I was ecstatic when my partner first asked me out. I agreed, and in the following months we spent nearly all our time together.
But as the honeymoon period wound down, we had to grapple with the fact that in spite of the joy our relationship brought us, we were both depressed. In my case, the depression was compounded by the anxiety I’d struggled with my whole life.
It was a steep learning curve to figure out how to navigate our mental illness and how to be good to each other.
Of course, every relationship requires work. Good relationships don’t just happen magically. They’re cultivated through communication, patience, and understanding – and these things don’t come easily.
However, when depression gets added into the mix, things become even more difficult.
I was sad, but mostly in a numb sort of way. I couldn’t even cry about it. In fact, I couldn’t feel much of anything, and the things that used to make me happy no longer stirred anything inside me.
The only thing that I could feel was anxiety. While I’d always struggled with anxiety, my depression made it a hundred times worse.
I worried constantly. The smallest things felt like they would crush me, and I would start crying in the middle of the night because I felt so helpless.
As you can imagine, this put a strain on my relationship – especially since my partner had depression as well. We tried to support each other, but it was difficult when we couldn’t even get ourselves out of bed.
Many people have written about what to do (and what not to do) when a loved one has depression. But these resources are for people who don’t have depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness.
What happens if you do have it?
For example, how do you provide care for someone when you can hardly muster up care for yourself? How do you respect your partner’s anxiety while still communicating with them about things that they’ve done to upset you?
You have to try and work through your own mental illness while lending support to someone else who’s doing the same thing. And as anyone with mental illness knows, coping with it can be a tiring and sometimes lifelong task.
It doesn’t help that people have misconceptions about those with mental illness, particularly depression.
People have told me that they think it’s too difficult to “deal with” someone who’s depressed. Others have even implied that because my partner and I were both depressed, we were more at risk to physically abuse each other (no, I’m not making that one up).
I don’t know if those people are better or worse than the ones who think that mental illness is an excuse for harmful behavior. These people seem to believe that if someone is depressed, they can’t help the hurtful things that they do.
What’s more, their arguments insinuate that folks should never be called out because it will make their depression worse or trigger their anxiety.
I’ll say it only once: Mental illness is not an excuse for harmful behavior.
Even if you did it because you were feeling especially horrible that day, the end result is that you hurt someone. Depression doesn’t absolve your culpability or your responsibility.
I did a lot of harmful things to my partner because of my depression and anxiety. For example, if she told me that I’d done something to hurt her, I would start crying and declaring that I was the worst person on Earth.
I couldn’t help feeling like that. When you’re depressed, everything you’ve ever disliked about yourself becomes magnified, until you can’t even remember the things that you do like. You’re just a big swarming mass of faults and shortcomings.
But just because it was my depression that made me feel that way doesn’t mean that it was right for me to make the situation all about myself.
My partner was trying to tell me how I could better care for her, and wound up having to put her feelings aside to assuage mine instead.
Maybe reading about that example doesn’t encourage you in the least bit. I won’t lie: When you and your partner both struggle with depression and anxiety, it can make things extremely difficult.
However, that doesn’t mean that people with mental illness can’t have good and happy relationships. We’re not broken, and we’re not deficient. We might have a harder time coping with the obstacles that life throws at us, but that doesn’t mean we’re incapable of doing so.
So even if it takes a little more work for us to have good relationships, please know that they are more than possible.
I can’t guarantee you anything, of course, just like I can’t guarantee that your depression will get better.
All I can do is offer the following tips, and hope that they will guide you as you work with your partner to nurture your relationship.
1. Communicate Often (Like, All the Time)
Any healthy relationship should be built on communication.
After all, how can your partner know why you’re upset with them if you don’t tell them? How can you better support your partner if they don’t tell you what they need? Nobody’s a mind reader.
Communication is especially important when one or both partners have a mental illness.
I know from personal experience that depression and anxiety can have you lost in your own thoughts for hours or even weeks.
Whenever that happened to me, I became disconnected from my partner. I had no idea how she felt, or whether she was having a hard time. She didn’t know how I was doing, either.
Needless to say, that wasn’t a good thing. It was lonely not to feel connected to someone whom I loved. On top of that, we both wanted to support the other, but sometimes we just didn’t know what to do.
You and your partner won’t know how to support each other unless you talk about it.
You’re the best person to determine what you need, so it’s okay to tell your partner just what that is.
I know that it’s not always possible to cheer someone up, especially if they’re depressed. And it’s definitely not possible to fix someone else’s problems (nor should you try to).
But just because your partner can’t necessarily make things better doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t tell them when you’re having a hard time.
