Suggestions for Spouses Whose Partner Is Depressed

My various posts on depression and my struggles with it generate a wide range of emails, some with suggestions, some with questions, and some with empathy. The following question is an example of what I get regularly.

“I read your blog every day and have read your book on living with an entrepreneur. Thanks for sharing your experiences with depression. I was wondering if you had any advice or resources for spouses of those going through depression. How does this impact Amy and how does she approach you and things when you go through this? I am struggling with this now in my marriage. It’s hard for me and I think it’s hard for our kids as well. My wife’s depression tests me like no other thing has and really pushes me to my limits of patience and understanding. How does one stay positive and productive when their loved one is suffering in a dark place? How do you maintain good communication through this without the anger and resentment coming out?”

I sat down with Amy this morning and came up with a list of things – from her perspective – that have helped her, and us, get through the depressive episodes. The italics are her suggestions; the text that follows is my thoughts and reactions to it.

Don’t try to fix things. I think it’s important to start here. When I’m depressed I don’t want to be “fixed.” If I knew how to fix myself, I would. But often things just get worse when I use this frame of reference. And, when someone else tries to fix me, I rarely can hear them, or even understand them. This often just makes the person trying to fix me frustrated, which just makes things worse. So start by accepting that the depressed person isn’t looking for a fix – quick or otherwise – when they are in the depths of a depression.

Make sure you take care of your own needs and do things for yourself that make you happy. I think this applies to anyone who has a partner with a major illness – a stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s, or depression. You are already pouring an enormous amount of your energy into your partner and not much, if anything, is coming back. Don’t neglect yourself. Spend time with friends. Do things that you love to do alone. Carve out time to just be.

Don’t take it personally – it’s not about you. This is a tough one. You are in a relationship with the depressed person. It’s natural to think – consciously or sub-consciously – that you are part of the problem. While you might be, don’t obsess about this. When your partner lashes out at you, absorb it rather than escalate. When your partner is non-responsive to you, be patient. Operate in the context of giving your partner the benefit of the doubt. Don’t try to fix things (see the note above), especially when you know that your partner is struggling with something that isn’t ultimately about you.

Be emotionally even keeled. Get a t-shirt that says “Keep Calm and Carry On.” The depression your partner is having will wear you down. Breathe deeply. Don’t suppress your emotions, but try to stay mellow, even when you feel yourself heating up or getting run down. And, if you are struggling with this …

Get therapy. Encourage your spouse to get therapy. Both Amy and I have had multi-year stretches of therapy. I like to refer to it as “spending an hour a week on Planet Brad.” I get one full hour, with my therapist, that is all about me. How fun is that? Well – sometimes it’s a lot of fun and sometimes it completely sucks, but I’ve always found it helpful.

Exercise. Let your endorphins free to race around your brain. Plus, this is a good way to take care of your own needs and do things for yourself.

Talk to friends and share the burden. Don’t follow Marge Simpson’s advice: “It doesn’t matter how you feel inside, you know. It’s what shows up on the outside that counts. Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down past your knees, until you’re almost walking on them. And then you’ll fit in, and you’ll be invited to parties, and boys will like you. And happiness will follow.” It’s wrong. Let your feelings out with your close friends. Ask them to just listen and be with you, not try to fix you.

Try to be optimistic that this will pass. Even the first time Amy had to deal with a depressive episode of mine, which lasted two years, she was optimistic it would pass. She hung in there. The third time we had to deal with this (last year), she knew it would pass and that made it easier.

Watch comedies. Try for laughter. I’d be laying in bed, not really interested in doing anything and suddenly Amy would come bounding into the room and say “One chance only to watch Uncle Buck with me.” I have zero resistance to a John Candy movie and even though I know Amy would rather watch The English Patient, we both realize that laughter is helpful.

If you’ve read this far, go take a look at Depression Part 2 by Hyperboleandahalf to better understand how your depressed partner is feeling.

  • adamcaper

    Brad / Amy: These are good suggestions. They resonate so strongly with what one hears in the twelve-step programs for people who are family members of alcoholics (Al-Anon and the related ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics)) that it occurs to me that perhaps another thing to add to this list would be to seek outside support from others who are in a similar circumstance.

