Depression affects more than just the person with the diagnosis. If you’re in a relationship, you probably already know the time, energy, and communication skills required to maintain a healthy and loving connection.
But if you or your loved one is clinically depressed, maintaining that relationship can feel like a monumental task. Over time, mental illness can have a profound impact on both love relationships and friendships. But with knowledge, understanding, and resources, you can navigate depression and relationships in a way that strengthens your connection.
How depression impacts relationships
In a qualitative study, 135 couples responded to open-ended questions to describe the influence depression played in their relationship.
In couples where one person was diagnosed with depression, the depressed person’s behavior sparked adverse reactions, including rejection, from their partner. This, in turn, elicited more negative emotions in the depressed partner, thus perpetuating a negative cycle.
In analyzing the couples’ descriptions of their experience with depression, they found that depression takes an emotional toll on the relationship, inhibits romance and sexual intimacy, and breaks down communication.
Over time, the impact of depression may cause harmful relationship patterns that intensify over time. Depression has the potential to drive you and your partner apart, but it doesn’t have to be this way. With a better understanding of how depression hurts relationships, you can choose healthy and skillful ways to maintain a loving connection despite mental health issues.
The experience of depression
Here are some of the most common symptoms of depression and how they impact the way someone with this diagnosis shows up in relationships.
Feeling sad can give a distorted view of reality. It can be hard to see the positive aspects of your relationship when you’re looking at life through the lens of clinical depression.
Loss of interest
You may no longer feel interested in activities the two of you once enjoyed together. For many people with depression, this symptom is related to anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure.
Low sex drive
For the same reasons, you may also lose interest in sex. Even if you’re receiving treatment for your mental health that’s helping with the symptoms of depression, many antidepressants inhibit sexual desire, arousal, and orgasm.
Irritability and anger
May lose patience and get angry at the little things. If you’re in an intimate relationship, it is common for that aggression to get directed at your partner.
Changes in appetite
You may experience weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting. This can lead you to feel less attractive or desirable. When combined with the inability to experience pleasure, it often leads to a drop off in sexual intimacy.
Changes in sleep
You may have very low energy or experience extreme fatigue—it’s one of the most common physical symptoms of depression. It may mean you want to just stay in bed. It might feel like you just don’t have the energy to engage in conversation or complete daily tasks.
Feeling worthless or guilty
Feelings of worthlessness and guilt can make you especially sensitive to criticism. Many people with depression personalize things that aren’t intended to be personal. These feelings often lead people to withdraw and isolate themselves for fear that they’ll feel judged or criticized.
When you have depression, cognition, memory, and attention are often impaired. You might experience this as difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions. These cognitive symptoms can make work even more challenging.
Especially if you’ve been depressed long-term and have tried many different treatments without success, you may feel hopeless about getting better. It can feel like the cycle of depression you’re stuck in will never improve.
Maybe you’re having a hard time imagining that life will ever get better. Feelings of hopelessness can have a tremendous impact when it comes to depression and relationships. Such thoughts may even lead to thoughts of death or suicide.
How depression impacts others
There’s no question about it—depression is challenging for the person experiencing it and those connected to them. If your partner or significant other has depression, you’re having your own experience around this issue.
This is true even if you intellectually understand that depression is not their fault. You may feel unwanted, powerless, afraid, and like you’re losing someone you love.
Here are some of the feelings and experiences you may be having if your partner has depression.
Confusion or guilt
Hopelessness takes a toll on relationships. One person’s depression can create an atmosphere that impacts the people around it. You may feel confused about what’s happening to you, your partner, or your relationship. You may feel guilty for wanting your partner to stop having mental health issues or for making your life so much harder.
Your partner may seem lazy, disinterested, or even angry. Unless you know that depression is a legitimate medical illness, you might misinterpret its symptoms. Your partner isn’t depressed as a result of being inattentive or not trying—they have a medical condition.
Taking it personally
Depression isn’t personal, but it can be hard to remember when someone you love is experiencing depression. Understandably, many people whose partners are depressed feel the need to fix these mental health difficulties. But depression isn’t something you can “fix.” You may also want to make them feel good, which can make you feel like a failure when it doesn’t work.
You’re unsure when your partner will get better and when or if the relationship will ever return to the way it was before. You may find yourself clinging to the memories of your relationship before your partner was depressed. This can sometimes make the reality of dating someone with depression even more painful.
Need for control
One of the most human responses to a feeling of uncertainty is a desire to plan, strategize, and control. You may find yourself wanting to put your partner’s recovery on a timeline or control their treatment somehow. These attempts to manage your out-of-control circumstances or situation are extremely common.
