Is Depression Affecting Your Relationship? 8 Ways to Tell
Depression can be one of the biggest challenges in a relationship—and one that you may be able to conquer together to bring you closer, say experts.
How depression affects relationships
Roughly one in five adults in the U.S. had symptoms of depression, ranging from mild to severe, in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But that figure doesn’t begin to address how many people are ultimately affected by depression—something anyone who’s in a relationship with a depressed person knows all too well.
Depression can be challenging on relationships for a number of reasons, says Susan J. Noonan, MD, a Boston-based physician and author of Helping Others With Depression: Words to Say, Things to Do. If you’re the caregiving partner, you have to adjust to changes in your daily routine and family life, she explains.
“Each partner might start assuming different roles in the relationship, so the healthy person is taking on more responsibility for the household, the family, the relationship, and the finances,” adds Dr. Noonan. “They can get fatigued and actually come to resent being put in that position. They might feel a loss and a sense of isolation because the affected person’s not available to them as they were in the past. And there could be intimacy and sexual difficulties, as well.”
Just remember that your partner’s depression isn’t a choice, says Jennifer Teplin, licensed clinical social worker, therapist, and the clinical director of Manhattan Wellness in New York City. (Here’s how to tell if you’re depressed.)
“Sometimes people misunderstand depression as a choice or someone losing interest in something as a preference,” she says. “Remind yourself that if your partner could show up as they originally did, they would. That infuses everything with empathy and understanding.”
How to deal with relationship depression
Here are eight signs depression might be affecting your relationship, along with tips on how to deal in ways that are helpful and healthy for you and your partner. (Also, beware of the signs of high-functioning depression.)
Their behavior has changed
You realize the love of your life has changed their behavior, but your partner just seems grouchy or touchy, especially if you ask what’s wrong. Or they just seem to be drinking a lot, or asking to be left alone and withdrawing.
“A lot of times people don’t have the language or they just don’t know that a particular symptom they’re feeling is actually a specific symptom for depression,” says Dr. Noonan. “And some things can be pretty subtle. Usually, the affected person is the last one to know that they’re having symptoms.”
Some tip-offs: Irritability, fatigue, constant worrying, lack of interest in activities that used to interest your partner (say, reading or going biking), trouble sleeping, or a loss of appetite, says Dr. Noonan. Look for “a general sense of change in the person, a change in their baseline self…and it’s been going on for at least two weeks or longer.”
(Here are the medical reasons for a bad mood.)
How to deal
This can be a touchy topic, so you want to tread lightly. “Pick a time when the other person does not seem to be particularly distressed or irritable. And then in a calm, nonjudgmental, and uncritical manner, gently state what you observe to be different about your partner,” advises Dr. Noonan.
For example, she says, you could broach the topic this way: “I’ve noticed you’re way more tired than usual and you want to sleep in on the weekends. You’ve also stopped going to your book club. Is something going on? I’m here to talk if you feel like it. Or maybe it’s time to check in with [insert the name of their primary care provider here].”
(Here are everyday habits that contribute to depression risk.)
They don’t want to get treatment
The first steps after your partner has acknowledged that, yes, they’re not feeling like themselves is to get them properly diagnosed and treated, says Rachel A. Sussman, a psychotherapist and relationship expert in New York City and the author of The Breakup Bible: The Smart Women’s Guide to Healing from a Breakup or Divorce. It’s also important to let your partner know they are supported, and encourage them to get help. Eventually, you may have an idea of how it’s treated and what recovery might look like. “Then you can have some empathy and be able to cope better with your depressed partner,” she says.
But what if your partner refuses to seek help or thinks they can get over it by themself? After all, unless they’re a danger to themselves or others, you can’t force them to get treatment.
How to deal
“You could motivate them,” advises Sussman. “Say, ‘Think how great you might feel after you get treated. You don’t seem the same and you don’t seem happy, so if there’s something out there for you to get better and to feel happy again, I’ll help you. I’ll make the appointment and go to the doctor with you.’ ”
You could also try to uncover the reasons why your significant other is refusing to seek treatment, says Dr. Noonan, since they could range from the financial (“It costs too much and insurance won’t cover it”) to a fear of medications (“I’ll turn into a zombie”) or anxiety over the stigma if someone finds out. “Once you know those concerns, then both you and the primary care doctor can address” them, she adds.
