Heather Gray offers insight on how to be supportive without giving yourself away.
When depression hits, it can erode relationships like any virus. The person you love begins to change before your eyes, with little rhyme or reason.
After the death of Robin Williams, we learned a lot about how to care for those living with depression. We heard less about how spouses and partners can be supportive without losing themselves.
When their loved one is depressed, loving and concerned partners will instinctively respond with caregiving, nurturing, and problem-solving. Knowing that people living with depression can’t always articulate what they need, partners and spouses will often assume responsibilities, in their efforts to be supportive.
They will do things for their partners, will demonstrate patience, and will work to be accepting of the changes that are occurring to their relationships. They avoid conflict or anything that may put additional pressure on their partners.
Spouses, in an effort to support their loved ones, give themselves away. They deny their own needs and avoid setting important boundaries. While based in good intentions, these are the choices that often lead to resentment, anger, and impatience. Disconnections become deeper and more ingrained and the relationship is further affected.
You Have to Put The Oxygen Mask on Yourself, First.
Loving your partner with depression cannot mean that you stop loving and respecting yourself. If you give yourself away by decreasing time with friends, taking less time for yourself, denying your own needs on top of assuming more responsibility, you’re going to run out of air. It’s hard to be loving and nurturing when you’re depleted.
You have to think about the things that you need to keep breathing. You may have to get by with less and sacrifice. That’s likely inevitable. However, giving up on everything and leaving yourself will nothing hurts you and your relationship. It leaves you with very little to give to a partner.
By identifying a few of your own needs that can’t be compromised, you’ll have more to lend to your partner.
Treating Depression is Marathon, Not a Race.
When someone is depressed, they often seem so immobilized and frozen. It makes partners want to jump all in and give 110%. It’s hard to ignore that impulse to rescue. It can feel impossible to bear witness to a loved one’s pain, sadness, and suffering. It makes sense that you want to leap in to save your partner from this melancholy. In that moment, witnessing that pain, you’re willing to do anything to bring relief.
Real, clinical depression is rarely just a brief episode. Rather, it can last for a month or more. Approaching caregiving like a race by giving everything all at once will quickly leave you with little left to give.
It’s important to consider and monitor your energy, time, and sacrifices. You have to think about the big picture and know that the compromises you are making today may still be necessary next month. Take that into account as you consider your time and responsibilities. Leaving yourself with an empty tank of gas with so many miles left to go, helps no one. It also, quite frankly, leaves you as the caregiver susceptible to depression, yourself.
Boundaries are Loving Limits
When learning about depression, spouses will undoubtedly read a lot about “being supportive” and “present” for their spouses. It’s important to be clear about what support is and what it isn’t. Caregivers will often walk away with the message that they have to take whatever treatment they are being given by their depressed spouses. After all, they “can’t help it” or “don’t really mean it”.
People treat us by what we are willing to tolerate. If your spouse can unleash their negative energy on you and you don’t say anything, you are giving yourself permission to be treated that way and you are teaching your partner that he/she can manage their depression by making you the scapegoat.
When someone is depressed, they may be unreliable at times. They may not always be able to stick to commitments. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have a responsibility for communicating with you about these things so you can plan accordingly.
Depression does not come with a get out of jail free card for bad behavior but many people, caregivers and sufferers alike, think that it does. Nothing erodes a relationship faster that a foundation that is cracked by disrespect.
When supporting a partner who is depressed, it is reasonable to expect respect. You may not get long, sensitive diatribes but a sentence or two that acknowledges you as a person is reasonable. If you’re not getting that, it’s important to set boundaries about what you are and are not willing to tolerate.
If you lose respect for yourself by allowing disrespectful and inconsiderate behavior, it will quickly become impossible for you to be present for your struggling partner in any way that is sensitive or authentic.
It Takes a Village
Depression is an isolating disease. It’s tough to talk about. Sufferers struggle with asking for help and caregivers strive to maintain privacy and often don’t tell family or friends what is going on. As a result, it can feel like you’re on an island.
When cancer hits, people talk about it. People rotate visits, some bring food, and others help out with other household tasks. When depression hits, most everything just falls on the well spouse.
As a caregiver, identifying ways that others can be helpful is important. Some people can help directly by assisting with tasks. Others can help indirectly by being a safe place for you to vent and unload. When your partner is depressed, it can leave you with no one to talk to.
Staying connected to relationships outside of your partner, will help you stay grounded. It can be hard for someone who is depressed to admit to needing connection from others. Sometimes they do, even though their behavior can indicate the exact opposite. Finding safe people for your depressed partner to connect to will ease the burden on you and on your relationship. This isn’t always easy but when possible, is the best thing for both you and your partner.
You Can’t Make it Better, Only Easier
One of the most dangerous assumptions that caregivers can make is that if they do everything, support in every way imaginable, and faithfully remain present and connected, their partner will be less depressed.
Love alone cannot cure depression.
You can give all of the love in the world and your partner will still feel pain.
It’s important to remember this so as to not have unrealistic expectations. If you tell yourself a story that doing all of this will ease the depression and it doesn’t work, that is a huge set-up for failure. You can ease the suffering that depression can cause but you alone cannot remove it.
Depression isn’t easy but it doesn’t have to be a cancer to your relationship. Caregiving must include self-preservation. It’s not selfish to put the oxygen mask on yourself first. You’re not being controlling when you hold firm to what you will or will not tolerate. You are, in fact, giving yourself the necessary strength to be in it and present for the long haul, until your partner feels better and strong enough to love you back in the way that you deserve.
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Photo: Geoff Sterns/Flickr