Understanding Someone with Depression – Three Common Behaviors

Wheat Field Behind Saint Paul Hospital with a ReaperI’ve been on both sides of the depression fence. I’ve suffered from clinical depression for more than forty years. And although I haven’t had any family members with depression, I have had friends who were depressed and have been in relationships with men who have depression.

I’ve written about what it feels like to be depressed. What does it look like from the other side? You probably know if you’re dealing with someone who’s depressed. It may be your spouse, parent, child, sibling, employee, roommate or romantic partner. Unless you have personal experience with depression, you’re probably baffled, frustrated, and possibly hurt and angry. Even if you have suffered from depression, you still might be baffled. Your experience with depression, while probably fundamentally similar to this person’s, is going to vary to some extent.

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Worst Things to Say to Someone Who’s Depressed

Image: Night by Edward Robert Hughes
Night by Edward Robert Hughes

Some people trivialize depression (often unintentionally) by dropping a platitude on a depressed person as if that is the one thing they needed to hear. While some of these thoughts have been helpful to some people (for example, some find that praying is very helpful), the context in which they are often said mitigates any intended benefit to the hearer. Platitudes don’t cure depression.

Here is the list from contributors to a.s.d. (alt.support.depression):

0. “What’s *your* problem?”

1. “Will you stop that constant whining? What makes you think that anyone cares?”

2. “Have you gotten tired yet of all this me-me-me stuff?”

3. “You just need to give yourself a kick in the rear.”

4. “But it’s all in your mind.”

5. “I thought you were stronger than that.”

6. “No one ever said life was fair.”

7. “As you get stronger you won’t have to wallow in it as much.”

8. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

9. “Do you feel better now?”(Usually said following a five minute conversation in which the speaker has asked me “what’s wrong?” and “would you like to talk about it?” with the best of intentions, but absolutely no under-standing of depression as anything but an irrational sadness.)

10. “Why don’t you just grow up?”

11. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”

12. “There are a lot of people worse off than you?”

13. “You have it so good, why aren’t you happy?”

14. “It’s a beautiful day!”

15. “You have so many things to be thankful for, why are you depressed!”

16. “What do you have to be depressed about”.

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10 Tips for Staying Sane when Your Partner has Depression

Dolce Far Niente by John Singer Sargent

If you’re involved with someone who has depression, you’ve probably seen quite a few lists (including some that I’ve written) that tell you how to be supportive of your partner. And yes, these are a great idea, as the person who has depression is in hell, plain and simple. However, you have to think about yourself too. Having a partner who’s depressed can be frustrating and lonely. The person you look to for emotional support is, to a great extent, not there anymore.

I’ve been in two relationships with a partner who had depression. In one case, the guy denied he was depressed. The other man admitted he was depressed but refused to get help. I ended up walking away from both relationships. It was apparent that nothing was going to change, and I had to move on. If you are in a better position, with someone who is open to treatment, you may decide to give the situation some time. In the meantime, you have to protect your own mental health. Here are some suggestions to help keep your partner’s depression from becoming your own.

1.  Don’t take your partner’s behavior personally, and don’t take it to heart. If you’re partner’s rejecting you emotionally or sexually, or withdrawing, it’s not due to something you’ve done or not done. Being depressed is almost like being possessed. The depression is the one in the driver’s seat, and when you’re depressed, sad and angry, you tend to lash out at those people who love you. On the other hand, if your partner is saying or doing hurtful things, you have a right to insist that that behavior stop. You don’t need to be a punching bag.

2.  Educate yourself about depression – its causes, the different types, the symptoms, and of course its treatment. If this is the first time that either of you have had to deal with depression up close, this is really important. And it’s up to you, as the person who still has got it together, to do the research.

3.  Be realistic about how much you can help your partner. You cannot cure the depression. You can’t buy something, say something or do something that will make the depression go away. You can be supportive and understanding, which will be greatly appreciated at some point in the future when your partner recovers. But other than getting your partner to a doctor, there’s nothing that you can do to make this go away.

4.  Ask for help from family and friends. If your partner was physically ill, you probably wouldn’t hesitate to ask – and people wouldn’t hesitate to offer. When my husband had shoulder surgery, I got offers of help from family, friends and co-workers. But when your partner’s depressed, it may not occur to others (unless they’ve been in your shoes) that the situation is similar; that you are likely taking on a greater share of the chores and childcare.

5.  You’re your partner’s caregiver, especially if he or she is profoundly depressed. Caregivers need time off. You need to get away from the situation occasionally and do something just for yourself.

6.  Keep in mind that depression is “contagious.” That may sound silly, but it’s very common for family members of someone with depression to develop it themselves. Keep an eye out for any signs of depression in you or other family members, and hotfoot it to a doctor if it becomes apparent that treatment is called for.

7. Find a therapist – for you. Your partner should definitely be in therapy, and you might want to go to couples counseling jointly, but you need someone objective who is also on your side. The therapist can help you develop coping strategies, and also help you determine the answer to the question in the next tip.

8.  Decide what your “line in the sand” is. Are you staying with your partner no matter what? What if your partner refuses to get help? Bear in mind that this decision is for you alone. Using it as a threat or ultimatum with the depressed person (“If you don’t get treatment I’m leaving”) is not necessarily going to do anything.

9.  Take care of yourself physically. You need to eat well, get enough rest and exercise to get rid of stress.

10.  Read one of the books listed below. They contain practical strategies for maintaining your relationship and your sanity when you’re involved with someone who’s depressed.


When Someone You Love is Depressed: How to Help Your Loved One Without Losing Yourself by Laura Epstein Rosen, Ph.D. and Xavier Francisco Amador, Ph.D.
How to Live With a Mentally Ill Person: A Handbook of Day-to-Day Strategies by Christine Adamec
The Burden of Sympathy: How Families Cope with Mental Illness by David Karp

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