You can also mention the things they want to accomplish, but can’t do right now because the depression is getting in the way—like a project or a exercising. “Lean on their stated goals and interests, and try and get their interest generated that way,” she says.
They’re not interested in doing things with you
It’s very common for depressed people to isolate and withdraw, says Dr. Noonan. That leaves you with two choices: You either nag your significant other to join you, making her feel guiltier in the process when she can’t. Or you stop doing the things you loved to do together and feel resentful. Either way, you both end up feeling worse, say experts.
How to deal
“Find out what feels doable for your partner,” says Teplin. “It may be a more modified version of what you used to do.” For example, if rock climbing was your activity of choice, maybe you can both go on a short hike nearby. (These are the benefits of hiking.)
“If your partner doesn’t feel up for it, there’s anything wrong with you continuing to go rock climbing on your own,” she says. “It’s when we stop doing something that we love that our partner no longer does, that resentment builds up.”
Continue to draw your partner out by including them in your normal everyday activities, whether it’s errands or interacting with your child. “They don’t have to go to the whole thing; they can go to part of it,” says Dr. Noonan. As for activities, she advises, make them short and specific: a 15-minute bike ride or walking the dog around the block. Set the expectation that your partner will join you for evening meals.
“There’s a phrase called ‘action precedes motivation,’ which I love and is my mantra,” says Dr. Noonan. Translation: “Don’t wait until you feel like doing anything to get started,” she explains. Just go on the walk, for instance, and “the motivation for doing it will follow. It might take a few times around the block, but it will follow.”
They don’t want to socialize with friends
The same is true for social activities (even if they are virtual), which your partner is probably cutting back on, too. Again, you may feel that your choices are limited to guilting your partner into participating or brooding about it.
How to deal
Discuss this with your partner, says Sussman. You can say, ‘You seem to be cutting back on social activities. How would you feel if I participated?’ (Here’s how friends can help you cope and fight stress.)
And when you do engage with others on your own, don’t feel you have to make excuses. But do respect your partner’s privacy if she doesn’t feel like sharing what she’s going through with others. Just tell people that your partner isn’t feeling up to social interaction and leave it at that, advises Dr. Noonan.
“Don’t respond to any other follow-up questions,” she adds. “People might ask if your partner is all right. Just say, ‘Yes.’ ”
They can’t tell you how to help
People with depression already feel bad for having the illness, even though it is a stigma. So your significant other may be less likely to request anything of you because they already feel responsible for not showing up the way they want to, says Teplin. That can leave you feeling frustrated because you want to help, but the lack of feedback makes it difficult.
How to deal
Start with an open-ended question on what your partner would find helpful. If, for instance, your beau can’t come up with ideas, then get creative and brainstorm a list of things he might find useful. “Think of it like a buffet for someone to choose from, rather than leaving this really empty space of, ‘Oh, let me know what I can do,’ ” says Teplin.
Conveying the message of what—specifically—you are comfortable doing helps your partner feel more supported and more willing to accept the offer, she adds.
Your partner doesn’t have energy to do the chores
“Inertia and fatigue are part of depression, particularly if it’s household chores which nobody likes doing so much anyway,” says Dr. Noonan.
Shopping for food, staying on top of bills, or doing laundry may all seem easy enough tasks. But, when you’re in low spirits, any one of them can be absolutely draining, adds Teplin. The trouble is you’re picking up the slack and, understandably, resentful that you’re being stuck with even more responsibilities.
How to deal
People with depression want to be treated normally, so the best thing to do is treat them that way, Dr. Noonan says.
“Set up expectations that your partner will do X, Y, or Z,” she suggests. “Maybe not quite as much as they had done in the past, and maybe in a modified form, but set expectations that, ‘Yes, you will clear your dishes from the table, you will take the trash out at the end of the day, or read to the kids at night,’ whatever it happens to be. Set up an expectation and hold them to it without being too rigid.”
