Helpless to Help: When Your Spouse or Partner Is Depressed

Close-up photo of booted feet walking through leavesWhen you are the spouse or partner of a person experiencing depression, you may feel stuck between wanting to help and realizing depression is a force larger than your love at times. You may be on edge, hypervigilant, worried, and feel hopeless when you cannot fix it for them.

First things first. If your loved one is in a depressive state lasting longer than two weeks characterized by sleep disturbances, lack of interest in once-enjoyed activities, weight gain or loss, sad feelings, fatigue, irritability, suicidal thoughts, and/or social isolation, you should get professional help immediately. You can start with your family doctor, who may refer you to a mental health professional. Depression is not something to “wait and see” on, and it’s not something just anyone can identify or diagnose. Keep in mind, also, it is common for a depressed person to not want anyone (especially a loved one) to worry, so they will often put on a good front and minimize their true feelings.

When your spouse or partner is hurting, it is natural to want to solve it for them—to search for actions you can do to remove depression and replace it with happiness. While this is a valiant and tender-hearted gesture, it is also ill-fated. Depression doesn’t simply go away because you’ve loved more. Clinical depression can be a chemical imbalance, a residual effect of past trauma, a situational outcome, or a genetic predisposition, making treatment difficult in the best of circumstances.

So what does it feel like to watch your spouse or partner go through depression? Well, it’s depressing. It creates a situation that may feel out of control, hopeless, and heavy. You may become a watcher—watching what the depressed person says, what they look like, how they acted, and what didn’t happen. You may become a detective trying to identify something that will create change and bring lightness. “If only …” may become your new motto, “Why don’t you try …” your new daily suggestion.

As a partner and (at least to some extent) caretaker, you will need to keep yourself healthy. That may mean seeking your own individual therapy, seeing friends, doing activities you enjoy, exercising, eating healthy, and setting clear emotional boundaries about what you can change and what you must accept.

You may become consumed with fighting this depression and then, without realizing it and without meaning to, you may get angry—angry your loved one isn’t getting better, angry your life stinks, angry you can’t change this. You know it isn’t your loved one’s fault and they didn’t ask for depression, but you may get impatient anyway, wanting change to happen more quickly than they may be able to move. You may experience a grieving of sorts—for the loss of the life with your loved one that you once knew.

As a partner and (at least to some extent) caretaker, you will need to keep yourself healthy. That may mean seeking your own individual therapy, seeing friends, doing activities you enjoy, exercising, eating healthy, and setting clear emotional boundaries about what you can change and what you must accept.

It is not unloving to learn to maintain a distance from the depression; it may, in fact, be the only thing that keeps you healthy and available. Observing your loved one suffering while you live fully can be difficult to comprehend. You will no doubt ask yourself if you should be laughing, eating out, or seeing a movie. However, who will take care of you if you don’t? Finding lighter, more upbeat activities can create space that allows for some happy times for you. This space can fuel you when times are heavy and tough. As with all things, “this too shall pass” can be a mantra to absorb and hold true.

In time and with treatment, your spouse or partner can be happy again, and you can feel less worried and vigilant.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Angela Avery, MA, LPC, NCC, therapist in Clarkston, Michigan

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • amanda

    amanda

    February 22nd, 2017 at 7:09 AM

    Sometimes the most important thing is to be there for your partner. You might not be able to do anything else for him or her but you have to try to stick by them no matter what.
    They will need you now more than they possibly ever have.

  • Rosalie

    Rosalie

    February 23rd, 2017 at 7:31 AM

    There was a time when I did want to help him but he always pushed me away. I did all that I knew to do to help him get through or get past what he was working through but it was like he didn’t even want that kind of input from me anymore.

    Maybe I took things a little too personally and allowed the hurt that I know he was feeling to bleed into our relationship but after a while I didn’t even want to try anymore. I was tired of him being angry with me over things that he was feeling and I couldn’t control.

