If your partner has depression, it can have a major impact on your relationship. Common symptoms like loss of interest in activities, negative self-image, irritability, and persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness can make it hard to connect with your partner. It’s normal to experience a range of feelings like worry for your partner, frustration, guilt, confusion, impatience — or all of the above. And while you might want nothing more than to help your partner, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not your job to “fix” their depression. That said, there are some ways you can support them. We spoke to three experts for some tips on how to support a partner with depression.
1. Be curious and compassionate
Depression is a complex illness, with causes and symptoms that can vary from person to person. Ask your partner about their experience and what kind of support feels good to them. Therapist Billie Tyler, LMFT, tells O.school: “Curiosity and empathy are absolutely vital when mental health challenges arise,” adding that “it can feel very tempting to try and ‘fix’ things or make things better for someone we care about who is suffering, but the best way to support them is to stay present and follow their lead.”
Clinical psychologist Dr. Houyuan Luo agrees, telling O.school that it’s best “to be understanding, non-judgmental and patient” when talking with your partner about their experience. He recommends asking open-ended questions, such as “What kind of body sensations do you have?” “How can I support you?” “Can you tell me more about it?” He also recommends questions like “I guess you feel very sad/anxious/worried about that, right?” or “It must be hard for you to talk about that, right?” to validate your partner’s experience and show that you’re actively listening.
2. Learn about depression
Learning more about common depression symptoms and triggers, as well as exploring the experiences of people living with depression, can give you a deeper perspective on what your partner is going through. There are many books, blogs, and podcasts that explore depression from a variety of angles, including science-based explanations, self-help, and first-person accounts of what it’s like to live with depression. You can also check out resources from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Families for Depression Awareness, or the National Institute of Mental Health.
3. Meet them where they’re at
For some people experiencing depression, everyday life can feel overwhelming. Helping your partner to continue with daily activities when they’re struggling is one of the most meaningful things you can do to support them. This can mean giving positive reinforcement for something as simple as getting out of bed in the morning or eating a snack. (“I can see that you’re feeling really low energy, and I’m proud of you for making the effort to get up,” or “It feels good to see you taking care of your body.”) You can also modify routines to accommodate what they’re capable of at the moment: Instead of urging them to hit the gym, you could suggest a gentle walk together. Instead of going to a party, you could see if they’re up for a quiet dinner with one or two close friends or family members. Offering to take on a greater share of household responsibilities on a temporary basis, hiring help if you can afford to, or reaching out to friends or family to see if they can pitch in are all potential ways to let your partner focus on their wellness.
4. Know that you’re not responsible for their mental health
It can be painful to witness someone you care about suffering, and it’s normal to want to do everything in your power to help them recover. But depression is a complex mental health condition, and there’s no “quick fix” that can make someone better. Therapist Kassondra Glenn, LMSW, tells O.school: “The most important thing for a partner of someone struggling with depression to know is that they cannot fix the situation. It is natural for us as humans to want to change that which is causing someone we love discomfort. However, it is crucial for a partner to learn how to be with their significant other in what they are going through rather than trying to provide solutions.”
5. Keep the whole picture in mind
Having a partner with depression can come with a variety of challenges. Maybe they have little interest in sex or intimacy, or don’t want to participate in activities that you used to enjoy together, leaving you feeling lonely and disconnected. Or perhaps taking on extra household or childcare responsibilities is weighing on you. If your partner’s depression is creating challenges for you or your family, it can be easy to focus on the negatives. But maintaining an awareness of the things you love about your partner can help you persist through the hard times. “Take time to enjoy things together with your partner, maybe watch a movie or make a nice meal together,” Tyler suggests. “This is a tough time but it is important to keep perspective of why it is worth the effort in these difficult moments.”
6. Support them in seeking help
Seeking treatment can be a powerful part of healing from depression. Tyler tells O.school that giving ultimatums, though, or telling your partner to get help in a moment of frustration, can backfire. “If you feel that your partner may benefit from some mental health care, try and discuss it in a calm moment, not the middle of an argument. Also, lead with empathy, share your perspective and concern, ask if they have considered it, and offer a listening ear if they have concerns or reservations. It is also fair to say, ‘I want to support you but I think we need some extra help from a professional.’” She also encourages readers to seek support from a couples counselor that can work with both partners and address the relationship as a whole.
Glenn recommends opening a conversation about seeking help by asking questions. “The most effective way to encourage a partner to seek mental health care is to start by asking open questions and listening. An example of an open question is, ‘How would getting the right help for what you're going through look for you?’. Common ways to provide support are sitting with a partner while they are searching for mental health care professionals and offering to drive them to/sit in the waiting room for their first appointment.” You can also share online resources from groups like the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, or help them to find a support group.
7. Don’t neglect your own self-care
“Taking care of yourself is not selfish!” Dr. Luo tells O.school. “You are an important source of support to your partner for sure! But you are not supposed to be the only one.” Gelnn agrees, telling O.school: “Maintaining our sense of self makes us more effective in providing support, not less.” Continuing to spend time with people you care about, nurture your hobbies and interests, and tending to your body through exercise and movement are great ways to stay grounded. Tyler tells O.school that partners of people experiencing depression should consider seeking mental health care for themselves: “It is also okay to reach out for your own mental health support from a therapist. It can be really draining on a relationship and a couple when mental health struggles need to be navigated. It is okay to ask for support too.”
8. Watch for warning signs
Part of supporting a partner with depression includes knowing when they might be at risk for serious self-harm. According to the American Psychological Association, potential warning signs of suicide include talking about suicide, withdrawing socially, giving away important belongings, preparing a will, and engaging in risky behavior, among others. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a conversation guide for talking to someone who’s considering suicide. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or contact your local emergency services if you think that they might be in immediate danger.
9. Know when it might be time to walk away
If you’re persistently unhappy in your relationship or your own mental health is suffering, you might consider ending the relationship. Glenn tells O.school, “In general, walking away may become a consideration if the person with depression is not committed to seeking the right help for them and/or employing tools and skills to mitigate their symptoms.” Tyler advises people thinking about ending their relationship to “make a choice, not a reaction. Don’t leave in a moment of crisis, pause [to] think about your values in a relationship, really listen to your ability to continue to show up. If those things are telling you it is time to walk away, choose it, and be clear to yourself what led you to this decision.”
The bottom line
There are many ways you can support a partner with depression, while also caring for yourself. Understanding that mental health is a journey, reaching out for support from a caring professional if necessary, and making space for your partner to share their feelings without trying to “fix” anything are all good ways to nurture your relationship and let your partner know that they’re not alone.