Joanne Newman doesn’t blame her husband’s depression for her marital issues. She blames herself.
“It’s me,” says the mom of two. “I basically have had to tell myself, ‘you love him, you married him… and this is the hand you’ve been dealt, so deal with it.’”
It’s not an unusual position to be in. Some 14.8 million adults deal with a major depressive disorder, and their illness often takes quite a toll on them as well as on their partners. A number of studies have even tied mental disorders such as depression to a heightened risk of divorce.
But like many people, Newman says she’s determined to make her 14-year marriage work. And it turns out there are some solid methods for divorce-proofing your marriage in the face of depression.
Know the signs.
Often the first person to spot a spouse’s depression is their husband or wife, says Jill Murray, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist. Seeing something and doing something about it is one key to helping your spouse get better while keeping your marriage healthy, too.
According to Murray, a true diagnosis of depression—rather than sadness, which everyone feels from time-to-time—is characterized by a two-week period of at least five of the following:
- A loss of interest or pleasure
- Changes in appetite or weight gain (that are not related to dieting)
- Insomnia or sleeping too much
- Feelings of restlessness or being slowed down
- Fatigue or a loss of energy
- Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
If you feel like you need to talk to your partner about getting help, wade in slowly. Like diabetes or cancer, depression is a disease. Attacking someone won’t fix their depression, and it can have a long-term negative impact on a relationship.
Murray suggests using some variation of this script: “I love you and our life together. I’ve been watching you suffer for a while, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. I want to help you and help our family, so I am going to make an appointment with our family doctor and I will go with you to the appointment. There is nothing for you to be ashamed of or any reason why you should feel weak. I know what a strong person you are and how well you fight things. I think you’ve done your best to fight this and now we need to seek professional help so that our family can enjoy each other again.”
If your spouse is resistant to seeking treatment, “keep in mind that your partner is not thinking clearly or well,” says Tina Tessina, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction. You might have better luck first suggesting a couples’ therapy session. Emphasize that you want to discuss your concerns with a professional and that it’s important for both of you to be present.
Be a partner, not a parent.
Managing depression is rarely as simple as taking a pain reliever for a headache. You will need to be as patient and supportive as possible during the treatment process, and it might not always be easy.
“Help your partner remember to take medicine, keep doctors appointments, and do whatever exercise, at-home procedures, or other self-care measures are necessary,” says Tessina. Whatever you do, Tessina says to be mindful that your spouse is still a grownup: “Make sure these things are still your partner’s responsibility. Both of you will feel better if you are supportive, not parental.”
Leave treatment to the experts.
Once a partner is in therapy or on medication, it’s important to let the professionals take the lead role. “Regular checkups with medical providers can be helpful, as those familiar with treating depression are able to inquire about symptoms in a nonjudgmental and more objective manner than a spouse often can,” says Courtney Johnson, PhD, a neuropsychologist at the Indiana University Health Neuroscience Center in Indianapolis.
Murray adds that spouses are sometimes tempted to “play doctor,” advising a partner to alter their medication or stop taking it altogether because they seem “better.” “The depressed person may be feeling better partially because they are on the medication that is giving needed chemicals to the brain,” she says.
Depression can take a toll on your sex life, so it may seem especially cruel that the medications designed to treat it often have sexual side effects. Recognizing it’s not your partner’s fault—and it’s not personal—can go a long way toward helping the relationship over the hurdle.
Tessina suggests finding as many ways as possible to let each other know you love one another. “Do whatever you can to keep your physical connection alive within the limits of the illness,” she says. “Have as much fun as you can, every chance you get. Make it a challenge to discover new ways to enjoy each other, and to relax and laugh together.”
That’s what has helped Joanne Newman and her husband. “We both had to learn that we had to listen to each other,” she says. “He has made me realize that you don’t need dinner out in a fancy restaurant to have a date, and he tells me how much he appreciates everything I do, which means a lot.”
Put yourself first once in a while.
When a spouse is struggling with depression, research has found that your own depression risk climbs. That’s why Johnson says self-care is important, perhaps more now than ever. It will help you maintain your own mental health and help prevent resentments from building up in your relationship.
Take time alone—even if it means asking a friend or family member to stay with your partner for a few hours. If your spouse isn’t up for driving himself to medical appointments, see if family or friends can shoulder some of the burden.
Most importantly, Tessina says, “Don’t feel bad about going off on your own from time to time. You need it!”
Meanwhile, make an effort to connect with others who really know what you’re going through, says Maggie May Ethridge, who wrote a memoir about her 15-year marriage to a man with bipolar disorder and depression. She says that joining a support group or even just reading a book written by someone who’s been in a similar situation may help you better understand the disease and the treatment process. These steps can also help you cope with “the inevitable feelings of anger and frustration” as they arise, she says.
Don’t give up.
While depression can certainly strain a marriage, it doesn’t have to destroy it. In fact, so long as the partner struggling with mental illness gets the right help, experts say that you may ultimately end up forging a deeper connection.
“If you can shift your thinking and realize that the illness is the enemy of your marriage, then you can develop more of a team approach and collectively decide how to jointly tackle the challenge. That will make you feel more connected and make it easier to withstand difficulties together.”