How to Deal with a Depressed Spouse

If you think your partner may be depressed, your first step is to pay attention to the clues to get the right diagnosis and treatment. Here's what to look for and how to take action.

By Sarì Harrar and Rita DeMaria | Ph.D. from The 7 Stages of Marriage

after the honeymoon advice, couple talkingFind a mental-health counselor for the two of you. Depression affects both of you—and your whole family. The Lowes suggest finding a therapist or counselor who has worked with depression in couples. “You may have issues to deal with individually as the depressed person, and the two of you may have issues to deal with that stem from coping with depression,” Dennis Lowe says. “We found it very helpful to have a counselor we could see together at times and separately at other times.”

Keep on learning about depression. Read books, check out websites, ask your doctor about advances in treatment and understanding of this illness. The more you know, the better you can cope and fight.

Be alert for relapses. About half of all people who suffer a bout of major depression will have a relapse; 75 percent of those will have another relapse; and 90 percent of those will have yet another. Once a first episode passes, many doctors prescribe a maintenance dose of antidepressants to prevent a relapse. Both spouses should also stay alert for signs that the illness is returning.

Caring for a depressed spouse can be lonely, overwhelming, and emotionally draining. You may blame yourself, feel helpless, grow pessimistic, lose your sense of humor, and even consider leaving. It’s easy for the nondepressed spouse to become angry and frustrated with an irritable, lethargic mate who’s pessimistic and critical, who can’t unload the dishwasher or get the kids ready for bed anymore—let alone make love, ask how you’re doing, or acknowledge that you’ve been holding things together for weeks, months, or years.

“This starts a cycle that burns you out and doesn’t help your partner at all,” Emily Scott-Lowe notes. “I did this with Dennis—I would become extremely angry with him. Then I would feel really guilty and try to make up for it by taking on more and more around the house. Then I would get angry all over again. This wasn’t helping Dennis, of course, and it was wearing me out emotionally and physically.”

These steps can help the nondepressed spouse stay well—and protect your marriage and your family while helping a depressed partner.

Admit that you cannot cure your partner’s depression. Your spouse needs your love, support, and concern. But these important qualities can’t reverse depression any more than they can control blood sugar, ease arthritis pain, or clear out clogged arteries. Just as you wouldn’t rely on love alone to cure a medical condition—or withdraw love because it didn’t—don’t expect that your feelings or attention will be able to alter your spouse’s off-kilter brain chemistry. Use your love to get help and to remind your partner of his or her intrinsic worth during this challenging time.

See depression as an intruder in your marriage. Like any other illness, depression is an outside force—an unwelcome visitor wreaking havoc with your spouse’s health, your marriage, and your home life. Seeing it this way can allow both of you to talk about its effects without blame or shame. “Once we started talking about it as a third party—as ‘the depression’—we could express our frustrations constructively,” Emily Scott-Lowe says. “If Dennis was really doubting his worth, I could say, ‘That’s just the depression talking. It’s not you. When you’re not depressed, you don’t think this way. It’s feeding you lies.’”

This shift in thinking can clear the air. “It was a relief for me,” Dennis Lowe says. “I felt Emily was walking on eggshells sometimes, not wanting to tell me how she was feeling. Depression was the elephant in the room that no one wanted to talk about, and I felt even guiltier. Seeing it as the intruder was an accurate perspective. It helped me see why I felt the way I did and let me accept reassurance because it acknowledges what’s going on instead of denying it.”

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