When you’re looking for love, dating can be daunting. Maybe you’re sifting through a series of enhanced or misleading photos on dating sites, setting up awkward coffee dates, sending flirtatious texts back and forth with people you cannot fathom marrying, saying yes to the potential hellishness of blind dates, or strolling through the poetry section of the bookstore just in case someone, anyone, interesting shows up… You started, perhaps, with hope, but hope fades.
And then one day it happens. You find someone who is a good fit, someone who feels “right,” a person with whom you can envision spending the rest of your life. Finally, the sifting process is over.
That’s what happened to one of my therapy clients I’ll call Cliff, a handsome 35-year-old bachelor who dated proactively, earnestly, and with great repeated disappointment, until he met Brian in his dentist’s waiting room. They went on several dates and steadily became more serious about each other. One night, Brian confessed to Cliff, “Before this gets any more serious, you need to understand that I have clinical depression. It’s important for you to learn more about that before we go any further.” Cliff was stumped. Brian seemed perfectly happy and fine, not depressed at all. But Cliff agreed to learn more about the subject. He was highly motivated to understand anything and everything about Brian. He was in love.
Cliff was seeing me because he wanted to improve in a few areas related to his career: goal setting, leadership, and procrastination. When he brought up this new issue, he seemed to want to dispense with the learning process as quickly as possible so that he could get back to that feeling of romance and happy discovery that a new relationship can bring.
Not so fast.
If you’re dating someone with depression, you’re far better off spending some time learning about it and not minimizing the situation.
Here are some common themes that come up in therapy when a client is dating someone with depression:
Perhaps your depressed partner is already on medication, and you want to believe that medication alone is a magical cure. It’s not. It helps, but it doesn’t always resolve the problem on its own.
If you have plans to do something fun, it can be frustrating to hear that your partner isn’t in the mood to expend the energy. He or she might not be in the mood for physical intimacy, either, and you might feel rejected or lonely.
1: Make room for nurturing your partner while also making sure your own needs get met. There might be times when you go out on your own socially or times when you shift gears and spend a quiet evening at home doing something restorative. Sex might not happen on your timeline, but that’s true in any relationship.
Partners have a tendency to make false attributions, thinking, “If I were more _______, he might feel happier,” or “If he loved me enough, he would be happy just to be with me,” etc. Blaming it on yourself or on your partner—doling out blame at all—is not helpful.
2: Try to think in terms of compassion, rather than blame. Remember that your partner didn’t ask to be depressed. Understand that warmth and kindness go a long way, even when those two things don’t appear to be making a dent in the depression.
Partners sometimes feel skeptical about the depression, for any number of reasons. Many clients report to me that they wonder how the depressed partner can seem so cheerful and alive around others and so sad and withdrawn at home. Watching your partner do a long-practiced, excellent job of faking it can wear on a relationship.
3: Empathy is the key. Imagine the energy it takes to wear a smile when you would rather cry, the effort your partner expends trying not to inflict his or her depression on the people around you, the emotional cost of sensing that people might not want to know how you really feel, especially when it interferes with their own pleasant experiences. Really consider the question, “What must it be like for this person I love?”
Partners often want to fast-forward through the depression, pressuring the depressed partner for assurance that things are fine. It’s important to remember that there is no shortcut. You can watch the mood cycles and work to understand them, but your irritation will not make the low mood disappear any faster.
4: Be willing to slow down and listen. Remove the pressure and apply the love. It helps, even when it seems like it doesn’t. It’s okay to be relentless, though—relentlessly loving, relentlessly focused on making sure your partner is willing to get treatment and stick with it.
If you’re dating someone with depression, you might feel tired or weary or even begin to become depressed yourself. Be aware of your own vulnerability to depression. Researchers at Notre Dame University conducted roommate studies with 100 freshmen in an attempt to determine whether depression has a “contagion effect.” What they found was that, indeed, “cognitive vulnerability to depression seems to be contagious. College students’ level of cognitive vulnerability, which has implications for developing depressive symptoms, is influenced by their roommates.” As with college roommates, the same is true for romantic partners. You might be passing your depression back and forth the same way you would a flu virus.
5: Strengthen your own emotional health and work on your emotional immunity. The more stable your own mood is, the better able you will be to support your depressed partner.
In short, compassion for your partner and self-care both go a long way toward keeping you and your relationship strong. If your partner is depressed and needs silence, rest, or distance, assess whether you might need those things, too. As long as your partner seeks treatment, works on healthy strategies, and is willing to take medication as prescribed, there is hope for the relationship. Love may not conquer all, but it makes a big difference.