You should talk to your partner about what you’re capable of doing, suggests Dr. Noonan. “And then just say to the other person specifically what you can and cannot do. Make it understood that it’s not because you don’t want to or that you don’t love or care for them or aren’t concerned about their current struggles,” she says.
Your “me time” shrinks
You may be the one who’s now doing the bulk of the laundry, cooking, and grocery shopping after work. And you may also be taking your partner to the doctor or coordinating care for the kids. All of this whittles away at your personal time, says Dr. Noonan. Besides, you may be cutting back on activities you loved because you feel bad about leaving your partner alone—and that can take a toll on your mental health.
(Here’s how to find more “me time” for self-care.)
How to deal
“You have to make yourself a priority first,” says Dr. Noonan. If you’re not in your best shape, you’re not going to be able to help your partner. So make self-care a part of your day, she advises. And don’t feel guilty for working out or keeping up with your hobbies.
Then make sure your partner understands that just because you’re making time for yourself, you’re not avoiding or abandoning them—in fact, you’re doing the opposite, which is keeping yourself strong so you can help them, Dr. Noonan suggests.
Also, touch base with your friends, says Teplin. “You don’t necessarily have to disclose what’s going on to have someone understand what you need,” she says. “You could just say, ‘I’ve been feeling really lonely lately. Everything’s fine at home, but I’d love if we could touch base more.’ There are really easy ways to get the support that we need.”
(These are the signs you’re not taking care of yourself.)
Your partner can’t reciprocate
“Some people who experience depression often have trouble reciprocating in a relationship,” says Dr. Noonan. Depression can also make people irritable, so while you’re trying to be supportive and compassionate, your partner is saying you don’t understand or you don’t know what you’re doing and aren’t being helpful.
“That can make the healthy person feel guilty, then angry, then guilty for feeling angry,” says Dr. Noonan. “You’re offering love and empathy, but you feel empty because you’re not getting that same love and compassion in return. So then it’s hard to keep on giving.”
How to deal
This may be the time for you to head to therapy or at least find a support group for family members, say experts. “Support groups can help you get through something like this with suggestions on what worked for them when the relationship became difficult,” says Dr. Noonan.
It may be time for a hard reset, says Teplin. “If you’re finding it frustrating, allow yourself to have that feeling, then remind yourself that your partner is doing their best,” she says.
Should you both head to couples therapy? Probably not, says Teplin. “It would be really hard to go into couples therapy and have the entire focus just be about the depressed partner. That would, honestly, probably depress me more than I already was.”
Instead, try to get your partner to see an individual therapist. Then, with your partner’s permission, have a session or two together so you can learn firsthand how your partner is doing (and maybe pick up a few tips), say experts. If the individual therapy uncovers larger issues in the relationship, then that would be the time to head to a couples therapist, Teplin notes.
(See what marriage counseling can do for your relationship.)
Giving your partner an ultimatum
If your partner refuses to seek outside help and isn’t making a good faith effort to keep up with their family or household responsibilities, or is self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, you may want to suggest a relationship break, says Sussman.
“Sometimes it gives the person the kick in the (butt) they need. If you’ve tried everything as a partner and nothing’s working, how about your own mental health?”
Dr. Noonan agrees, although she calls it a last resort after every option has been exhausted, including sitting with your partner and having an honest heart-to-heart.
“Explain how you feel, how his or her illness has affected you, and realistically what you can and cannot do to help,” she advises. But if your partner still refuses to seek help, stick with treatment, or keep up with family and household obligations, then it may be too much to expect you to pick up the slack—and stick with the relationship.
Next, learn about healthy vs. unhealthy relationships.
- Susan J. Noonan, MD, physician and certified peer specialist, Boston
- Rachel A. Sussman, LCSW, licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert, New York, New York
- Jennifer Teplin, LCSW, a therapist and the clinical director of Manhattan Wellness, New York, New York
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Symptoms of Depression Among Adults: United States, 2019"
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: "Spouses and Children of U.S. Military Personnel: Substance Use and Mental Health Profile from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health"