    There is something uniquely powerful and, in my own experience, transformative, about connecting with others who are dealing with similar issues (to be clear, I mean dealing in the present tense, not have dealt in the past). It’s like everything else we learn about taking on a new, unfamiliar, high-stakes challenge (i.e. entrepreneurship): working through the issues with a team of people who are with you in the trenches inevitably leads to faster progress and better outcomes. I think that part of the reason that this particular form of support is so powerful is that it is easy to feel quite lonely when one’s primary partner in life has become absent due to these kinds of mental illness, but sometimes hard to gauge on one’s own just how that loneliness affects mood, outlook, and coping ability.

    Mental illness warps reality, and all of our most virtuous instincts – to help, to understand, to love – drive us towards that reality warp, which is a form of contagion (as an aside, this is one of the primary reasons that why we have so much more of a visceral aversion to mental illness than we do to to other forms of illness…we know, unconsciously, that we’re at risk of being pulled in). The best way to inoculate ourselves from being dragged in, and to top off the reserves of love and patience which underlies most of Amy’s advice, is by being around other people who can help us, and who we can help, get through the difficult times.

    Good for you – both of you – for being so transparent about this. Mental health issues still carry much more stigma than they should, especially among people whose identities are so strongly defined by their intellectual abilities. This is something which needs to be discussed, and I think it’s great that you’re bringing it to people’s attention for what it is – just another challenge to be dealt with as best as possible.

    • That’s a great addition to the list. Spending time with others going through the same thing you – as the partner of the depressed person – are.

  • Thanks for being so open abt this. It helps.

    • Thx John. You’ve helped me a lot also – just by being there. Knowing that I could call or reach out if I needed to, even if I didn’t, has always been great.

      • while I hope it’s never needed, I will always follow thru on my promise to answer the phone, hop in the car or jump on a plane.

        • Yup – I know that, and by simply knowing that, it helps a lot.

  • Jenny Lawton

    Love these thoughts; they are genuine and real. So much of life would be better with this type of balance and patience and love.

    I found Al-Anon to be a great resource for me as well as therapy. Therapy was expensive and weekly and … Al-Anon could be as many times a day as I needed and had an amazing support team that came with it. I think Al-Anon should be renamed to something else. I always think parents of teenagers need to go and anyone with a life, maybe, should go.

    It’s not perfect – not meant to be – but it does bring a perspective that always surprises me. The perspective that I’m not alone, that things could be worse or maybe better … that maybe my experiences can help other people with their experiences.

    Depression is insidious and so hard to watch and participate in. It’s long and hard. I found it as hard or harder to deal with over addiction because at least with addiction you could point to some concrete things (or you think they are concrete).

    I love that you share. I often reply back to you personally versus in public.

    Another thing that helped me was saying what I thought in my head out loud. Even when it made other people uncomfortable … “How are you today?” “Oh, it was a long weekend because I was visiting my kid in the psych hospital and he didn’t want to see me but then called me on the phone afterwards because he wanted me to visit” or something like that. Just saying to someone “Life is tough right now – my husband won’t get out of bed and my son is in the psych hospital for depression” was so liberating.

    I guess I don’t think that healing process can happen if the people in the relationship aren’t ready to be out there and say “this sucks, but we’re doing this together” …

    I also just like to stop and celebrate the bright lights as they happen. A hug. A smile. A laugh. A connection. Even if it’s once in a week or a month or more. There are some bright moments through a lot of dark and I find that when I go back to talk about some of the dark times, I come to the bright moments even if they are perverse and hard to see as bright. The time I watched a movie in the psych ER with my kid, the teary “I love you mom” moments, the inability to resist a funny movie, the crazy things that go on inside a psych hospital, the picnic on the lawn at Silverhill, the great art and truly heartfelt sharing …

    Thanks for all your sharing.

    • Great great comments. I know a lot about your own struggles and it’s awesome that you are willing to put them out there. Fortunately, addiction hasn’t been part of my journey, but the parallels – and challenges, especially in a family context, are very similar. It’s very useful to tie them together in an appropriate way.

      Celebrating the bright lights is super helpful – we accidentally left that out of the list. During my depressive episodes, I’d occasionally have a good day, or even a good moment. We’d celebrate that. You can probably picture Amy and I hugging and jumping up and down in a circle, at least for a few moments.

  • Good stuff.

