How do you know if your spouse is depressed, and what can you do to help? There are some healthy ways to encourage your partner to seek therapy, open up about their emotions, and work together to help them deal with depression.
Signs Your Spouse Is Depressed
Sudden changes in your spouse’s everyday habits or behavior may be early signs of depression, says Rabbi Misha L. Ben-David, LCDC, a life coach and pastoral counselor at Neshama Counseling and Coaching in Austin, TX.
“You may notice that they’re eating or drinking differently, experiencing more sullen behavior, or isolating themselves. They may avoid contact with you. Some people throw themselves into solo activities or hobbies, or even compulsive behaviors, like buying cars or spending lots of money,” he says.
Suddenly, your partner may start to:
Avoid the Vicious Circle
If your depressed spouse withdraws from you or has angry outbursts all the time, it’s easy to feel hurt and alienated, and react with similar behaviors, says Jacques Barber, PhD, Dean, Gordon F. Derner School of Psychology at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY.
“This can create a vicious circle and make the spouse with depression even more depressed, alienated, angry, and retreating into themselves,” he says. “You have to realize that dealing with depression is very difficult, and your partner isn’t doing something malicious. It’s the depression. If someone’s angry with you all the time, you want to be angry back! But remember: Depression isn’t contagious. This won’t last forever and can be treated. It’s easy to blame yourself. But most couples do survive this.”
Should you schedule an intervention with other friends and family to approach your depressed spouse about their issues? Be careful before you take this step, Ben-David says.
“It’s important not to be accusatory. It’s more important to observe and let them know what you’ve noticed. Say, ‘I’ve seen you looking more sullen and unhappy.’ Talk about the changes you’ve observed,” he says. It’s OK to share your feelings too, and let your spouse know that you’re hurt by specific behavior changes. “Tell them, ‘We’re not having sex anymore. You’re not spending time with me.’”
They May Deny the Problem
A depressed spouse may deny that they have any problem at all, Ben-David says.
“Many people with depression or mental health issues don’t want to be ‘fixed.’ They may just want to be heard. If in the process of listening to your partner, if you hear things that are too hurtful for you to handle, then turn to a professional for help,” he says. “Your spouse may not identify their behaviors as depression. If they’re acting out with sex, drinking, drugs, or food, they may say, ‘I need this. It eases my stress.’”
Encourage your spouse to get help and a diagnosis from a mental health professional. They can start with talk therapy and, if they need it, prescription medication, Barber says. Make an appointment with a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or family doctor for a diagnosis, and begin therapy.
“Psychotherapy plus medication has shown to work better for depression than just medication. Medication without talking is not going to help,” says Barber, who adds that medication may be more appropriate to treat people with severe depression.
Some couples choose to have therapy together, especially if depression has led to sexual issues in the marriage, such as an affair, Ben-David says. Your depressed partner may prefer to do solo therapy. If they’re struggling with addiction, they need to treat that before tackling their depression, he says.
“There’s no quick fix. Some people may go on one medication for depression, and it doesn’t work, or they go to therapy and it doesn’t work for them. You have to be persistent,” Ben-David says.
Stay Positive and Get Active
What if your spouse refuses to go to therapy? You may feel hopeless, but try to stay positive, because depression often is treatable, Barber says. Although your spouse may need to stick with therapy and/or medication for a few months, up to 90% of people with depression do improve with treatment.
“What’s important is to give them affection. You may feel rejected. But it’s situational, and their behavior is just part of the depression,” he says. “Be encouraging. Invite them to do more activities together that are fun. Do something active like exercise. Depression often causes lethargy. Invite your spouse to go for a walk or to the beach if you have one nearby.”
Whether your spouse agrees to go to therapy or not, there are a few things you should not do in response to their anger or denial, Ben-David says.
“Avoid blaming or attacking them for their behaviors. Don’t keep saying, ‘You did this, and it made me feel bad.’ Bargaining with them is also generally not helpful. Taking an all or nothing approach doesn’t work,” he says. “Instead, suggest healthy activities that you can do together or with friends that you trust. Go to an outdoor concert or listen to music that you both enjoy. One behavior that I sometimes prescribe for couples is to read to each other. This has a nurturing quality and can help with bonding.”
It’s important to take care of yourself while you help your depressed spouse. You may choose to start therapy to express how you feel about your marriage and find ways to cope.
Here are some tips to help you stay emotionally and physically healthy:
- Get enough sleep
- Exercise regularly
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet
- Check out self-help books for partners of depressed spouses
Don’t view your spouse’s depression as a negative reflection on your worth as a partner or person, Ben-David says.
“This can feel very personal to you. If your spouse is acting out, those behaviors can feel like an attack on you. You may feel like you have to take responsibility for it. It’s important to involve a mental health professional if you blame yourself for your spouse’s depression,” Ben-David says. “Sometimes, both people in a couple can become depressed. There may be multiple issues that you both need to deal with.”