I’ve struggled with depression for as along as I can remember. It is, more or less, a cornerstone of my life. And things only got more complicated when I was 19 and started to struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder.
My wife, on the other hand, has never dealt with any of these issues. In fact, it’s unusual not to see her smile. She has the simplest, softest grin, almost like a joker’s smile. It was part of the reasons I was so attracted to her. She held such a lightness to her, a sweetness that contrasted my own struggles with depression and anxiety that I couldn’t help but feel warm when around her.
But that juxtaposition between someone with depression, and someone who has never experienced it, can be a stark contrast. After 14 years together, I still don’t think Mel really understands my struggle. But you know what? That’s okay, because she has learned how to help me manage it, much like someone married to a person with diabetes or high blood pressure.
Because honestly, that’s the reality of depression and anxiety. It’s something that must be managed with medication and action, just like any other long-term medical condition.
But the fact is, it’s a learning process for both partners. If you are married to someone who struggles with depression, here are a few tips we’ve picked up over the years that have made our marriage work.
1. It’s not you.
It’s almost never you. If your spouse is quiet, sleepy, or withdrawn, most likely you didn’t do a thing. Your spouse is struggling with an emotional dip. It doesn’t mean that you started it or that you can necessarily fix it. What it means is that your spouse is trying to keep going, and social interaction is almost too much to handle, so they are pulling back a bit until it passes. Give them the space they need.
2. Even though you might not understand depression, that doesn’t mean it’s not normal.
Think of the diabetic example I used above. Depression really is no different. Would you ever ask someone who is diabetic if they really need to take medication every day to feel normal? Or if they really need to lie down when they don’t feel well? Depression is a medical condition that takes care and constant maintenance. Don’t think of it as something your spouse can just snap out of. Instead, acknowledge their struggle as legitimate, support them, and ask how you can help.
3. You can’t fix your spouse’s depression, but you can encourage them to seek out qualified help.
Last year, work and life stress hit me pretty hard, and I had a significant breakdown. My wife came home to find me in bed. I’d been sent home from work. All of it was pretty embarrassing, which only made the depression worse. And yet, I was reluctant to see a therapist for help. Mel didn’t try to fix it, although she did hold me for a while. What she did do was push me to see a therapist. And every time I tried to quit, she encouraged me to keep going. Now that I’m back to my functioning self, I know that it was the best thing she could have done for me.
4. Sometimes it’s best to give your partner space.
There have been times when all I want is to be alone for a bit. And I know that ALL parents of small children want to be alone, but when someone is struggling with depression being alone can really be the only way to reset your emotions.
5. Depressed people often sleep a lot.
I know, sleep in marriage can be currency. Particularly when children are young. But you have to understand that living with depression and anxiety can often feel like acting. It takes twice the effort of normal living to act like you are happy and functional version of yourself, when inside, you really aren’t.
6. Realize that even in their darkest moments, your spouse still loves you.
I can’t speak for all marriages here, but what I can say is that sometimes, when I’m in the throes of a serious depression stretch, Mel looks at me and I can tell she’s wondering if the reason I am so off is because I’m falling out of love with her. I’m not. In fact, she is the light of my life. I’m just struggling in the moment.
Please realize that even when your spouse is in the midst of a particularly troublesome depression stretch, they are still the person you fell in love with. They might need some space to work through the situation. They don’t need judgment or criticism. And they always need support, and love, and compassion.