  • Confessional

    This is a good article, using the spouse angle on the topic of Depression. When depression hits me, I’m either able to act my way through it and no one knows (spouse or co-workers), or the depression outlasts my ability to smile through it and I begin crumbling piece by piece, revealing my depression despite my attempt to deny it…it comes through symptoms. I forget to pay a few bills (personally and at work), I’m at a loss of energy even though I attempt to out decaffeinate it, ADHD explodes and I sit paralyzed into being able to do nothing, my health gets out of whack and weight gain begins. It’s a wash in the end. When you mix all the hours I work, with any other entrepreneur, or employee of a firm…my output when I’m good is amazing, I can do more in 20 hours than some can do in 80, but when you mix in my phases of depression, I’m probably just normal, or not to far above or below.

    I really feel bad that a newly hired guy that works for me got a glimpse of a recent depression I’m dealing with. He thought I was an unlimited supply of great attitude, great moods, and ability to tackle anything…then he saw me on a bad day and you would have thought I was a down and out unemployed guy, not his generally (or hopefully) dynamic start up company CEO.

    In short, be it work production, health (like weight etc), finances, everything comes in cycles of great achievement or great failure. I wouldn’t have it any other way, I love it. I crave the good, and thankfully the good is 80% of the time, but when the 20% comes around and I’m depressed…. its a slow drowning.

    Even tougher, is the self realization that I’m always going to keep starting and running businesses, however I bring with me these flaws of orbits of depression. It’s like pick up basketball, I know I’m not Lebron James, I’ve got my issues, but I bring my best even if one morning I’m the flavor of my worst. Self realization is so important, learning how to have other pieces of stability, so that if you’re the leader of your company, if you’re not on your game, shit won’t hit the fan. Some people think I’m trying to beat Timothy Ferris and make a 2 hour work week or make a jab that I’m potentially lazy when I set up systems that make money and I’m not a part of them… but it’s the planning farmer mentality. I’ll work and work while I can, stockpiling profits, and when depression takes hold, hopefully I’ve got enough better qualified execution people who are more level headed who can carry out the day to day.

    Maybe I share some Howard Hughes fibers, or maybe my crashes are deliberate that stem from some hidden desire to not succeed on this one given day. With every introspective meditation, I dangerously open the door to some macro or micro perspective that could beneficial, or it’s the quiet seconds than enable my fingers to rip through and criticize the neuron paths I’ve built over the last few months. If it weren’t the cycles of hitting rock bottom, I wouldn’t have the need to go invent new great things, as those highs are always an easy remedy to help me pretend I don’t have any problems at all.

  • RBC

    Thanks for that Brad.

  • ML

    Thanks for sharing. A fee other points to add to the list for the person who is depressed…..”fake” smile as your Boyd will create happy endorphins…and Change your diet and exercise! There are lots of foods which negatively affect depression such as alcohol, caffeine, sugar, etc. and lots of good foods which can support your body during times of depression. I did all of these things and more when I felt suicidal. No quick fixes, but they all helped.

  • angilly

    The Hyperbole and a Half thing was awesome. I had never seen that post. I couldn’t help but laugh; not because it was funny, but because I’ve been the the happy loudmouth who is always trying to find the dead fish AND I’ve been the person in the bowling alley. I’ve said and thought almost the exact same words in both cases. It’s frustrating that a person can play different roles at different times. I imagine it’s far more confusing to an outsider when a relatively optimistic/gregarious person has a sudden outburst of apathy.

    Good article. Thanks for writing and sharing. It’s good to revisit this stuff from time to time to remember that we all need to work on how we handle the depression of both ourselves and others.

    • Thx. I found the hyperboleandahalf article to match my feelings during depression pretty closely. It’s the best description I’ve found so far.

  • So insightful and so true. Since I was about eight years old my mother has had many episodes of depression. It came and went throughout the years. It was greatly affecting me at first. But then I quickly figured out not to try to fix it for her. I simply allowed her to be who she was and always remained positive that she would pull out of it. And she always did. She’s been doing great for several years now, and she always has attributed her pulling out of it to me. And I have always given her the credit for doing so. Don’t try to fix the person, just be there for them and be true to yourself.

  • TamiMForman

    Brad — Thanks for writing and posting this. I’ve been living with a depressed person for nearly 20 years and I still found this advice super helpful and relevant.

    • Glad it was helpful!