When your spouse is depressed, showing more love may boost the odds he or she will recover, even when it’s serious, and even keep the relationship healthy.
Living with a depressed partner can be frustrating — and annoying. Tempers may flair, and relationships can suffer. But research shows piling on the affection can help a loved one recover from a bout of depression and potentially keep relationships on track, too.
For their research, a team of University of Alberta researchers studied 1,407 couples over six years. They documented the feelings the men and women reported about their self-esteem, feelings of depression, and how much support they gave and received.
The results showed loving support toward a depressed partner over time had a positive impact on the future mental health of the depressed spouse, boosting feelings of self-worth and reducing symptoms of clinical depression.
"Efforts from a partner to help alleviate stress may prevent the development or worsening of mental health problems and, in fact, could help keep the relationship healthy,” said Matthew Johnson, PhD, University of Alberta professor of agricultural, life, and environmental sciences, who headed the study.
The researchers noted some differences in the way support affected men and women. For instance, when men supported a depressed partner, their own feelings of self-esteem improved and they felt better about themselves. For women, especially, receiving loving encouragement from their spouses not only boosted their self-esteem but also lessened their future bouts of depression.
In addition, the study revealed that during especially stressful times, women with higher self-esteem and men with fewer symptoms of clinical depression received more support from their respective partners.
"Those who have better mental health to start with may have the capacity to reach out for support when needed and are better able to manage stress on their own, but they are likely not the people who would benefit most from a partner's help," Johnson said.
Of course, having a romantic partner who is worried, depressed, and generally down much of the time can be frustrating and annoying — especially if he or she doesn’t seem to appreciate your attempts to understand and be supportive. In fact, it can spark anger in the depressed spouse and resentment in the partner who is trying to help.
"When someone is depressed or has low self-worth, they may lash out,” Johnson said. “A partner offering support may reaffirm feelings of depression and helplessness, of the feeling that they have to pick up the slack.”
But don’t give up if your partner doesn’t seem to want or accept your help. Instead, when your overt attempts at support are greeted with negativity or even hostility, the researchers advise offering what they call “invisible support.”
If your partner seems overwhelmed with feelings of self-doubt and sadness, listen to them when they are ready to express themselves and give them your attention and empathy. It’s also helpful to show support with actions that don’t necessarily need an explanation. For example, you can take care of everyday tasks, such as driving your kids to schools and activities or planning meals.
“Studies suggest offering support your partner may not even be aware of, but would still be a helpful gesture, like taking care of a sink full of dirty dishes they haven't seen yet,” Johnson explained. “You can offer support; just don't draw attention to it."
July 27, 2017
Janet O’Dell, RN