Whenever I communicated with my partner about feeling lonely, stressed out, or overwhelmed, I felt a little better. Telling my partner helped me feel like I wasn’t alone. I knew that there was someone who could, if nothing else, hold my hand during my lowest moments.
2. Steer the Conversation Toward More Than Upsetting Things
There’s a difference between communicating that you’re upset – or even just venting – and only engaging with your partner when you’re upset.
When my partner and I were depressed, we spent a long time only talking about things that made us sad, mad, or just plain hopeless. Sharing our problems with each other helped us feel less alone and more supported – but only up to a certain point.
After a while, I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time that my partner and I had talked about something lighthearted.
Sometimes our conversations would stall because we’d run out of things to say. Talking to my partner felt like staring at her across a chasm and not knowing how to cross it.
It was miserable: Here was the person I loved most in the world, and I was no longer capable of even having a conversation with her.
Things only improved after we agreed to try and steer our conversations away from our problems.
It was hard because most of the time, it felt like the only things going on in our lives were bad things. However, it did make the chasm feel slightly less wide.
Even if you think it’s insignificant, try to talk to your partner about at least one nice thing every day.
I know that some (if not most) days, nothing will seem nice. At the very least, though, tell your partner that you love them. You can never remind someone of that enough.
I won’t pretend that talking about nice things will make anything better.
If talking about nice things were the solution to depression, I wouldn’t need to write this article at all. Neither will I presume to tell you that you need to minimize your problems or resolve them.
However, I can say that if you and your partner only engage with each other when you’re upset, the relationship becomes fraught. There won’t be any room for the love and care that you want to provide for each other.
That’s why my partner and I decided that we’d make a conscious effort to steer the conversation to different waters if it felt like we were going to talk ourselves into a corner again.
It might not have cheered us up, but it did give us breathing room to come back to each other.
3. Find Something That You Can Do Together
When my partner and I were depressed, we watched any and all TV shows. It didn’t matter whether it was Glee or Runway Project. We’d sit down in front of the laptop and remain glued to the screen.
We also experimented with cooking, and would spend our time coming up with creative ways to use cabbage and bacon.
Looking back on it, I wasn’t particularly invested in any of these activities. I mean, that’s the only reason I made it through so many episodes of Glee (say what you will, it’s an objectively terrible show).
However, doing them was still enjoyable because it was with my partner.
You don’t have to become an enthusiast about anything, but finding an activity that you can do regularly with your partner helps you spend time together. That’s never a bad thing.
You can try doing something that doesn’t require a lot of energy, too. Sometimes I barely had enough motivation to get out of bed, so I wasn’t about to start training for a marathon.
It’s not about how much energy or effort the activity requires. As long as you can do it with your partner, it’s worth trying.
4. Recognize that Your Partner Isn’t Responsible for Your Well-Being
Nobody is responsible for managing your emotional well-being.
Unless you did something hurtful, it’s not your fault if your partner is in a miserable mood. Neither is your partner falling down on the job if they can’t cheer you up.
This is true for everyone, regardless of whether they have depression and anxiety or not. Should you and your partner be supporting each other? Of course, but support doesn’t mean fixing all your problems.
Rather, it means lending a shoulder to lean on, holding a hand when it’s difficult, and validating each other’s decisions.
5. Validate Your Partner
A lot of people will be shitty to you and your partner because of your depression and anxiety. They’ll tell you that you’re making it up, or that you just need to be more positive.
That’s why it’s important to tell your partner often that you love them, and that you understand what they’re going through.
Celebrate small things together, like the fact that you got out of bed or ate three meals that day. Let your partner know that you’re proud of them for doing things that are good for them.
Even now, my partner tells me that she’s proud of me for things like doing exercises to manage my anxiety and taking time off for myself.
It’s not about condescending to your partner. It’s about letting them know that you recognize their effort, even if nobody else does.
Depression can make you feel like you’re all alone in the world. Someone else’s validation won’t change that, but even just hearing that someone is here with you can mean a lot.
Here’s the thing: There’s no one way to handle your depression. Different things work for different people.
As long as you’re not harming yourself or others, you’re not coping with depression wrongly.
The tips that I wrote about come from a personal perspective. They’re things that worked for my partner and me because they were what helped us support and connect with each other.
You might find that something else works best for you and your partner. That’s totally fine, and you should go for it. Just know that, contrary to what everyone might say, you and your partner can have a good relationship.
You’re not burdens, and you’re not broken. You’re just two people trying to work out their problems as they go through life together.
Ashley Truong is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a queer diasporic Vietnamese womxn and graduated this spring with a double degree in English and Asian American Studies. When she’s not philosophizing about this at length, she’s reading, taking long walks, or cooing over all the dogs who cross her path. Read her Everyday Feminism articles here.