The toll of depression on relationships

When being in love with someone who is depressed takes over

Fighting depressing for over a decade, Marcie Fehr and her partner understand the struggles of maintaining a relationship through the ups and downs. Sierra Sawatsky

Typically, a relationship begins with endless days of smiling, kisses and fun between two people who share the same interests and are physically attracted to each other.

When one partner in the relationship becomes depressed, these things often change – as do both partners.

“When the person you thought you knew as happy and active slowly begins acting strangely and ... unhappy, it can be very unsettling for the partner who is not depressed,” said Dave Gallson, associate national executive director of Mood Disorders Society of Canada. “The non-depressed partner (may be) feeling that he or she is in the way, unwanted or unloved.”

Gallson said that this sometimes happens because a depressed person lacks the energy to even realize the attention their partner is giving them, or that their partner is requiring attention in return.

“It has distanced some of my relationships because they ask me why I can’t just ‘fix’ the situation – but it’s not about fixing the situation sometimes,” said Marcie Fehr, a research assistant for the women’s and gender studies department at the University of Winnipeg who has struggled with depression for almost 13 years.

For Fehr and her long-term partner, there have been struggles, but in their relationship there is always the commitment to find ways to support one another.

“We’ve been together a long time,” she said. “We’re still trying to figure out what we need from each other.”

Being a supportive partner to someone who is depressed

According to Tina Holland, director of education for the Mood Disorders Society of Manitoba, depression is something that a person needs to accept for themselves in order to get help; but sometimes encouraging conversation with a depressed partner can be just what they need.

Holland suggests “being pretty honest” and asking things such as, “Are you really living the life you want to live?” and “Do you want to talk about it?”

This is what happened for Alex Menzies, a 24-year-old stay-at-home mom, who tried to hide her depression from her partner, Bill.

“It took Bill actually calling me on it,” she said. “It wasn’t until he actually said, ‘You look like you’re going to cry at the drop of a hat’ – it wasn’t until he said that that I realized I was depressed and needed to get help.”

After being in therapy for over six months now, Menzies said she now is comfortable sharing things that she would have tried to hide six months ago.

“I go once a week to therapy and then I come home and (Bill and I) talk,” she said. “Not necessarily about what happened at therapy, but we talk about everything.”

When the person you thought you knew as happy and active slowly begins acting strangely and ... unhappy, it can be very unsettling for the partner who is not depressed. The non-depressed partner (may be) feeling that he or she is in the way, unwanted, or unloved.

Dave Gallson, associate national executive director, Mood Disorders Society of Canada

Learning not to take the blame for a partner’s depression

Often when a person is in a relationship with someone who is depressed, feelings of responsibility and blame will arise as they may feel it is their job to make sure their partner is happy.

“People can’t blame themselves if this person goes into a deeper depression or tries to hurt themselves, you can’t stop that,” said Chris Scully, a retired police officer and paramedic.

Scully responded to many crisis situations in which depressed people had thoughts of, or had attempted to commit, suicide.

“Usually people who hurt themselves and want help will call out for help, or they will do it in a place where people are there to call help for them,” she said.

Scully advised that all a partner can do is try to be supportive and to be aware of signs that could be a cry for help.

“It’s hard to watch, because when you love somebody you may not see the signs,” she said.

Keeping the physical relationship intact

“Even if you don’t feel like sex, simply holding each other can provide comfort and reassurance and might help you both feel a little better. This can help keep the relationship going,” said Gallson.

He notes that any form of physical contact can keep the connection between couples strong, even when the depressed partner is low on energy and lacking interest in sex as a result of their depression.

“Cuddling helps,” he said. “Holding each other can bring happiness.”

Ultimately though, communication is key to understanding your partner’s depression.

“It is a learning process to understand that this once attentive and active partner now has to really concentrate on what you’re saying, or needs to really work at smiling or appreciating the good things in life,” said Gallson.

“Sometimes just talking ... helps.”

Published in Volume 65, Number 17 of The Uniter (January 27, 2011)

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