Contributed by Esther Boykin, LMFT
Mood disorders affect nearly 1 in 5 adults yet little attention is given to the impact that these disorders have on intimate relationships. While a close connection with people who love you can be an important component to managing depression and other mood disorders, these illnesses can make connecting emotionally difficult and increase conflict. Common symptoms, such as withdrawing from social interaction, feelings of worthlessness, and lack of interest, can wreak havoc on the very relationships that matter most. So what’s a couple to do when one (or both) of you is dealing with a mood disorder? These tips can help. Acknowledge the challenges. For many partners of depressed individuals, there is a natural instinct to protect that person from “difficult” emotions and conflict. In an effort to minimize conflict and not burden each other, couples may hide their frustration with depressive symptoms and even the side effects of medication. Unfortunately this desire to protect often backfires as resentment builds and emotional closeness fades. Instead of pretending things are fine it is best to confront the challenges of living with a mood disorder head on. By opening up honest communication, you are able to maintain a sense of intimacy and trust, in addition to creating a foundation for mutual support.
Learn about the illness. Whether only one person in a couple or both people has depression, it is crucial that you both learn about the illness and effective treatments. There are many options available when it comes to treating mood disorders and research has shown the most effective approach involves multiple modalities. By learning about the illness, you can equip yourselves with the information necessary to minimize its impact and develop an effective treatment plan, together. In addition, it is important to realize that each individual is unique. Learn about your partner’s depression specifically. Are there specific triggers, like changes in the season or lack of sleep, which exacerbate the issue? What kinds of lifestyle changes support a better, more stable mood? And how can you help? Ask these questions and more and remember that learning is a process, not a onetime question and answer session. As a couple you will need to share your observations and allow your knowledge to evolve over time.
Take care of yourself. One of the reasons that mood disorders can be so problematic in relationships is that the symptoms do not promote intimacy or closeness. When struggling with depression (and sometimes mania) people can become closed off to others, numb, and even angry or aggressive. These symptoms can quickly create a negative cycle within the relationship causing a lot of conflict and very little loving support. Making self care a priority is crucial for both partners in order to avoid these pitfalls. For the person with a mood disorder, this means seeking professional advice, developing and implementing a treatment plan that is effective. Take time to focus on yourself and pay attention to your body’s signals about stress, sleep, and diet. These same tips apply to the supportive partner. Particularly in cases of severe depression, taking care of someone with a mood disorder can feel like trying to fill a bottomless bucket- you give and give and it’s never full enough. Love and kindness are important parts of taking care of someone with a mood disorder but it is not enough. As a care taker you must remember that you alone cannot “cure” someone else’s depression. Everyone must make time to replenish themselves or there will be nothing left to give. With ongoing self-care, together you can face the challenge of mood disorders.
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