My husband and I have been married now for eight years. It took six of those for me to realize that I wasn’t battling depression alone, but that, willing or not, he was in the trenches with me. Recently I sat down with him and asked him some pretty direct questions about how depression has affected our marriage, things he wishes we would have done differently, and things he has learned through this whole healing process.
To say I learned a lot would be an understatement. It turned out to be an amazing discussion that enabled me for me the first time to truly see the effect my mental health issues have had on him, as well as our marriage, and some ways that I could have prevented many of our marital problems earlier on.
I’ve taken the time to sit down and analyze our conversation combined with some of my more private insights and put together a how-to guide for those of you out there who love someone who suffers from depression, whether that be a spouse, a child, a friend, or even just a co-worker.
Don’t Take It Personally
When you love someone with depression, it is very easy to blame yourself. It’s even possible that they are blaming you. Perhaps your wife tells you they are miserable because you leave your dirty underwear on the floor or because you didn’t put your dishes in the sink. Maybe your child tells you they’re depressed because you didn’t purchase them a certain toy when they were four years old.
It’s easy to allow those comments to infiltrate your mind and cause you to say, “Wow. I’m such an awful person that I’ve made them feel this way.”
It’s easy to convince yourself that you have to do better to improve their mental health. You may make a huge effort to change your word choice, be more attentive, give them more space, or a host of other things. And you may find they just complain about something else.
It’s easy for these “failed attempts” to truly infiltrate your psyche and cause feelings of inadequacy and guilt.
When you love someone with mental illness, you have to find a way to view them as truly ill and to see that the illness is causing their sadness, not you.
Of course, I do have to put in a disclaimer here: You should still absolutely be the best person you can be and don’t blame everything on depression. I mean, come on now. If you stood her up for the third date in a row and she threatens to break up with you, feel free to blame yourself. But if you truly look at the situation and see complete overreactions or total apathy, let yourself off the hook.
Fill Their Love Tank
Have you heard the term “Love languages”? It comes from the book, The Five Love Languages, which happens to be one of my favorite books about relationships. The very beginning of the book talks about how everyone has a “love tank”. When it’s empty, they feel completely devoid of love. When it’s full they feel important, cared about, and truly appreciated.
Feeling loved is extremely important to someone who is depressed. They have an almost constant inner dialogue where their mind is saying, “No one loves you. No one can love you.” By making sure that person feels loved on a regular basis with a “full love tank,” you are equipping them with the ability to stand up against that negativity and to say, “No, Brain. You’re wrong. I am loved.”
I’m sure you’re saying, “Of course I love him/her!” And I am sure you do! But how do you show that love?
Dr. Gary Chapman, after years of research, came to the conclusion that nearly everyone feels loved in one of five ways: words of affirmation, physical touch, gifts, acts of service, or quality time.
You may be a wonderful husband! Perhaps you wake up every morning and bring your wife breakfast in bed. Maybe you rub her feet after a long day’s work, help with the dishes, and put away the laundry. Those are all awesome things and I am sure your wife appreciates them.
But guess what? If she feels loved by hearing words of affirmation, she truly doesn’t feel loved by your acts of service.
Think about a car with me for a moment: If you put transmission fluid in the gas tank, is that car going to drive very far? Probably not. Even though a car needs transmission fluid, filling the gas tank with the wrong thing isn’t a good idea.
Likewise, if you love someone with depression, you need to understand their love language so you can fill up their love tank with the right things as often as you possibly can.
Listen To Understand, Not To Respond
One of the biggest struggles a person with mental illness has is feeling misunderstood. Sometimes it can difficult for us to even understand ourselves. So if and when someone does open up to you, be patient with them. Don’t try to formulate a response while they’re talking. Just listen to them. Ask them questions. Encourage them to continue to talk. Make them feel that the conversation you are having with them is the most important thing in the world at that moment.
Trust Them To Know What They Need, And Let Them Have It
This is probably one of the hardest things to do, especially when you love someone. It’s easy to have an opinion and to think you know what is best for someone else, but in all honesty, a lot of people with depression already know what they need to do to get better, they’re just afraid to reach out and get it, or they think there is no one for them to achieve it.
If your teenager battling depression comes to you calmly, in the absence of chaos and says, “Mom, I think I need to get out of my school,” listen to them. Find out why. Is it a bullying issue? An academic problem? A scheduling problem? Whatever the reason, listen to understand and then brainstorm together.
How can they get out of that school? Could you afford private school? Is homeschooling an option? If changing schools is completely impossible, could you talk to someone to help them into another class? Don’t just spout off factual statements. Ask questions. For example, you might ask, “What do you think the best way to handle this would be?” Or “Would it help if we ______?”
Trust them to understand the problem in a way that you don’t, since you are not living in that situation and show them that you truly desire to help them get or achieve what they need.
Encourage Them To Get Help
Especially if the person with depression says, “I don’t think I can do this on my own,” accept that. Ask how you can help, or if they need someone else’s help. Ask if they want to go to a professional or even just a pastor.
If they want to see a therapist, encourage that. It’s okay to even offer to set up an appointment.
Don’t discourage them if they say they want to try medication or alternative medicine. Let them know that you are right behind them and that you are willing to do whatever it takes to get them the help they need.
That being said, of course, there is nothing at all wrong with saying, “Have you considered something different?” But in general, give the vibe that you love them and want to help them however you are able to do so.