Caitlin Cantor LCSW, CST
5 Tips for Dating Someone Who Struggles With Depression
5. Discover new ways to communicate.
Posted May 12, 2016
Dating someone with depression can be hard. It’s painful to watch someone you care about suffer and not be able to help them. It can be bewildering to listen to the person you admire and value most talk about themselves with extreme negativity, and in a way that doesn’t at all align with how you see them. Their false but strong belief that they have accomplished nothing or that they have little to live for can leave you feeling helpless, and confused as to how to respond. These all-or-nothing, black-and-white thought patterns often illustrate depressed thinking. Depression has a loud and convincing voice that dominates the minds of those who suffer from it. There’s little room for reason, which makes it hard for partners to know how to be helpful.
No one is perfect, so sometimes the person you want to be with happens to have this illness. You already know there is much more to the person than their depression or you probably wouldn’t want to be with them. You will never be able to cure your partner’s depression, so it doesn’t serve you to try to fix it or change it. It can be difficult to resist arguing about how they view themselves and their lives. But when they’re in a dark space, they’re unable to see things from your perspective. Trying to show your partner how wrong they are, and that they’re actually incredible, comes from your love for them and your desire to help. Unfortunately, it’s a waste of your energy when they’re deep in depression, and actually leads to disconnection and distance. This way of attempting to help can easily lead to arguments because your partner is unable to agree or see your efforts as helpful.
Instead of fighting depression this way, devote yourself to learning how to live with depression. This means accepting your partner as they are. It means letting them have negative, painful beliefs, even when you really want them to see things differently. You can stop trying to treat their depression and instead offer empathy, care, and love. This is more likely to foster closeness and connection because you’re no longer trying to change their minds.
By learning and practicing new relational skills, you can foster connection and closeness with your partner, even when they are struggling. You can learn how to support your partner and how to be supported. You can even learn how to get your needs met, even if you can’t imagine how someone who is depressed could meet your needs when they’re working so hard just to be OK themselves.
The following actions will help you date someone with depression.
1. Create or maintain balance.
In relationships, we must continually assess whether we should meet the needs of our partners, our own needs, or the needs of the relationship. When we balance this well, we tend to feel fulfilled. However, when one partner is suffering an illness, it’s easy to lose that balance because we want to help our partner feel better. We put their needs first and forget about ourselves. This is absolutely necessary and appropriate for a while. But when our partner has an illness that doesn’t go away for long periods of time, we have to learn how to balance taking care of ourselves while still being supportive to our partners. Otherwise, the relationship can become threatened. When you ignore your needs, they don’t go away; they only become greater over time. If you put yourself aside for long enough, you will end up feeling lonely and resentful. To begin creating more balance in your relationship, you must acknowledge that you have needs and at least some of them must be met. Start to notice how much you’re choosing to meet your partner’s needs instead of your own. Think about when it might be OK to put yourself first, and make conscious choices to promote more balance in your relationship.
2. Learn how to support your partner in their suffering.
One relational need is to care for our partners and to feel good about that care. When the care you offer your partner is rarely helpful or well received, you eventually feel drained and shut down. You may need to redefine what being helpful to your partner means, and change the way you offer care. You can’t “fix” the depression any more than I can fix my partner’s Crohn’s disease. When you offer care in hopes of helping to treat (or fix) your partner’s illness, you will become frustrated. However, you can offer care in the form of support: Being empathic, sympathetic, compassionate, and accepting are all ways to be supportive of your partner without trying to change how they feel. This kind of care or help may be received more positively than the things you’ve tried in the past.
Remind your partner that you care for them even when they’re feeling at their worst. Be curious about what your partner is feeling, wanting, and needing. It may be as simple as giving them a hug or holding them. Don’t assume you already know. When we offer this kind of care, we join our partner in their suffering. To do this, you will have to learn to be OK with the discomfort that comes with seeing a problem and not trying to fix it. When your partner expresses appreciation for your support, you will feel better about yourself in the relationship. Talk to your partner about what they find supportive.
3. Focus on the positive.
When things are difficult, it is helpful to remind yourself of the many reasons you care about your partner, rather than focusing solely on how they are when they don’t feel well. Intentionally focusing on your partner’s positive attributes is one way to support yourself in your relationship.
4. Be compassionate.
Remember that your partner has an illness. It isn’t their fault that they can’t just shake it off. Practice being compassionate by thinking about how hard it is to live with an illness. Remember how much strength it takes to feel sick and in pain, and still go on.
5. Communicate with your partner using new language.
You and your partner can learn new a language to help you communicate in a way that makes you feel heard and validated, while promoting closeness. Closeness may seem out of the question when your partner isn’t feeling well, but you can learn ways to connect. You can begin to practice new communication skills, which will help your partner learn them too. Following is an example of language you and your partner can use for a conversation, even when your partner is depressed. (Keep in mind that there are many ways a conversation can go; this is just one example of a conversation between partners who have practiced new communication skills.)
- Partner A: Honey, you’ve been in bed all day. How do you feel?
- Partner B (the depression sufferer): I don’t feel well. I just can’t get out of bed.
- Partner A: I feel so sad seeing you in so much pain. How is it for you to hear me say that?
- Partner B: When I hear that, I feel sad that I’m causing you pain, and I understand that it’s awful to watch me suffering. I would feel sad too. I also feel loved and cared for, because if you didn’t care, you wouldn’t feel sad. How is it to hear me say that?
- Partner A: I feel understood and validated because you understand how hard it is to see you suffer, and you know how much I care about you. Also, it’s helpful that I can share that and know you won’t be upset with me for feeling what I feel. Also, I want you to know it’s not you that’s causing me pain. It’s that I love you and it’s hard to see the depression causing you so much pain. How is it to hear me say that?
- Partner B: I feel sad that the depression is causing me so much pain too. I hate the depression! How is that for you to hear me say?
- Partner A: Well, I feel good because I hate it too! If I could get rid of it for you I would, but I know I can’t. I’m here to support you through it. How is that for you to hear me say?
- Partner B: I feel accepted, depression and all, and that you are here to support me. I feel supported. I’m glad we both hate this depression!
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Notice how both partners communicated how they felt and accepted the other’s experience without becoming defensive. They supported each other by checking in after communicating how they felt. They clarified what they weren’t sure had been received accurately, and worked together to make their way to a place of connection. It’s in the moments that they both express their hatred for depression that connection can happen. It’s also in the moments when both partners feel safe in being able to feel what they feel, without having to defend it. These are relational skills that are worth practicing!
Keep in mind that if you want to have a healthy, fulfilling relationship, you and your partner both need to work on things. You both need to learn to be supported, to offer support, to experience connection when it seems unlikely, to use new language, and to meet each other’s needs as well your own needs.
Relationships are complicated, and people come with illnesses, quirks, past traumas, and struggles. When we turn toward our partners, our relationships, and ourselves, we learn to create closeness and work through relational challenges. At times this is scary and difficult. But learning how to connect in our differences with others, and learning to connect in our pain and our partner’s pain, is important because these elements exist in all relationships.