    I left and didn’t look back because he was damaging my own psyche and after a while being in that relationship was nothing but toxic for me anymore.

  • James

    James

    February 23rd, 2017 at 12:08 PM

    Why does it always seem that the people whom we love the most are the ones who tend to hurt us the most? I just don’t get how they want you to do everything possible for them and then do nothing in return for you if you got to feeling the same exact way.

  • baker T

    baker T

    February 24th, 2017 at 10:49 AM

    I watched my mom for so many years try to make things better for my dad and she never could. Nothing that she did could ever please him because he could never be happy with himself so what made us think that we could do it?

    In many ways this tore all of us down a little bit at a time because it is hard coming to the realization that no matter how hard you try your best is never going to be enough to pull this person out of the funk in which they have landed. It takes away a piece of you when you want to help, and make things batter, but you just can’t do it.

  • Jill

    Jill

    February 25th, 2017 at 6:15 PM

    You might actually have an awful lot to give but they make you believe that you don’t.

  • Zack

    Zack

    February 26th, 2017 at 10:05 AM

    I really wish that there was an easy answer for all of this but sadly having a partner who is experiencing depression can put a true strain on the whole family. We usually think that this is singular and that no one else is impacted but this is as far from the truth as it could be. You will all feel the pain that depression can bring.

  • J

    J

    November 8th, 2017 at 7:18 AM

    As someone who has been struggling with undiagnosed MDD for more than 20 years (finally started getting help 17 months ago) and was married to an partner who would get angry with me because when I got depressed I wasn’t making him happy and he’d go find himself play mates who did, I’d like to share some insight.
    * First and foremost, as a partner it’s not your job to fix me or make me happy.
    Depression is bigger than you, me, our relationship and our love. It’s a beast.
    * You’re just not qualified to fix me. As the article points out, if your loved one is suffering from depression symptoms for more than 2 weeks, please help me get professional help for myself. Even if you have to give me an ultimatum. * While I’m getting help, take time for yourself and take care of yourself, educate yourself on the complexities of depression and be open to getting professional help for yourself. It takes it’s toll on both of us and you can’t pour from an empty cup.
    * Understand that my treatment is a marathon not a sprint. Sometimes it’s more of a cha cha (one step forward, two steps back).
    * I do love you and want to you to be happy. I feel a lot of guilt and shame that my illness is hurting you. Some days I hate myself for what it does to you. I wish I could just snap out of it, but trying to be happy is really hard. I’d settle for being content, but I’m afraid that won’t be good enough for you.
    * It would help me to know you accept me for who I am, where I’m at right now, that I’m not alone, and the professional help I’m getting is helping you too. I hate feeling like a burden to you.
    * I understand you need some time to yourself and room to breathe. I feel relief when you find enjoyment and some happiness. I don’t want you to get stuck feeling like I do.
    * If it’s too much for you, please be honest and let me know early on. I do understand and I’ll let you go. I want you to be happy. Don’t pretend I can count on you, if you don’t have it in you. That doesn’t help either of us.
    I had to leave my marriage in order to get better. My partner didn’t want to understand or help me get help. He said I was just being lazy and trying to get attention.
    Those of you that care and want your partner to get better are a blessing to them, even if they are too lost in the fog to see it right now. It takes time and qualified professional help to get through this.

  • jane h

    jane h

    February 16th, 2018 at 5:41 AM

    What do you do, when your partner (of 20+ years) doesn’t want to get help, or doesn’t seem to help themselves in anyway? I think he’s been like this forever, but fought it and probably hidden it, but now it’s so bad that I actually question whether he wants to be with me – or even likes me. Am I making it worse when I try to talk to him, to tell him to seek help. To me it seems like a very selfish illness, he isn’t interested in my life or anything I do. He can be unkind to th

    his (young adult) children. He is withdrawn, unsociable. Business is bad, his lifes ambitions don’t seen to have amounted to what he hoped. (52 years old). Advice please?

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