“I don’t know how to talk to her. She’s so depressed, angry, and shutoff, and everything I say she takes the wrong way. I’m just worried I’m going to say the wrong thing and she’s going to…”
Whenever I hear someone say these words to me, I hear a heart break. Mine does too. I also hear the implicit broken idea, painful as it is to admit, that simply loving someone should be enough to help them. What goes implied, but acutely felt, is how humbling if humiliating it can be to come to the realization that love isn’t enough. I wish love was all we needed, but it takes much more, specifically, more relational skills that many aren’t innately equipped with, or properly trained in using, to love someone struggling through depression.
There is a tremendous amount of hurt, guilt, pain, and conflicted feelings that comes with loving someone who struggles with depression, and in large ways those feelings can make matters worse if they are unaddressed or unresolved. There are conflicted feelings, especially because the person you love, because of depression, is hurting themselves; simultaneously, your loved one is both the person being hurt, and the person hurting someone you love. The nuances and difficulties in loving someone who has depression are immense, and the feelings therein are as difficult and nuanced.
Perhaps worse of all, if those feelings are worked through or processed with someone who is depressed, it may only serve to make them feel more guilty, more depressed, more defeated at what they may feel is irreparable harm to you, to their relationship with you, and to themselves. Which is to say, it’s best for those feelings to be processed, and those relational skills to be built, with your own therapist, support structures, and friends that have been through similar relationship dynamics. Looking to the person that is depressed to help you help them, well, puts an extra level of expectation and responsibility on them that they may not have the capacity to give, and they can use that as additional reason to be depressed.
This may all read as completely overwhelming to you, and a whole other mindset to helping someone with depression, that it is a lot of homework on your end, and emotional labor, and it may very well be; generic advice doesn’t help, but an altogether different approach to relating can help. With this in mind… here are some skills and thoughts to keep in mind when loving someone with depression, knowing that loving someone is about hand-tailoring a style of interacting, and not relying on generic, if expected, interactions that might work in most relationships.
A big skill in loving someone with depression is recognizing that many expressions of love and kindness are going to be felt with innumerable unspoken caveats. Examples:
“It was so good seeing you today (but it wasn’t fun being with you last week).”
“I’m glad to see you are going to the gym and taking care of yourself (because actually seeing symptoms of your depression bother me more).”
“It’s great that you are talking to your therapist (and not to me, because I don’t want to hear it).”
There are conflicted feelings, especially because the person you love, because of depression, is hurting themselves; simultaneously, your loved one is both the person being hurt, and the person hurting someone you love.
Knowing and recognizing that most anything that you say will likely be heard with unspoken accusations, whether those accusations are true or not, is the skill. Anxiously trying to prevent those unspoken additions from being projected onto what you say, unfortunately, is not the skill and will only dilute the message. Which is to say, there isn’t exactly a better way to say: “it was good to see you today,” but there are plenty of worse ways to say it.
As a textbook anxious example, saying, “it was good to see you today, and also yesterday too when we hung out, but that doesn’t mean that yesterday was better than today, so don’t take it that way, I’m not simply saying that to sound nice, but I do like what we did today and I had fun, and I’m sorry I’m saying this the wrong way, so I’ll shut up right now,” is making it worse. This causes more injury in being said. If anything more is to be said, it needs to center what occurred (i.e. what coffee/carb was had over conversation, what changes/new exercises were in the workout, what insights or growth happened in therapy, etc.), rather than the depression (i.e. their mood being better, their not isolating, practicing self-care, etc) that would simply come across as forced positive reinforcement. Talking about what occurred, rather than why what occurred was good for their mental health, is a far more neutral edit, and relationally smoother.
Believing that one isn’t worthy of a person that has those developed relational skills is another way to beat oneself up, so is feeling awful that someone developed skills to better relate. If someone you love struggles with depression, they can, because depression is insidious in this regard, use the thought of someone learning how to better relate as ammunition against themselves.
What goes implied, but acutely felt, is how humbling and humiliating it can be to come to the realization that love isn’t enough.
