As a 20-year-old newlywed, I felt irrationally confident about my marriage expertise. Seeking to impart some of that wisdom on my surely receptive Facebook friends, I posted the quote, “Love is when another person’s happiness is more important than your own.”
Young and still in the honeymoon period, that seemed accurate. A more experienced friend responded that wasn’t a good mentality. Although the words of caution gave me something to think about, they didn’t make sense at the time. I hadn’t yet learned how to separate my mood from my partner’s or why that was an important skill.
Besides, that quote was easy for me to post: Although I struggled with depression, I only knew my partner to be cheerful. Saying I wanted him to be happy was like saying I wanted him to have blonde hair or be a hard worker. As far as I knew, it was just one of his unwavering traits. Then, a couple of years into our marriage, my husband began to experience depression. Suddenly I found myself on the other side, trying to support him while maintaining my own mental wellbeing. It was then I understood what that Facebook friend tried to tell me: Tying your happiness entirely up with another person’s is dangerous.
Thankfully, there are ways to manage when two partners struggle with depression, marriage and family therapist Jessica Wade assured me. “It doesn’t have to drag you both down when only one of you is experiencing an episode,” she said. “Remember that your partner’s ailment is not yours.”
Other professionals I spoke with shared some practical tips for coping when a couple battles depression.
Like most spouses, my husband is my most valued confidant. When one of us is struggling with depression, though, the reality is those heavy emotions can weigh down the other person. In those instances, licensed marriage and family therapist Lisa Bahar said it helps to have separate support systems. That autonomy, she explained, “Serves as a ‘harm reduction’ plan, due to the high potential of one spouse’s depression activating the other spouse’s depression.” She suggested thinking of three people you can turn to when depressed and then giving that list to your partner so he or she can facilitate contact if necessary.
I know when I’m depressed, my instinct is to shut down. That’s a mistake, marriage and family therapist Vonda Schaefer told me. “Don’t give into that call to isolate and withdraw from your spouse,” she said. “Not only will your depression worsen, but your marriage will be weakened.” Even if you aren’t feeling up for deep conversation, Schaefer said to find small ways to stay engaged. She suggested planning healthy meals together—a win-win scenario because nutritious foods can help shorten the duration of a depressed period and “sharing the load of life” reminds us that we aren’t alone.
Before reaching a crisis point, Wade recommends reaching an agreement about goals—down to the specifics of when to get out of bed or how much television to watch. Then put that written daily routine someplace readily visible so you can both remain accountable. Sure, keeping the house clean is nice, but the main goal of this is for the note to serve as a “written reminder to keep living.”
Wade said many of her clients who struggle with depression “focus on a caged and stuck perception,” which prevents them from experiencing life—and their relationships—to the fullest. In these instances, Wade commonly recommends meditation, prayer, or starting a gratitude journal. This, she explained, “Can be helpful to moving a person’s focus from the problem, depression, and back to living his or her life.”
When my husband struggled with depression, my instinct was to throw myself into the situation and do whatever it took to make him feel better. As difficult as it may be, Wade said it’s essential to maintain your own hobbies and interests. The cost of neglecting those may be a recurrence of depression in you—and it won’t help your partner, either.
Now that I know this, I see red flags all over the quote I’d posted on Facebook. Yes, I want my partner to be happy, but I also know I’m most able to help him when I’m taking the time to help myself.
The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.