By Rosemary Donahue
Around 5% of adults suffer from depression worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). But if you’re new to the concept and don’t experience it yourself, it might feel confusing or overwhelming when you first start dating someone with depression.
The good news is that there are things you can do to help you understand what depression is like for your partner, support them, and take care of yourself, too. We’ve talked to a few experts to get some tips.
First of all, don’t take it personally
One of the most important things to know is that your partner’s depression isn’t about you. Just like it’s not their fault, it’s also not yours, so it’s crucial to take deep breaths and try not to take things personally. “Dating someone with depression can be hard,” says marriage and family therapist Grace Martin. “You may feel like your partner’s happiness is your responsibility, or take it personally when they’re displaying symptoms.” Even if you’re a big part of their support system and do often bring them joy, don’t forget that you alone are not responsible for their happiness.
If you don’t have your own experiences with depression, it can be difficult to understand what your partner is going through. It’s okay to ask them about it as long as your questions come from a place of curiosity. Because depression can manifest differently in everyone, Martin suggests asking open-ended questions, like “What is your experience of depression?” or “What do you want me to know about the role of depression in your life?”
“I’d suggest asking the person directly, and without judgment, what depression looks like for them,” says psychotherapist Cheyenne Taylor. However, she points out that answering this kind of question might make a new partner feel vulnerable, so don’t take it personally if they’re not ready to speak with you about their depression yet. It may just take time. If they’re not ready to open up, simply pay attention to what they’re going through and affirm your support.
Though it’s instinctual to want to problem-solve when someone shares the pain they’re going through, it might not be helpful in this case. Reacting with potential solutions or trying to “fix” your partner’s depression can feel minimizing if they didn’t explicitly ask for that kind of response. “It can make your partner feel misunderstood and even ashamed,” says therapist Megan Watt. “They’re not a problem to be solved, nor are their problems solvable, which can be so difficult because it’s hard to see someone you care about in pain.”
Instead, when your partner shares what they’re going through, try to just listen rather than offering solutions. This will help you to provide a safe space where they can let their guard down, talk things through, and feel what they’re feeling, which is ultimately more helpful.
Yes, pain is relative, but it’s typically not helpful to tell someone with depression that what they’re going through “isn’t that bad.” Though you might be trying to be helpful by offering perspective, it often feels like judgment. Day-to-day, your partner’s depression may lead them to be less productive than usual, lose interest in their hobbies, or not want to go out for date night. It can be difficult, but rather than getting frustrated, try asking questions to understand their symptoms and what they’re going through, says Watt, which can help lead to a productive conversation.
Take care of yourself, too
If you feel overwhelmed by seeing your partner suffer or have reached the limit of your bandwidth, it isn’t your fault or your partner’s fault; it may just require you to communicate your own emotional capacity. “It’s easy to get caught up in what is happening in your partner’s life, but your first job is to take care of yourself,” says Watt. This is where a good self-care routine and remaining active in your own hobbies comes in on your end. If your partner needs more support than you can provide at the moment, maybe you can help them find resources or suggest someone else in your friend group who could be a listening ear while you take care of what you need to do.
You’re allowed to feel hard or even negative feelings about dating a person with depression, says Taylor. “It doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad partner,” she says. “Emotion exists on a full spectrum and you’re allowed to feel it all.” She recommends finding your own healthy outlets for stressors in your life, whether that be therapy, sharing your feelings with friends, or physical activity. The goal is to find a space in which you can process your feelings in a healthy way, so that you can then communicate them effectively with your partner when you’re ready, rather than in the heat of the moment.
Ultimately, though it can feel difficult at times, depression is quite common, and you can have a loving and healthy relationship with a partner who has depression. Like anything else, communication is key. For more resources, you can learn about depression from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), or take a class from Mental Health First Aid.