How should you deal with a depressed spouse?

With nearly 19 million Americans experiencing depression, it's inevitable the disease will impact wedded bliss for many people.
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Early 20th century English novelist Virginia Woolf dealt with depression throughout her life. She finally succumbed to it in 1941 by committing suicide. Before she did, however, she wrote her beloved husband, Leonard, a letter. In it, she said to him: "... until this disease came on, we were perfectly happy."

If Leonard Woolf had known ahead of time that his wife was planning to end her life, could he have stopped her? We'll never know for sure. However, what we can assume is that Virginia's story might have had a more positive ending had she lived in our modern times. There's now a much greater understanding of clinical depression -- and a wider variety of effective treatments for it. So if you believe your spouse is depressed, and you want to avoid a worst-case scenario, like the one played out by Virginia Woolf, look for these signs, as described by the Mayo Clinic:

  • Withdrawal and spending a lot of time alone
  • Noticeable or rapid mood swings
  • Dramatic personality changes
  • Hopelessness or feeling trapped
  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Substance abuse
  • Participation in self-destructive behaviors
  • Giving belongings away to others
  • Saying goodbye to others
  • Blatantly discussing suicide

Anyone experiencing depression can benefit from professional treatment; however, seeing a doctor or mental health professional is critical if your spouse is experiencing any of the above behaviors.

When suggesting that your spouse seek professional help, don't approach the subject with anger or arrogance. Instead, calmly describe to your partner the changes you've noticed in his or her mood and health (fatigue and chronic pain can be symptoms of depression as well) and explain why you think seeing a professional will be a good option. Be prepared to schedule appointments on your spouse's behalf -- and even drive him or her to doctor visits, if necessary.

In addition to treatment, there are lots of other ways you can help your partner through depression. You'll find several helpful tips on the next page.

Tips for Living with a Depressive Spouse

Happily ever after. It's a fate that seems well out of reach for couples in which one of the spouses experiences clinical depression. It negatively impacts communication, teamwork and sexual intimacy. And, it can cause the non-depressed spouse to experience frustration, isolation, anger, pessimism and guilt. Needless to say, these are not the ingredients of a healthy marriage. Not only is the depressed person and his or her partner in anguish, the relationship is at risk as well. And with nearly 19 million Americans experiencing depression, it's inevitable the disease will impact wedded bliss for many people [source: Harrar, et. al].

While dealing with a depressed spouse may not be a challenge you foresaw when reciting your wedding vows, it's a situation you can get through by exercising tact and patience, and -- ultimately -- seeking professional help.

You may find it helpful to:

1. Recognize depression as an illness. While many may think of it as simply sadness or the blues, clinical depression is a disease. And just as you'd never expect someone with diabetes or heart disease to snap out of his or her condition without treatment, you shouldn't assume that a depressed person can either. It may be helpful to both you and your partner if you research the illness to learn more about it.

2. Don't wait to seek treatment. Depression is likely to get worse rather than better over time. For you, this means you're likely to sink into depression, too. For your spouse, the consequences can extend to substance abuse or suicide. And, for your marriage, divorce is a possibility. Studies have found that married couples experiencing depression are nine times more likely than others to break up [source: Harrar, et. al].

3. Be optimistic. While people with depression are prone to relapses, current treatments are highly effective, with success rates around 90 percent [source: Harrar, et. al]. So it's important to let your spouse know that he or she will get better. Making future plans for yourselves as a couple may be a source of motivation for your partner as he or she is undergoing treatment.

4. Seek support and TLC for yourself. If you have a depressed spouse, you may have some of the typical challenges that caregivers of people with this condition experience: isolation, anger, sadness and stress. You can help relieve some of these feelings by confiding in a friend, therapist or member of the clergy. And if you've been picking up the slack around the house for a while, see if you can get some help with chores and errands. You should also make sure you're eating and sleeping well.

5. Tackle depression first. With depression adding a strain on your marriage, you may initially be tempted to seek out relationship counseling. However, such therapy will ultimately be ineffective if the root cause of the problem -- the depression -- isn't addressed and treated.

6. Encourage healthy activities. While not cure-alls, exercise, participation in hobbies and engagement in conversations that promote laughter are all ways to help ease the monotony of depression and help promote healing along with doctor-recommended treatments.

There's no quick fix for depression, but there are options and reason for optimism. Keep reading to learn more.

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Sources

  • Feingold, Abraham. "Suffering in Silence: When Your Spouse Is Depressed." PsychCentral. 2006. (Dec. 28, 2011) http://psychcentral.com/lib/2006/suffering-in-silence-when-your-spouse-is-depressed/
  • Harrar, Sari, and DeMaria, Rita. "How to Cope with a Depressed Spouse." Reader's Digest. (Dec. 28, 2011) http://www.rd.com/family/how-to-cope-with-a-depressed-spouse/5/
  • Lee-St.John, Jeninne. "Postnuptial Depression: What Happens the Day After." Time Magazine. Nov. 24, 2008. (Dec. 28, 2011) http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1861028,00.html
  • Lickerman, Alex. "Three Questions." Psychology Today. June 28, 2010. (Dec. 28, 2011) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/happiness-in-world/201006/three-questions
  • Mayo Clinic. "Depression: Supporting a family member or friend." May 27, 2010. (Dec. 28, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/depression/MH00016
  • WebMD. "Depression: Offering Support." Sept. 06, 2011. (Dec. 28, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/depression/recognizing-depression-symptoms/positive-support