Knowing how to support your partner in struggles can be difficult. Through couples therapy, depression and anxiety can be faced as a team. Here are some ways that you can help support your partner that is struggling with depression and anxiety.
How to Identify a Partner Struggling with Depression
What are some things that you should be on the lookout for? First you need to pay attention to changes. For example if a person used to be very active and is now sleeping more, that can be worrisome.
Studies suggest that for some people, getting depressed is not going to be expressed as sadness but as anger. If your partner was not angry previously and now is getting more irritable and upset at things that were not bothering him or her before, this is another change to note.
Some people don’t want to face the emotional things or the emotional changes. And even for the person who is experiencing depression, they don’t want to realize, “I’m sad.”What they’re going to do is go to anger, which (for some) is an easier feeling to express and to show.
But one of the critical things often looked at in the clinical work is losing the interest for things that used to be interesting. For example if they love hiking, and then suddenly say, “Eh, I don’t want to go out. It’s too hot.” These excuses that can be a signal.
Any of those warning signs can happen in any part of our lives. What may indicate depression is the frequency and the intensity. You can have one bad day. You can have one irritable day. You can have a couple sad days because something happened to you but if these things are happening for more than two weeks in a consistent way, then that needs attention.
How to Identify a Partner Struggling with Anxiety
Identifying a partner struggling with anxiety can be difficult. While it's challenging to measure, most partners will notice a change.
Most partners will start to notice a disruption- their partner is feeling threatened even if it’s not true.
If you don’t have money in your account and you’re worried and concerned and you’re not sleeping well because you have to pay the bills, that’s not anxiety. It’s a situation where you’re stressed.
But if you cannot go to sleep at night thinking about the payments and the money and you have the money in the account, and you haven’t been struggling with finances for years, then that’s anxiety. It’s a fear about something that is not happening that would cause anticipatory anxiety.
Your partner will have symptoms as though a truck is coming to hit them at any moment. Our brain is brilliant but doesn’t know the difference between fantasy and reality.
Why Support is Important
This sounds like maybe a basic or obvious question – but why is it important for someone to support their partner? In a healthy relationship, you should be a team in every situation. So if one of the team members is not feeling well, the whole team is going to be affected.
It’s not easy for a partner to say, “Well, he’s anxious. That’s his business.” No. It’s going to affect how you wake up in the morning, how you deal with challenges in day-to-day situations, how you discipline the kids.
Anxiety is going to be there, and it’s going to impact the whole family system. You need to care because you’re in that system. You’re supporting because you want you and your family to be okay.
It’s not that you can take out the cup and say, “Well, I’m not a wife now. Go ahead and deal with your stuff.” It shouldn’t be like that. If that divide does exist, then it's time to check on your relationship in a meaningful way (we can help with that).
But in healthy relationships, it should be a team. Depression or anxiety has to be seen as a situation external to you that you're going to live with as a team. You’re going to go through this, and say “I’m with you in this one the same way you will be with me if I have a broken leg or diabetes.”
Defensiveness as a Partner
What about when you’re thinking, “I’m sick of this. Get out of bed!” It could be a lack of compassion, a lack of empathy. But also it can be a defensive stand.
There are some people who cannot deal with the issues they cannot control. If you see your partner crying and you don’t cry at all, you may not know what to do about that. You’re going to want them to stop.
The healthy way to deal with this is to talk to your partner. “I have noticed that maybe you are worried too much or not sleeping well. Can we talk about it?”
They may say, “Oh, no, no, I don’t want to talk about it.” But you can say then, “Well, I think we should talk about it because it’s affecting our relationship.” Now discuss how this is affecting your day-to-day life. Describe specific situations to your partner because as mentioned before, sometimes the person who’s struggling with anxiety is not clear about what’s going on.
If you say, “You are too anxious. I don’t know what’s going on with you. You are sleeping a lot,” the other person may not be receptive.
Say it specifically. “You know, the other day I noticed you were crying over this commercial. You didn’t used to be that sensitive. Is something going on that you want to tell me?” Or, “I have noticed that you haven’t called your mom in months. At the same time, I see you sad. Has something happened to her? Do you want to talk about it?”
Talk to your partner and be specific. Softened startups would be potentially important to remember, especially if you’re worried about your partner getting defensive. How do you approach that?
For example, there was a couple that when he was having some mood situations, mood changes, she would say, “And then you turn Hulk again.” This made him really upset when she’d say this. The person feels you are analyzing them or some partners would say, “Ah, I have noticed that you’re changing and I don’t want you to become your mom. Your mom was dealing with depression for so long.” And analyzing the family is not a good idea either. It’s criticism, especially when interpreted as an attack.
Couples Therapy: Depression and Anxiety Support
In couples therapy, partners can develop skills and learn specific strategies to cope with the mood changes. Because generic ideas and suggestions are not what is going to fit your situation. Each couple develops their own way of working, and their own dynamic. The therapist can see that and help both of you to connect.
For example, listening. That’s something that we know is important in every relationship. But it’s not easy to listen to someone negative, that is bringing negative comments, complaining about the weather, complaining about the way you drive, complaining about the government and the universe, etc. And the person can be like that because someone who’s dealing with depression may have a gray perspective on everything. That’s part of the condition.
Good couples therapy will help you to see that depression is not attached to the partner. Anxiety is not about the partner. It’s something that you need to face together as a team so you’re going to support them and support what that means.
How to listen to your partner
To get to this place means listening without judging. If you’re listening, you don’t have to give your opinion. It doesn’t have to make sense to you. You can play the psychologist. You’re going to mm-hmm, with your head. Eye contact. Be quiet. And then when the person finishes, you check if the information you got was correct, say it in your own words and you check if there’s some emotional content that you can react to.
