Relationship Advice when Dating Someone with Depression

Depression is a common mental illness that affects how a person thinks, feels and acts in a negative manner. Some symptoms of depression include feelings of worthlessness, sadness, and/or irritability; a loss of interest in activities once loved; concentration issues; disturbed sleep; and changes in eating habits. As such, dating someone with depression is not easy; it is difficult to see our loved ones suffer without always being able to help them. It's especially difficult when you cannot entirely relate to their circumstance. It takes time, patience, and understanding to date someone who struggles with depression. The following advice may help guide you.

1) Realize that you cannot “fix” your partner’s condition.

Even if you have an accurate understanding of what depression entails, it's harmful to believe that you can cure it. This is because you, as a romantic partner, are too involved. It is the job of a trained therapist to help treat mental illness. You can, however, offer your support and empathy by being accepting of your partner’s mental illness, learning more about it, and listening to your partner’s feelings. If you do find yourself taking on the role of a therapist, it may be time to reassess your relationship dynamic. Perhaps  you can encourage your partner to see a qualified therapist for treatment.

2) Communicate about how you feel.

Communication is important in all relationships and can be especially important when dating someone with mental illness. Realize that feelings of annoyance, irritation and general sadness are likely to come up just as in any other relationship. This is okay. For things to change, you must let your partner know what is upsetting you. For example, if you are feeling sad that your partner does not seem interested in spending time with you, you can say, “I am feeling sad lately, because I feel like you do not want to spend time with me. I know this is not your intention, but maybe we can find things to do that aren't too overwhelming for you." It is important to phrase this in a way that does not place blame, as your partner may feel guilty for making you feel this way.

Talking about your feelings can help shed some light on what is actually going on. You may find that your partner does not realize he/she is making you feel this way. Not only will talking about it calm your nerves and confusion, but it will also help your partner understand your position better. On the other hand, make sure you also communicate about what is going well and mention when you are feeling positive emotion!

3) Encourage your partner to think about how he/she is feeling.

It can be hard to differentiate between feelings of depression, which are tied to an event or occurrence (i.e., situational depression), and feelings that correspond to a clinical depression, such as feelings of worthlessness or sadness without a clear cause. For example, the loss of a loved one can cause someone to feel incredible sadness and can sometimes trigger a situational depression. It is important for individuals who are experiencing depression to understand why they are feeling how they are – whether or not there is a particular reason - so they can take the steps required to heal (e.g., speaking to someone about their loss, joining a support group, seeking a counsellor, finding the appropriate medication, spending time with family). You can help with this by asking the right questions and encouraging your partner to talk about his/her feelings!

4) Be honest.

Honesty is a big part of all healthy relationships. Conveying bad news can be tough when dating someone with depression. Still, it is important to do so, as it can hurt your partner to learn that you did not share something of importance with him/her. Communicating the bad news calmly, and at the right time, can help. Warning your partner that you have some bad news, but that all will still be okay, can also help. You can also ask your partner when he/she is ready to hear this news. This will give him/her some control. For example, you can say something like the following: “Hey, I have some slightly bad news. It’s not terrible, and everything will be okay. Is this a good time to tell you about it? If not, please let me know when you are ready to hear this news, and we can talk about it then.”

5) Take care of yourself!

It is possible to experience secondary trauma when hearing of others’ experiences. One study looked at couples in which at least one partner had a history of childhood abuse and found that couples with a history of abuse had higher individual stress symptoms. Another study found an association between secondary trauma – trauma originally experienced by close friends/family - and adolescents’ mental and behavioural outcomes. These findings suggest that individuals are susceptible to experiencing secondary trauma by learning about the traumatic experience of loved ones. As such, hearing about your partner’s depressive symptoms or experiences that triggered depression can become burdening.

If you find yourself experiencing symptoms in line with secondary trauma, it is important to seek help and take care of yourself. This may mean taking a step back from helping your partner until you are able to first help yourself. In this case, communication with your partner is key! Remember that all relationships have their ups and downs, including relationships in which one or more partners struggle with mental illness. It is important to remember that patience, understanding, and acceptance can pave the path to a healthy relationship for most couples, just as long as you remember to take care of yourself as well!