How to Talk to Your Partner About Your Depression

Your partner might not know what to ask or how to help

Photo: Davids’ Adventures Photos/Moment/Getty Images

My whole life I have suffered from a combination of anxiety and depression. After nearly twelve years of marriage, I had hardly spoken about it with anyone other than a handful of therapists. The challenges of parenthood only pushed me further away from my own understanding of the disorder, as both myself and my wife often went into full robot mode. It made life miserable at times, and it placed a thick cloud over our household. Three months ago I finally decided to talk to my wife.

It’s not that I was trying to fool her into thinking I was okay. That was a lost cause: When my depression was at its height, I had trouble managing a nine-to-five job or even ordinary social interactions. As a teenager, it took an intervention from my parents to finally get me to see a doctor. I’m now on medication that helps round out the edges, but I still have episodes of severe depression that last for weeks. During these times, the joy of everyday things is lost to me.

There are plenty of articles out there about how to help your depressed spouse. This is not one of them. This article is not for your partner — it’s for you. (Quick caveat: I am not a therapist or psychologist. If you are suffering from debilitating depression, please seek a therapist, and if you are having suicidal thoughts, please call this hotline.) It took me about 12 years to get to a place where I could talk about my mental health with my wife, the person closest to me in this world. If I’d known how to do it sooner, I might have spent those years feeling less alone.

It’s hard to explain what depression feels like. And while there are still stigmas attached to mental health issues, I can guarantee that talking about it openly will be better for you and your partner. “Talking about depression can be a key step in the recovery process,” notes the Pan American Health Organization. “Most people feel better after talking to someone who cares about them. And it can also be the catalyst for a significant shift in how society views and addresses depression.”

If you suffer from depression and you are in a serious relationship, chances are your partner wants to help. In fact, they are likely desperate to help. But they might not know how. Here’s how I finally worked up the courage to talk to my partner about my mental health, and how you can, too.

Assume your partner wants to help

The first time I tried to talk to my wife about my depression, I was ill prepared. As a result, it was a disaster.

We were both tipsy, sitting by the fire, talking about nothing in particular, enjoying ourselves. And then it hit me as it always does: I felt my body plummet into the depths of my own internal monologue. I felt words coming out of my mouth that I didn’t mean to say. I talked about death and despair and mocked her own spiritual beliefs. Staring off into the distance, I slowly related a story from my youth when I realized how different I was from those around me. In retrospect, I know this conversation felt like an eternity for my wife.

I watched as my wife attempted to navigate my despair. How could she know what to say?

She tried to offer some positive encouragement. She tried to steer me away from the dark. You may have experienced something similar. It’s common for people to say things like, “Why can’t you just cheer up?” “Try going for a walk!” Or, the feared and dreaded, “It’s all in your head.” Maybe true, but really unhelpful.

If you’re concerned about this possible response, you are not alone. Medical News Today writer Jayne Leonard reminds partners to “avoid asking questions that seem judgmental or place blame on the person with depression.” Even when people are just trying to help, these sorts of responses can feel abrasive when you’re in a vulnerable position.

Check in with yourself

Before you can feel comfortable explaining to someone else what’s happening inside your head, you have to understand it yourself. “Awareness puts you in a position to face your fears or anxieties,” says the clinical psychologist Stanley Selinger.

There are many ways to reach this level of awareness: meditation, yoga, journaling, talking to a therapist. I’m a convert to Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” method of journaling: Just sit down every morning and write longhand about what you are feeling at that very moment. As you continue to do it day after day, you may be surprised to see what comes out.

Take what you have learned about yourself and consider what would help you feel less lonely or more supported. Do you want more space for yourself, to be creative, or to get lost in your own thoughts? Do you want more connection? You can’t get what you need from your partner if you don’t know what to ask for.

Talking about your depression

Once you’re clear on what you’re hoping to communicate during your conversation, finding the right time to talk is important. You don’t have to be out of the woods of your anxiety or depression, but your mind does need to be free of anger or resentment. If you see a therapist, spend some time with them to make a plan of action.

When you are ready to talk, focus on your feelings, not your clinical diagnosis. If you have a hard time speaking in the moment, don’t be afraid to write it out ahead of time. And then state the facts of your feelings without passing judgment on yourself or your partner.

Selinger suggests soft phrases that show how you feel without resentment: “I am overwhelmed. This does not mean that I don’t love you. But I need some time to center myself, calm down, and get perspective.” Life coach Ruby Fremon suggests then creating an action plan. On a “good day,” sit down with your spouse to figure out how you’ll handle those crippling days or weeks of depression.

The second time around, I prepared myself. After months working through my thoughts and feelings with a therapist I finally understood what I needed.

I waited until the children were asleep and my wife and I had some time to ourselves. I took a deep breath, looked at her, and began to talk. I was able to explain that when I was really depressed, something that helped was simple touch. I didn’t need advice or a comforting word. I didn’t need space or distance (as she had often assumed). Instead, what I wanted was for her to touch an arm or rub my shoulder — it was that simple. She understood immediately.

Knowing what you want is not easy, and communicating those needs can be even more challenging. It takes time, but the rewards are obvious.

word luvvah, procrastinator, sometimes-musician, webmonkey, geek, father of two. a part-time artist on a mission to eat more or less cheese.

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