There are certainly signs to look for if you suspect your partner might be depressed, according to experts—and catching those hints mostly just requires you to pay attention. “The first thing to ask yourself is what kind of changes you see,” says licensed clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, PhD. “The hallmark is somebody really just not acting like themselves. They used to get really excited about stuff, or be interested in various hobbies. Now they’re more subdued. Or they’re starting to isolate themselves or be more irritable, or more negative.”
Of course, everybody feels down from time to time. But what can you write off as a normal funk, and when should you worry that depression may be culprit for the shifts you’re seeing? “The key question is, Is this just a bad week or has this been a pattern that's been happening for a longer period of time?" If it’s the latter, it's time learn the ins and outs of how to proceed supportively when you're dating someone with depression. Plus, how to make sure you always preserve your own mental health and happiness.
4 things to know about dating someone who struggles with depression.
1. Depression affects more than just mood
In addition to emotional changes, Dr. Bonior says you may see shifts in your partner’s energy levels and eating habits—but there's no one-symptom-fits-all situation here. It might mean sleeping a lot more or having bouts of insomnia. Perhaps it's overeating and unhealthy weight gain or an equal and opposite situation of lack of appetite leading to unhealthy weight loss. Or, it might be something else entirely.
Someone who is depressed may also suddenly have trouble concentrating, or feel paralyzed when faced with even seemingly minor decisions. “Just kind of getting bogged down and not being able to handle things the same way is often another sign of depression,” Dr. Bonior explains.
2. It’s important to make it clear you’re available, even if they're not yet ready to talk
Don't expect your significant other to open up to you without you first making clear—not in a pushy way—that you're available, whenever. “I think open-ended questions are important,” Dr. Bonior says. “Starting off with a statement like, ‘Hey, you haven’t seemed like yourself lately. How are you feeling? Is everything okay?’ makes it clear you’re coming from a place of care and concern.” Your partner might not want to open up, just yet, but that doesn’t mean your message is going ignored. “If they’re not ready to talk about it, which is sometimes common, then at least you’re laying the groundwork and planting the seeds [for future conversations].”
“Even though you might feel like you have a right to be judgy because it affects you too, the key is to start off from a place of concern.” —Andrea Bonior, PhD
Whatever you do, resist the urge to judge. “You might want to say something like, ‘Wow, you’re so negative lately. I can’t take this,’ but that doesn’t really give your partner any room to talk about what’s on their mind,” Dr. Bonior says. “Even though you might feel like you have a right to be judgy because it affects you too, the key is to start off from a place of concern.”
3. Know that you might have to do more than your share for a little while
It can be difficult for someone suffering from depression to rise above the fog and focus on everyday tasks. So to be an especially supportive partner, be aware that you may need to take on a little extra for the time being. “Part of [being supportive] is picking up some of the slack on the day-to-day things that might be overwhelming,” Dr. Bonior says. “This might be a period of time where you’re giving a little bit more than you get, and that’s okay.
While this certainly applies to mundane life chores like laundry and making dinner plans, it also extends to the logistics of mental-health treatment options. If your partner seems stressed out by everything involved in researching and seeking treatment, make it clear you’re happy to help in any way, like by calling therapists and doctors and looking into insurance coverage for various options.
4. Be on the lookout for warning signs of something more serious
Depression can be deadly, which is why it’s absolutely vital to be able to recognize when it’s time to intervene—whether or not your partner seems receptive. “Even if your partner is not overtly suicidal but is expressing extreme hopelessness, that’s a sign to be taken very seriously,” Dr. Bonior says. “If they’re expressing the idea that they’re a burden to other people, or the world would be better off without them, that’s serious.”
Surprisingly, a radical improvement in mood can also signal that it might be time to turn to the professionals. “Sometimes, a warning sign for suicide is when somebody’s been really down and then they suddenly seem to get better. That’s often when they’re at the highest risk of suicide,” Dr. Bonior says. “They might feel more at peace because they have a plan to escape, so they seem a little lighter.”
If you’re worried that your partner may be at risk of suicide, take action immediately. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), where a professional can walk you through next steps. And if there’s an acute emergency that's barring you from leaving your partner alone even for a little while, Dr. Bonior says to call 911.
In the midst of helping your loved one get the help they need, it can be easy to lose sight of what you need. Check out tips below to make sure you still prioritize yourself and self-care.
4 tips caring for a partner with depression without compromising self-care.
1. Remember, it’s not about you
The most important thing you can do for yourself and your own mental health when you're in a relationship with someone who is struggling with depression is to remember you can’t take your partner’s behavior personally. “That’s a mistake I see a lot—and it’s an understandable mistake,” Dr. Bonior says.
"Try to remember that when it comes to depression, it’s not about you, per se." —Dr. Bonior
“When your partner’s not happy, you feel a lot of things too, whether that’s, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ or ‘Hey, they have no right to be unhappy. I do so much for them.’ Try to remember that when it comes to depression, it’s not about you, per se. [Those kinds of feelings] are just going to get in the way.” Not to mention, they'll make you miserable, too.
2. Make time for self-care
“It’s so easy to fall into a negative mind-set yourself when you’re with a depressed person,” Dr. Bonior says. Because of this, make sure you find time to do what you love—whatever makes you feel happy and whole. Whether that's getting outside, clipping in at your favorite spin class, making sure to meal prep like a champ, or even just taking a few minutes to multi-mask and meditate, you do you—and do it proud.
And remember, you shouldn't sacrifice your social life, either. “Be sure not to get isolated to the point where your partner is your only social contact,” Dr. Bonior says. “You might feel guilty for going out and having dinner with somebody when your partner is depressed at home, but you deserve some of that. The truth is, you’re not going to be a good, helpful partner if you fall into a depression yourself. You’re just as important here.”
3. Set boundaries, and make your expectations clear
The truth is, you can only do so much to help your partner, because their well-being is ultimately in their hands. This is why you should never feel guilty for setting limits on what you will and won’t put up with. “Everybody is going to have a different threshold for [where they draw the line],” Dr. Bonior says. “You have to think about what your expectations for the relationship are. You have to ask yourself, ‘What is acceptable to me in this relationship and how do I set boundaries accordingly?’”
Make it clear that you expect your partner to play an active part in their own recovery, and set deadlines both for of you to follow: for them, a deadline for taking action and seeking care, and for you, a deadline for how long you'll wait for that to happen. “The key in most situations is whether or not your partner can bring themselves to be motivated to get help,” she says. “But this is going to mean different things to different people. Some are willing to wait a lot longer than others, and part of that is going to do with the nature of your commitment.”
4. Find your own support system
Taking care of a partner with depression can be a lonely experience. So in addition to maintaining friendships outside your relationship, Dr. Bonior recommends turning to support groups for people whose loved ones are struggling with mental illness. “Depression, unfortunately, is so common that you are definitely not alone,” she says. “Think about connecting with others whose partners are going through this.”
If you’re looking for a community, options like the National Alliance on Mental Illness Family Support Group abound. You can find a chapter near you here, or, if there isn’t one available, consider starting your own. Knowing you’ve got a community that has your back can give you the strength you need to not only take care of your partner, but yourself, too.
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