For example, they were telling you about how difficult it is to wake up in the mornings because they are depressed. You could say, “Wow, that sounds hard.” When the person finished describing how the morning was, “That must be really difficult, right? Do you feel tired or is it more sadness?”
Your partner may say, “It’s tired, it’s physical, it’s like my body’s telling me to be in the bed.” They are connecting. You don’t say, “You shouldn’t be feeling like that. Open your eyes. It’s so beautiful outside. You have a beautiful house. You have kids. How come you are depressed?” We think that’s positive because it sounds optimistic but it’s not positive in the situation of depression. Your partner feels lonely.
Listening means not judging and not preaching and trying to rephrase in your own words. A partner has to be really comfortable with things they can’t control; you have to be really comfortable with the idea that they’re going to tell you something and you can’t fix it or solve it or explain it.
That’s uncomfortable for some people, for many people.
At the end, you can ask what can I do so your mornings would be easier? Maybe just have a cup of coffee. Maybe just don’t ask questions. Whatever they say would be best.
What’s important is that the problem solving or the offer of help came after the listening instead of jumping right in with a "can I bring you coffee" before you had a chance to hear the whole story.
There is a fine line with supporting. It’s like you get in trouble so easily as a partner, for example. If you try to fix it, then you’re not being empathetic. You’re not compassionate.
You can also go too far in the other direction. You may be so worried about the illness or the condition or the person that you want to do everything for them so you make the calls to the professionals. You call the doctor. You help the person to do this and that. You are sending the wrong message.
You’re saying to the person, “You can’t. That’s why I’m here.” That’s not supporting either. Because the message, “Is there something wrong with you again?” So you need to be dancing in the middle, and it’s not easy. The key is that it’s all about communication.
Through couples therapy depression and anxiety support is practiced. The person experiencing challenges has to have the responsibility to tell the partner when they are ready to connect, to engage or not.
For example, for people who have mood swings or mood changes because of PTSD, they can describe that there are days that they’re just bad. They wake up and they feel bad already. And they don’t want anyone to talk to them, ask questions or do anything. But it’s difficult for the partner to guess that because the night before, the partner was fine and they had plans for the next day.
If they don’t tell their partner that they’re not feeling well, they can get into more fights. What they can do is use a signal. I've worked with couples who use a surprising tool; magnets. The couple chooses one that is going to be in a specific corner if they are having a bad day. They wake up and put theirs out. That means leave me alone.
That doesn’t mean that they’re going to ignore the family dynamic and they are still going to be responsible for their stuff. But their partner is going to be more tolerant and avoid bringing difficult issues until they’re feeling better and putting it back into place. Especially if someone is sad or overwhelmed with worry, they don’t want anyone else asking questions. This is a great way for partners to keep each other in the loop.
Have Trust in Your Partner
One of the main elements for a healthy relationship is having trust in them. And having someone ill can threaten that trust because the partner needs to see that the person who is struggling with depression and anxiety is being responsible enough to take care of him or her.
In couples work the crisis happens again and again and the person improves again and again. It’s hard to trust. Is this going to be temporary or will I have to be dealing with this forever? And the difference is the treatment.
The person who is ill should be able to make appointments, to take the medication on time, etc. The person has to be responsible. If not, the relationship is going to be damaged, which is another role for couples therapy down the road if perhaps that person wasn’t managing it well in the past and now, they want to rebuild trust.
Be cautious of building resentment and a change in the dynamic of power. The one who doesn’t have depression shouldn't start to feel superior and it can be unconsciously damaging for the one who is depressed. You need to have trust in your partner, so they can have trust in you as well.
Being Aware of Self-Care
The caretaker needs to be aware of self-care. It’s a stressful situation. It’s not easy to have someone with these kinds of conditions in your house. Make sure your day doesn’t depend on your partner’s mood that day.
For example you can say, ‘Hey, it’s not a good day for you today? I'm sorry to hear that. Let me know what you need. Now I’m going so and so. If you want to join me, that's great but if not I will be back at 3.’”
You don’t cancel your appointments because your partner is having a bad day today because with time, you risk resentment. This doesn’t mean if someone is in pain and crying and then you run unnecessary errands. But it’s important that you strike a balance and take care of yourself as well.
Write Down the Signals
Some experts advise the partner to write down the signals or symptoms or changes with the person so they can see when a crisis is coming again. For example, “Hey remember that we wrote down this sleeping problem? You have been without sleeping at all for two nights. I think you should call your psychiatrist. And you haven’t eaten in four days. That’s exactly what happened last time…”
If it is a recurring condition, usually there will be some changes and then the crisis will come. If you’re able to grasp the issue when there are warnings and before it becomes worse, it’s going to be easier to handle.
This is helpful because as a partner you are able to notice more, but you make the list together so you’re still involving your partner. You’re not hovering over them and pointing out the signals. But making a pact and doing it together.
Handling Panic Attacks
It’s really common that people who struggle with anxiety will have panic attacks. These are challenging moments for a partner to deal with that. They can learn how to deal with that in therapy but the basic thing is just to help the person to ground herself. “I’m here with you. You have been struggling with this and you survived. You’ll be okay.” Supporting without preaching.
Practice that week after week. Don’t look for the positive and the optimistic. It’s a crisis of the nervous system.
It’s important also for therapy that the partners learn about the disorder because you can have the wrong idea. During a panic attack, your brain is not working and whatever is said is going to be gone. Ask the partner, “Hey, you had an attack yesterday and I was going crazy. I didn’t know what to do. What do you want me to do next time?” “Just hold my hand in silence.” “Okay, I will do so.”
You will feel empowered because you have an idea what to do next time it happens.