When the flu strikes or a bone breaks, you know how to take care of your spouse. You visit the hospital, stock up on bandages, and apply ointments. You monitor recovery, taking temperatures or noting any serious changes.
With depression, no salve in the medicine cabinet offers relief. The pain can’t be wrapped up and tended to; the pain is in your spouse’s lack of interest or irritable words. It’s in unfinished chores you take on for yourself. It’s behind eyes that fail to register signs of hope.
Untreated depression can also spell trouble in your marriage. While struggling with an all-encompassing illness like depression, your spouse doesn’t have enough emotional energy to consistently engage in married life the way you both imagined. You could become depressed yourself.
So how can you help? It’s impossible to save your marriage, or your partner, on your own. What you can do is offer the steady support your partner needs to find the strength to rebuild.
Providing Support for a Spouse Suffering from Depression
· Know that depression is an illness.
Maybe your partner’s depression seemed to arrive out of nowhere. Maybe you understand why your partner began to feel depressed, but can’t figure out why it’s lasted this long.
Depression is like an autoimmune disease; the circuits and wires that help the brain or body function suddenly turn against themselves. Even though the damage that depression causes is in the mind, those who suffer from it neither invite nor control it.
Once you and your partner see depression as an illness, you can both identify that the problem isn’t your partner—it’s his depression that needs to be treated (light bulb moment!*).
· Encourage your partner to seek treatment.
The most important step you can take for your partner is to help him get his depression diagnosed and treated. Because there’s a lot of stigma surrounding depression, your partner could have a hard time talking about feelings he thinks others might not understand.
Because you love and care about your partner, you already have the most effective tools for talking about it. Let your partner know that you don’t like to see him suffer. Show that you’re not viewing his depression from a position of judgment; you just want to talk about practical options for getting better.
· Support your partner through treatment.
Consider offering to attend appointments and walk through treatment together. An action plan is an important part of healing, and you probably see that your partner needs help staying focused and motivated along the way.
Continue to be the good listener you are. They might not always want or be able to talk, so making yourself emotionally available is helpful. When they do want to talk, listen before interjecting. Your partner might be looking for advice, but they could also just be craving your support and validation.
· Practice patience.
No specific course of treatment for depression is universally effective. As a result, getting better often feels a lot like trial and error. Allow yourselves to celebrate progress when it happens.
Because your partner can’t get better overnight, sometimes the most helpful thing you can do is invite your partner on a walk, or grab breakfast at Aunt Mary’s Café in Oakland—small trips out of the house to help take their mind off the pain.
· Take care of yourself.
As much as you want to help, remember that you can’t live your spouse’s life, and you don’t have a quick-fix tool to make his pain disappear. Let yourself off the hook and go out for a night with friends. Exercise and eat well. You don’t have to sacrifice your own needs to support your partner, or feel guilty for even having needs—taking care of yourself is important for both of you.