Depression is hard enough to cope with when it's your own, but what if it's your spouse or partner who is suffering? This can complicate a relationship and place strain on both of you -- but there are ways of coping. Anne Sheffield is the author of several books about depression, including Depression Fallout: The Impact of Depression on Couples and What You Can Do to Preserve the Bond (HarperCollins, 2003). Here, she provides some helpful tips for maintaining a strong relationship in the face of depression.
1. Bring it up, carefully
If you suspect your spouse or partner is depressed, take care when broaching the subject. Most likely you have noticed some uncharacteristic behaviour, but don't be accusatory, Sheffield says. It's best to be as straightforward as possible when bringing up the possibility of depression. "Overcoming denial is the first big hurdle for the depressed individual," she says. So, remaining composed and impartial is the best way to begin a discussion with your partner.
2. Don't take it personally
Someone who is depressed can show many mood swings, from anger and frustration to sadness and lethargy. He or she may even lash out at loved ones depending on how they feel, but try not to take it personally. Granted, this is extremely difficult, but it's important to realize depression makes people irrational, Sheffield says. "Often, depression can look like a personality change. It distorts thinking and causes people to say things they may not mean," she says. Try to take this into consideration when you get angry at the way your spouse or partner is acting or when you're upset with what he or she has said.
3. Establish boundaries
When depression is present, boundaries must be set in the household, says Sheffield. This helps both partners go about their daily lives with as much normalcy as possible. These can include things like making sure each person gets to air his or her concerns or worries at least once a week without being judged, no arguing before bed, or no fighting in front of the children.
4. Keep lines of communication open
If your spouse or partner suffers from depression, you must continue to communicate as a couple. "Don't let depression be the elephant in the room," Sheffield says. There should be a team approach so the non-depressed person can help his or her spouse every step of the way through treatment. A full, engaged dialogue is required to keep the relationship intact and the bond strong, Sheffield explains. After all, you have a totally different perspective on their depression than they do. You may be better able to notice if and when they need a different dosage of antidepressants or be aware of any other significant changes that should be discussed concerning treatment. Doing so can greatly help both of you, Sheffield says. "Both of you have to make an effort and deal with it as you would any other problem in your relationship."
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5. Avoid arguments
Sheffield suggests trying not to get into arguments with a depressed individual. You may think you are speaking to a rational person, but they are not thinking rationally, she says, so the argument may not be based on reason. If you can sense a dispute starting, exit as gracefully as possible to save yourself unnecessary strain.
6. Talk about sex
Depression greatly diminishes your sense of pleasure -- sex included, Sheffield explains. Low or no sex drive often accompanies depression, and you absolutely have to talk about it, she stresses. Don't be embarrassed by this, because it's a very common problem. Talk to your doctor about what options there are for alleviating the situation and getting your sex life back on track.
7. Be a little bit selfish
Being with a depressed person puts you on the fast track to loss of self-esteem, Sheffield says. Don't allow your life to revolve around your spouse, or depression to rule your life. Go out, see your friends and maintain a life outside that of your relationship.
8. Whatever you do well, do it often
If you're good at your job and love it, spend more time there, take lessons or take a course, Sheffield suggests. You can lose your sense of self when consumed by your spouse, but by either spending more time doing what you're good at, or finding a new activity you love, you can reinforce your independence, she says.
9. Prepare for the holidays
The holidays are a tough time for many of us, whether or not there is a spouse battling depression in the picture. There are family dinners to contend with, financial strain, extra chores and added stress. There is also pressure on a depressed person to act happy around family, Sheffield says. But if you are both aware of this added pressure you can work together to make it as easy as possible, she explains. For example, allow your spouse some downtime if there are any holiday functions he or she doesn't need to attend, or agree beforehand to leave early.
10. Know when to step back
Remember, you can't save someone from depression if they don't want to be saved. You can say and do all the right things, but if your spouse isn't ready to help him or herself, none of that will matter, Sheffield says. At some point you may need to step back and admit you've done everything you can until your partner is ready to make steps on his or her own.
Is someone you know depressed? Read the 12 things you should know about depression.
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