In other words, it hurts to not be able to comfort someone you love; though it hurts too to be inconsolable, to be the seemingly awful person that is the one rejecting what solace is being offered. In many ways those with depression are hurting, but in many more ways they perseverate on how much they are supposedly hurting others, are a burden, are terrible for others, and a net negative in every equation. That’s not something that a person can easily solve with the, “right words,” to get someone out of their depression. Allowing someone to feel their own way, while remaining clear on your end that you feel differently, while not minimizing their feelings, is the only way through that relational conflict. Otherwise it can become an argument of who is the best judge of who harmed the relationship, and who is more right. It needn’t be. Allowing someone to have their thoughts and feelings, without trying to convince them otherwise, or to make your feelings more valid, more right, or more accurate, serves to bring someone closer; not doing so, and making your feelings matter more, only serves to further divide relationships.
As a more psychologically resonant word, I also call this ability: spaciousness. To me, spaciousness is the emotionally expansive landscape, where emotions may exist without narrow confines. Or in less psychobabble language: someone else’s emotions are allowed to simply be, to simply exist, and aren’t twisted into anything that they aren’t. So, depression is allowed to be, allowed to breathe and to heal, and it isn’t used as a sign of mental weakness, a symptom of personal wrongdoing, a moral failing, and not used to make one a bad friend, a cold lover, a failed parent, or any other seemingly unhealthy thing. Many people, though thinking they are trying to break through to a person with depression, go to these places of painting themselves as wrong, or the person with depression as wrong, which makes the depression deeper and harder to get out of.
Generic advice doesn’t help, but an altogether different approach to relating can help.
There are many ways to center your own pain in their depression. Making yourself responsible for their depression (i.e. I’m such an awful partner, that’s why they are depressed), responsible for not making it better (i.e. A parent should be able to make it right and help them), responsible for it worsening (i.e. If you only took my advice and got medication and listened to me it would get better, but I guess you don’t want to get better), and your pain (i.e. Seeing you so depressed scares me), shift the focus of who is hurting in regards to depression. Conversations about this, or even allude to this, with someone that is depressed compound the depression.
In truth, the pain of going through depression is different than the pain of someone you love going through depression. In relationships though, many arguments, spoken and unspoken alike, can arise with those that are depressed fighting about who is in the most pain. Being better able at recognizing when you, yourself, are feeling the desire to have your pain and frustration validated, and recognizing when you are about to take it out on those you love, is key. Ideally, that growing self awareness of how much you are struggling to love them becomes a reminder to seek out your own care, and seek out validation of your feelings elsewhere, and not devolve into conflicts where your frustration, your difficulty in getting through, your doing all you can and not seeing change, are argued.
Being able to give a person space, without abandoning or distancing, is perhaps the most essential tool in loving someone with depression. Otherwise, you are forcing them to get better, forcing them to get medication or into therapeutic treatment against their wishes, or at worse, forcing them to simply look better for your sake, and not their own.
Two books I highly recommend to people that have loved one’s with depression is I don’t want to talk about it by Terrence Real, and How to be an adult in relationships by David Richo. Real does an amazing job of describing the way depression is the compounded process of shutting down, and shutting others out. He works with men, and mostly writes for men and those struggling in their relationships with depressed men, but there is a lot of insight about depression and its nuanced presentation if you’re able to read between the lines. The other book, by Richo, is written primarily for romantic partnerships, but is broadly applicable to any relationship between adults. The foundational skills in that book are incredibly and broadly applicable to loving someone with depression, and as homework it is one of the first foundational books I recommend.
Yes. Offering support by way of therapy, medication, or residential treatment are all ways of helping. Those gestures, even if sincere, can also be felt by the person that is depressed as your own way of distancing yourself from their depression, or potentially used against them as proof of their personal failing. That interpretation might be hard to understand, but I’ve heard it discussed countless times as a therapist working with those that are depressed. In working with those that love someone that is depressed, what solace I can provide to you is that there truly aren’t right words, and I wish there were.
If you think that loving someone with depression is about saying the right thing, that is putting a lot of extra responsibility and worry and guilt on your part for fixing their depression. Although we might like to think that our love is enough to save someone, to help them cope, to help them enjoy their life, to keep them living, it’s difficult, and painfully humbling, to admit that it isn’t enough. While love alone isn’t enough to help them fully recover, you can not abandon them, use their depression to think less of them, or give up simply because it is hard for you. You can keep wanting and offering to talk to them, and also be okay with them not accepting your offer. It is hard for them too, and not giving up on them, and still reaching out without expectation of how you will be received, goes a long way in loving them.