You might start to internalize your partner’s depressive symptoms by believing that there’s something wrong with you. When you’re in an intimate relationship with someone who has depression, it’s common to think that their experience with depression is somehow your fault. Ultimately, this may be just another attempt to control a situation that feels so unmanageable.
Partners may shift into a caretaking role and no longer see a depressed partner through the romantic lens of desire. This may cause you to question the relationship because you forget the good times and what attracted you to each other in the first place.
Suicidal thoughts can be scary. They may keep you from asking how your partner is doing for fear you might “trigger” suicidal thoughts. This just isn’t true. It’s better to be direct and ask them if they’re having thoughts of suicide or self-harm. If they say yes, and indicate plan and desire, call 911.
Connecting in the face of depression
Depression has an impact on everyone. If you’re the one with depression, this statement isn’t meant to make you feel guilty. Instead, it’s an opportunity for understanding, growth, and healing. One way to look at this is as evidence of how much you matter to those who love you.
Often in relationships, individuals say or do hurtful things not because they want to cause harm but because they’re in emotional pain and trying to protect themselves. Unfortunately, these defense mechanisms can perpetuate maladaptive patterns.
But when you understand the link between depression and relationships, you can try the following suggestions. They’re meant to help both of you break those harmful patterns and continue to connect despite the impact depression has on your relationship.
It’s often easy to come from a place of judgment, either for yourself or your partner. This usually leads to more conflict and emotional pain. Instead, approach the experiences of your loved one with an attitude of compassion.
Be curious, not furious
To break out of the cycle, try to be curious before furious. If you feel triggered, try some distress tolerance skills or take a time out so you can get out of fight or flight mode. Once you feel calm, engage in empathic listening.
Try not to speak for your partner or make assumptions about their behavior. Provide space for your loved one to describe their experience. As you listen, you can reflect what you’ve heard by saying things like, “I hear that you are in a lot of pain because of this.”
Validate one another
You don’t have to agree, but you want to respect and validate their experience. Use “I” statements and lead with your feelings. Do your best to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
It’s not unusual to question the relationship during times of conflict. Remember that depression is treatable, and there’s a way out of the pain. Try to treat the depression before making any decisions about ending or changing the relationship. If your partner is depressed and you’re having a difficult time, therapy can be helpful. This is especially important if you’re experiencing grief around the changes in your partnership.
Support but don’t caretake
If you’re the partner of someone who’s depressed, try to be supportive but not a caretaker. Remember, you are an equal part of the relationship, and you’re not responsible for everything. Your thoughts and feelings also matter. It’s common for people in your position to need extra support, too. Reach out for your own help and support when you need it.
Talk about the hard stuff
Don’t be afraid to talk about suicide. Sometimes people avoid difficult conversations with depressed people because they fear it may lead to self-harm or suicide. This is not true.
Be direct and ask questions. Asking the hard questions and having these discussions can save lives.
If your loved one says they have thoughts of suicide, encourage them to seek professional help immediately. If they are at imminent risk of suicide, meaning they have a plan, means, and intent, call 911.
Despite increased awareness and availability, mental illness still carries a stigma and can be challenging to discuss. Depression isn’t always visible to others like a physical illness is, and for this reason, many individuals and couples experience this difficulty in silence. Just as depression in relationships can cause maladaptive patterns, so can a relationship be used as a platform of support.
There is hope. Depression is treatable. Please seek help as soon as possible. The longer the depression persists, the harder it will be to remember what the relationship is like in good times. Learn more about how to help someone with depression.
Individual psychotherapy is an excellent place to start. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one very effective modality for treating depression. A trained clinician can help the depressed person modify thoughts and behaviors using skills like cognitive restructuring. Techniques like this one can help move the person with depression towards emotional well-being.
If the depressed person has difficulty getting out of bed, sleeping, eating, or executing daily tasks, a medication evaluation may be necessary. Visit Lemonaid to talk with a medical professional about depression to see if antidepressant meds are right for you.
If the depression has been persistent for a long time and has taken its toll on the relationship, it might be advisable for both of you to seek therapy.
Couples therapy is also an option, depending upon the severity of depression. If an individual is having difficulty managing daily tasks, it may be better to wait until they are in a more stable emotional state.
- In couples, depression affects more than just the person with the diagnosis.
- When treating depression in a relationship, the experience of both partners should be considered.
- There are many ways to get help for relationships and depression, including individual psychotherapy, couples therapy, and medication.