If Your Partner’s Depression Returns

Michelangelo - Jeremiah

When a partner’s depression ends, a couple may feel happy disbelief as they emerge into the light again from a long darkness in the relationship. They’ve been desperate to understand how an intimate partner could possibly have grown silent, angry, emotionally never there, reluctant to touch or talk about anything. Then suddenly they’re back, feeling great again. Life is restored. They knew such a wonderful relationship couldn’t possibly turn so bad for long.

If it’s you who’s been depressed, you know what it means to feel alive, like yourself again. It’s euphoric to feel new energy, to get your mind working clearly, to realize once more how much you love your partner. You wonder how you could have been so distant and angry.

Are you both done with depression? Unfortunately, you may not be. Some people may have one prolonged, severe period with depression but then recover and never go through it again. Quite commonly, though, a partner’s depression can return or morph into a less intense but chronic form that never really goes away.

Even if depression does come back, it need not have the same rending effect on your relationship that it did the first time.

It’s easy to worry excessively about the chance for future episodes. That’s only natural in the early phases of the turn-around. However, it’s not much of a recovery if your life remains dominated by that concern or by a sense of doom about the future.

Empowerment through Awareness

Optimism and pessimism can both be blind and excessive. Realism about the possible recurrence of depression is important, especially if coupled with a sense of empowerment about how to deal with any further episodes.

You start with the fact that you as a couple have already survived depression once. It may feel that the experience was so horrible you just want to put the whole thing behind you and never have to deal with it again. But the fact is that you have learned a great deal, and deepening that understanding is a key to being able to handle any future recurrence.

I believe you can gain this empowerment, especially if partners can agree to work together. In a relationship, depression isn’t a solitary affair, and both partners need to be knowledgeable. Since you have been through it before, you know the signs of illness. Being alert to early indications and feeling comfortable talking to each other about them are essential steps in preventing depression from overwhelming the relationship.

It’s easy to overlook the early signs. There were many times when I felt that depression had lifted, and life at home seemed to go back to normal. I could easily downplay problems that may not have been so severe any more but that didn’t go away altogether.

Perhaps my mental habits of thinking negatively kept coming up, or I’d still tend to feel anxious about social contact, or I’d have trouble sleeping, or I’d feel a little detached from things.

Taken by themselves, these didn’t seem like much, certainly nothing like the deep depression I had been in. But there’s a lot of research indicating that these left-over problems are strong predictors that the illness will return.

Keeping up with whatever form of active treatment has been working is important until all the symptoms are gone. It was too easy for me to feel that I was back to 100% when it looked to my wife more like 50%. If both partners are working on recovery, there’s a better chance that you’ll maintain a more realistic idea about what to look for.

Partnership

In her book, Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Julie Fast urges couples to work closely together through all phases of treatment and recovery, and the approach is also effective for unipolar depression without mania.

Mary Ellen Copeland suggests writing down a plan for what to do if depression returns. She calls it a Wellness Action Recovery Plan (WRAP). You can read about it in her The Depression Workbook and get other materials through her website.

Both Julie Fast’s approach and the WRAP tool help partners get a clear understanding and agreement about how they can both take part in managing depression. The depressed person has to make the initial commitment to active treatment, but there are many ways a supportive partner can help sustain recovery.

Empowerment through Skills

The second part of empowerment is learning the skills you need to deal with depression and to keep using them, even after recovery is complete. The goal is not just ending symptoms but living the kind of life you want.

These can include:

  • the techniques of cognitive therapy to forestall negative thinking
  • an emphasis on remaining active rather than ruminating
  • maintaining a healthy lifestyle with exercise and regular sleep habits
  • dealing with anger and communication in your relationship
  • managing stress
  • being mindful of behavior patterns that are self-defeating

The list can go on. It all depends on the problems you’ve had to deal with and the most effective methods you’ve found for staying well. After a while, these become second nature. It’s especially important for both partners to be active in an ongoing process of reinforcing recovery.

Maintaining these practices and skills also strengthens resilience if depression should return. A new episode doesn’t have to be a disaster for a relationship.

(This post has been adapted from the newsletter archive.)