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A reader writes:

I’m not sure how you feel about being solicited for advice, but your article about depression and relationships spoke to me. I’ve been endlessly searching the net for positive stories about dealing with a partner’s depression that don’t automatically assume that the depressed partner has refused treatment and the non-depressed partner is trying to exit the relationship with minimal fall-out. I was looking for ways that we can cope together and move forward… 

My partner is actually active about treatment for his moderate depression although he has had some heart-wrenching episodes since we’ve been together. I was wondering if, in your experience, you have counseled couples whom appear to deal with it together and manage a successful (and happy) relationship. I’ve read countless messages in a row that all end in divorce due to burn-out from a depressed spouse and I’m trying to convince myself that these are the people who have refused treatment. I know staying together takes work in any mental frame of mind, but do the statistics for success in a relationship involving depression remain the same with or without treatment?

Sorry, I’m not even clear in my own mind on what I’m asking, but I guess I’m just looking for hope, and I haven’t found much online. 

I’m very glad to hear that your partner is getting help for his depression.  I’ve worked with individuals and couples who have kept relationships functional through long periods of depression or other sorts of emotional distress.  I think people have different ways of connecting and different ideas about what works for them and what doesn’t when it comes to relationships.

Some forms of depression are long-term or treatment-resistant.  In those cases, the depression becomes like the wallpaper or background music in the relationship – something that is understood, endured and coped with – rather than a crisis that seems like a catastrophe.

Addressing this requires a bit of unconventional thinking.  Here are some suggestions:

  • What are the strengths of your relationship?  Identifying strengths and nourishing them is important.
  • Talking frankly with your partner is important.  What does he need?  What do you need?
  • An under-appreciated relationship skill is that we all need to act differently from how we feel at times.  Can you listen and be kind to him, even when he’s working your last nerve?  Can he agree to do something that’s fun for you, even if he doesn’t have the energy for it?
  • The non-depressed partner in a relationship like yours needs support.  Not the sort of support that says “you are such a martyr” or that subtly undermines the relationship, but the support that encourages you to take care of yourself.  Tend to friendships.  Get enough rest and exercise.  Eat well.

I guess the other thing I’d want to say is simply, it is OK to be in a relationship that is imperfect.  Most relationships are flawed in one way or another.  If you‘ve made a decision that this one works for you then that is what’s important.  The challenge then is for each of you to take care of yourselves and to realize that your relationship is just one of those that takes more work than some others.