According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression is "a mood disorder that can affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities such as sleeping, eating, or working." And while you might hear the words "Wow, I'm so depressed" thrown around often, it's important to understand what diagnosed depression actually looks like—especially when dating someone who has it.
But before we dive into everything you should know about dating a partner with depression, it's important to clarify that everyone's symptoms for depression may look and feel different than what’s indicated in this article.
The suggestions below may not be helpful for every person with depression, so please contact a licensed therapist who can better help your individual needs, or visit websites like NAMI and NIMH, which offer treatment options and various resources.
What does depression look like?
Depression doesn't necessarily look like anything. In fact, it's better to consider the mental disorder to be more of an internal feeling than something you can see on the outside.
In general though, "depression is a state of mind and feeling that can leave you feeling alone and empty inside," says licensed therapist Jason Phillips. "Signs and symptoms vary from person to person, but overall include low energy, poor mood, isolation, too much sleep, not enough sleep, and unhealthy eating habits."
As you can imagine, these types of symptoms can heavily affect your relationships—especially romantic ones.
For starters, depression can cause a partner to pull back from intimacy and/or distance themselves from their partner. This may seem like the partner is suddenly uninterested in you, when in reality, it's just a symptom of their depression. This shows that "the person who’s depressed has emotions to work through," says Phillips.
This could look like bailing on plans five minutes before, backing out on social engagements, encouraging their partner to attend friends' and family members' birthday parties without them, etc.
But even more so, depression can heavily affect a person's sex drive since there's a direct correlation between libido and depression, says licensed psychotherapist Markesha Miller, PhD. For this reason, your partner may have trouble finding the energy or desire to engage in anything in the bedroom.
Depression can also show up by limiting the quality time spent together, says Dr. Miller. It’s common for a depressed person to withdraw or throw themselves into work or another hobby to mask their feelings.
And lastly, communication between two partners may suffer because of the mental disorder. "Depression may cause one to be more irritable, sensitive, impatient, and misunderstood," says Dr. Miller.
What can you expect when dating someone with depression?
Just so we're clear: Many people who struggle with depression also have very healthy, happy relationships. It starts with understanding what your partner may or may not need.
"If you are dating someone with depression, it is fair to expect unique challenges as well as highs and lows," says Dr. Miller. Everyone has off days, so a partner should be understanding of this. For example, if your partner is having a particularly low day or struggling with their depression by either staying in bed or not wanting to go out, understand "things may not always go as planned." Be flexible and understanding.
It's also important to check your own emotions. If your partner needs space or time to themselves, respect that boundary and give them what they need. More often than not, when your partner needs distance, it's more about their own needs than it is about your relationship. It may be helpful for you, as a partner, to see a licensed therapist to talk through these feelings too.
Lastly, understand that your partner's emotions may fluctuate easily. "Don’t fault your partner for their mood changes, depression is physiological and emotional," says Phillips.
How can you support a partner with depression?
Just like in any relationship, it's important to know and understand your partner. "When they have depressive episodes, find out what they need," suggests Phillips. Do they want you to hold them? Do they want you to give them space? Do they want you to go on a walk with them? Ask questions so you can better understand how to help them through these moments.
With that said, though, don't be afraid to dive into some research yourself. "The more that you learn about depression, the more you are able to understand what your partner is experiencing and how you can support them," says Dr. Miller. The National Institute of Mental Health and National Alliance on Mental Illness are great resources to get started.
Don't neglect your own self-care, either. As mentioned before, make time for the things that you enjoy like working out, cooking, reading, yoga, meditating, going to therapy, etc. Making sure that you don’t take on the burden of your partner’s emotions is key.
Lastly, don't take things personally. Understand you cannot "save" or "fix" your partner. "As their partner, it is normal to want to help them find relief from the heaviness of their distress. However, you will not be able to completely eradicate their depression or make them feel better and trying will leave you both feeling drained and frustrated," says Dr. Miller. What you can do: Always be understanding, kind, compassionate, and supportive for your person.
If you want a few suggestions of things you can do to support your partner, here are some suggestions, recommended by psychiatrist Leela R. Magavi, MD, medical director for Community Psychiatry:
- Ask your partner if they’d like to join you on a walk for some fresh air.
- Bring them food or schedule a date night where you opt to cook something together.
- Send them a playlist of your favorite songs.
- Write them a letter of all the things you love about them.
- Talk to them about what resources they have, and see if they’d ever be interested in speaking with someone professionally. (TalkSpace is a great app for this.)
- Remind your partner they are not alone in how they feel, and tell them you are there for them.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.