It could be argued that depression is the most selfish condition on the planet. It knows no boundaries and it doesn’t discriminate – anyone can be affected at any time in their life, and it often sits alongside other illnesses and mental health issues. Once it touches a person’s life, depression has the propensity to create utter havoc, not just for the person who is directly affected, but for those closest to them who struggle to understand, help and deal with the depressed behaviour.
Whilst depression is overwhelming and frightening for the person who is depressed, it’s really tough on close friends and family members – especially partners, husbands and wives, as they tend to bear the brunt of the fallout. For example, it may be that the person who experiences the depression functions well at work, but when they get home they revert to depressed behaviour – which could be anything from extreme lethargy or sadness, to intense anger and hostility, which is usually aimed at the person who would like to help them the most – their partner.
The impact of this is massive. It is like living on an emotional roller-coaster, because there’s no knowing what to expect from one day (or sometimes one minute) to another, and there’s no time limit.
Usually the non-depressed partner feels guilty at some point. They tend to think that they must be to blame in some way for their partner’s behaviour, especially when neither of them recognises that the real cause is depression. Often they feel that to talk about their concerns with anyone else is disloyal, or may even be seen as a reflection on them - so they might bottle up their thoughts and feelings for a long time.
In fact, partners are living through a particularly tumultuous bereavement. Grieving the loss of what was (the relationship they bought into in the first place – now changed because of depression), and what could (but may possibly never) be.
With depression comes many changes, depending on its severity, and how long it lasts. In my experience, the biggest challenge facing the non-depressed partner is being able to recognise, accept and manage the changes in the relationship, and their own feelings around this. They ask: “How long will this last?” “Is this my fault?” “What can I do to help?” “How can I get him/ her to go to the doctor?”
What they need to know is that:
• Their partner’s depression is not their fault, they personally can’t ‘fix’ it, and that it is fine and necessary to ask for help and support for themselves. If they don’t, they are at risk of becoming unwell themselves.
• They must look after themselves and aim to have a life outside of their partner’s depression – this isn’t being selfish, it’s just being sensible as their own wellbeing is so important, and ultimately that will help their partner.
• They can and will be able to come through this experience. No-one knows what the future holds, but there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. They will discover inner strengths and recourses that they may not even know they had.
Supporters can help the non-depressed partner by signposting places and people that understand depression, and how it can impact on partners and families. They can help them become informed about depression and the sort of behaviour that can manifest as a result – in particular the specific ways that it impact upon an intimate relationship. They can suggest ways to support the person who is depressed. Supporters can also suggest creative and age-appropriate ways for partners to talk to their children about the issue. They can help them to take an emotional step back, and suggest ways to deal with their partner’s depressed behaviour, so that they can stay strong and resilient themselves. And, when necessary, they might remind them that even though the person they love is depressed, it is absolutely right to seek inspiration and beauty, lightness and laughter, and fun and joy in their own lives.
This blog was written by Caroline Carr, the founder of LET THE SUNSHINE IN at www.lettingthesunshinein.com – a website which helps people connect with their bright side, even when their partner is depressed. She is a life coach and hypnotherapist, a teacher of Laughter Yoga, and the author of Living With Depression and How Not to Worry.