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More than 16 million U.S. adults ages 18 or older—nearly 7 percent of the adult population—have at least one major depressive episode a year, according to the most recent National Institute of Mental Health estimates. Unfortunately, those depressed individuals rarely suffer alone: It often deeply affects close family members, too, as changes in the thinking and behavior of the person with depression takes a toll on intimate relationships.
Research suggests that one common effect of depression on the depressed person and his or her partner is a growing reluctance to discuss sensitive issues. According to a study of 126 heterosexual couples in which one or both had been diagnosed with depression, this reluctance was most often attributed to uncertainty about the relationship.
Published in the March 2016 issue of Communication Monographs, the research suggests that addressing this relational uncertainty is important in coping with depression, as failure to discuss relationship issues results in a missed opportunity to resolve those issues, increases feelings of isolation, and heightens the risk for misunderstandings between the partners.
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Relationship Strain: Understanding a Common Depressive Disorder
If you’re suffering from depression, understanding the challenges that depression can present to your close relationships and learning strategies for dealing with these problems increases the likelihood that you and your loved ones will weather the blues successfully.
“It’s important to remember that depression is a brain disorder and that it will take time and perhaps therapy and/or medication to conquer it,” says Maurizio Fava, MD, Executive Vice Chair of MGH’s Department of Psychiatry and Director of the Division of Clinical Research at the MGH Research Institute. “However, there are steps that you and your loved ones can take to help increase your understanding of the symptoms and what you might do to improve them.”
If you’re experiencing depression, you might find the following sources of information about mental health symptoms and possible strategies helpful:
- Web: Try Cognitive Therapy NYC and Mindful Compassion.
- Print: Mind Over Mood/Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky (The Guildford Publications, Inc.)
Easing the Impact When You’re Depressed
If you’re suffering from depression, you may be able to help ease the impact of your mood disorder on your loved ones by following these seven tips:
- Make a commitment to treatment. Your determination to deal with your depression by undergoing counseling and/or taking medication provides hope to your family.
- Talk with family members. Try not to avoid discussing sensitive issues or talking about your depression. Explain that you have depression, that you are getting treatment, and that your low mood won’t last forever. Let them know that your depression has nothing to do with them. Try to keep lines of communication open.
- Show love and appreciation whenever you can. Try to notice your loved one’s good traits and positive behaviors, and find ways to express your appreciation. Tell your family members that you love them and are grateful for their understanding and patience.
- Deal with sexual issues. To make up for a decline in sexual activity, reassure one another with other types of close physical contact, such as hugging, cuddling, or giving a back rub.
- Create a support system. Formulate a plan with your loved ones that includes strategies that might make dealing with your depression easier, and activities you might share together in spite of your low mood. Do things in small steps: Take a walk together, or enjoy a drive through your local park.
- Inform yourself. Learn more about your mood disorder—and ways to help conquer it—by searching the internet, reading articles or books, or talking with knowledgeable people.
- Take care of yourself. Look after your health by eating well, exercising, avoiding stress, and getting plenty of rest. Don’t smoke or drink to excess.
Common Effects of Depression
Serious depression may cause you to alter your behavior towards others in a number of ways, including:
- Creating distance by withdrawing, becoming irritable, saying hurtful things, or blaming others.
- Becoming self-absorbed.
- Becoming hyper-critical.
- Abandoning others through difficulty expressing affection, listening to others, engaging in family activities, or assuming normal responsibilities.
- Expressing hopelessness and negativity.
- Losing libido, depriving your partner and yourself of intimacy and pleasure.
- Resisting treatment.
“When you’re coping with a low mood, it’s important to realize that relationships can weather the challenge of depression and grow stronger for it,” Dr. Fava says. “That’s why knowing what to expect when you’re depressed and learning strategies for coping with it may offer the best hope for restoring a normal balance.”
This article was originally published in 2017 and is regularly updated.