space for both of you will be important too. For the person experiencing depression some time with other friends or family can help, while the partner, who may have increased in responsibilities, might need to take ‘time out’. Partners might also consider getting some professional help, or help from an organisation like Carers Australia, who can help put the experience of living and caring for a person with depression into perspective. This can help partners to commence their own healing and recovery journey.
Depression does not need to change your relationship forever. Depression is treatable. A flexible relationship can help manage the impact of depression and treating depression can minimise the impact on the relationship. As recovery begins each partner in the relationship is likely to have more space to reflect on the experience. Surviving crises tends to strengthen the relationship over time.
Further help and information