What to Do When Your Spouse Is Depressed
How do you know if your spouse is depressed, and what can you do to help them? There are some healthy ways to encourage your partner to seek therapy, open up about their emotions, and address their symptoms, said Susan Bernstein, executive coach and leadership consultant with her own firm in San Diego, CA.
Signs Your Spouse Is Depressed
Rabbi Misha L. Ben-David, a life coach and pastoral counselor at Neshama Counseling and Coaching in Austin, TX, agreed that spouses can help a loved one deal with depression, if depressed symptoms are present. Look for signs such as sudden changes in everyday habits or behaviors, including if they’re eating or drinking differently, or experiencing a more-sullen attitude, or isolating themselves. “A depressed spouse may want to avoid contact with you, or throw themselves into solo activities or hobbies, or even engage in compulsive behaviors, such as buying cars or spending lots of money,” Ben-David said.
Bernstein encourages spouses to look for other signs as well, including if their partner starts to:
- Cry or seem very angry often
- Lack energy or interest in activities
- Lose concentration or focus
- Sleep more often or very little
- Drink more alcohol than in the past or use drugs
- Lose interest in sex
If your depressed spouse withdraws from you or has angry outbursts all the time, it’s easy to feel hurt and alienated, and react with similar behaviors, said Jacques Barber, Dean of the Gordon F. Derner School of Psychology at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. “Don’t do that,” he said, “as it can create a vicious circle, making the spouse with depression even more depressed, estranged, and angry, retreating into themselves.”
“You have to realize that dealing with depression is very difficult, and your partner isn’t doing something malicious,” said Ben-David. “It’s the depression.”
Barber added: “If someone’s angry with you all the time, you want to be angry back! But remember: Depression isn’t contagious. This won’t last forever, and can be treated. It’s easy to blame yourself. But most couples do survive this.”
If your loved one isn’t responding to you, should you schedule an intervention with friends and family members, approaching your depressed spouse about their issues? Ben-David said to be careful before taking this step.
“It’s important not to be accusatory,” he said. “It’s more important to observe and let them know what you’ve noticed. Say, ‘I’ve seen you looking more sullen and unhappy.’ Talk about the changes you’ve observed.”
If you’re looking for helps with depression, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.
The Depressed Spouse Might Deny the Problem
A depressed spouse may deny they have any problems. So, don’t be surprised if they reject your attempts to help them.
“Many people with depression, or other mental health issues, don’t want to be ‘fixed,’” Ben-David said. “They may just want to be heard. If in the process of listening to your partner, if you hear things that are too hurtful for you to handle, turn to a professional for help.”
Barber’s advice is for the spouse to encourage their loved one to get a diagnosis from a mental health professional. Start with talk therapy and, if needed, consider prescription medication.
“Make an appointment with a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or family doctor for a diagnosis, and begin therapy,” Bernstein said. “Psychotherapy plus medication has shown to work better for depression than just medication alone. Medication without talking is not going to help.”
While the combination of medicine and counseling provides the best one-two punch against depressive symptoms, this strategy isn’t foolproof. “Some people may go on one medication for depression, and it doesn’t work, or they go to therapy and it doesn’t work for them,” Ben-David said. “You have to be persistent . . . it’s also imperative to stay positive and get active.”
What If Your Loved One Refuses Therapy?
Staying upbeat and getting out and doing things is easier said than done because often a depressed person feels the opposite: negative, lacking the energy and desire to do much of anything, including seeking therapy or being open to taking medication. What do you do then?
“Don’t feel hopeless,” Barber said. “Try to stay positive yourself. Depression often is treatable, so if you can convince them to stick with therapy and medication for a few months, up to 90% of people with depression do improve with treatment.”
Even if they reject professional help, give them affection. Be encouraging. Invite them to do activities together that are fun, such as take a walk or go to the beach if there’s one nearby. Or, go to an outdoor concert or listen to music that you both enjoy.
“One behavior that I sometimes prescribe for couples is to read to each other,” said Ben-David. “This has a nurturing quality, and can help with bonding.”
Don’t Forget Your Own Mental Health
Meanwhile, take care of yourself. It’s imperative while you help your depressed spouse. You might even choose to start therapy yourself, expressing how you feel about your marriage, and find ways to cope.
Here are some tips to help you stay emotionally and physically healthy:
- Get enough sleep
- Exercise regularly
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet
- Check out self-help books for partners of depressed spouses
“Don’t view your spouse’s depression as a negative reflection on your worth as a partner or person,” Ben-David said.
“This can feel very personal to you,” said Bernstein. “You may feel like you have to take responsibility for it. It’s important to involve a mental health professional if you blame yourself for your spouse’s depression. Sometimes, both people in a couple can become depressed. There may be multiple issues that you both need to deal with.”
If you’re looking for help with depression, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.