If you are supporting someone with mild to moderate depression it can be a tough time as you watch them retreat into themselves. It can make you feel as though you have been pushed to one side, surplus to requirements or even totally rejected.
The social dynamics between people don’t stop because one of you is depressed. The fact you have helped or are prepared to do more doesn’t necessarily mean they feel the same. If you sense they are feeling uncomfortable around you but not other people it may be due to the fact you remind the person of their vulnerabilities. Put bluntly they may have come to associate you with the bad times.
Of course this is a worst-case scenario but we can’t be blind to the fact that it can happen. In more long-term and stable relationships things tend to be a bit different. Some people are simply better at communicating their feelings. When they feel depressed this capacity may diminish but they can still articulate their feelings. If however we start from a pre-depressed state of ‘strong and silent’ things are likely to get even quieter during depression and this can make things hard for the partner.
None of us can force another person to communicate but what we can do is offer opportunities and behave in ways that keep the channels open. Here are a few ideas.
Resist the temptation to push for reasons as to why the person isn’t talking to you or sharing their feelings. They may not know. If you keeping asking it can get irritating and the person may become even more reluctant to speak. If someone isn’t asking for your help they may resent the assumption you want to give it.
Be sensitive to the situation. We all have work routines and expectations but if your mood is down so is your motivation. Don’t expect the same level of activity and do try to help out. Maybe you could make the meal or clean the place up? If your partner is male then respect his need for independence and space. It may not seem like you are encouraging communication but these supportive acts are communicating your understanding and willingness to help. Indirectly it’s another way of reducing barriers to communication by taking some of the pressure off.
Don’t be too subtle when you speak. Our day-to-day communication is riddled with little innuendos, meaningful pauses, volume changes, tone and pacing. Sometimes it’s hard enough to fully comprehend what we’re listening to when we’re fully aware. During depression just processing normal language is an effort so anything with a hidden agenda, too many outcomes or possibilities will tend to be filtered out. It’s much easier for you and your partner if you say what you mean and stick to simple facts and language.
Communication about feelings is usually better undertaken in a place where the person feels emotionally secure. If the person starts to speak it’s a good time to listen. This may sound obvious but it’s easy to let your pent up frustrations about the lack of communication spill over and for you to impose your agenda. After days and weeks of shutdown the person may appear to talk about the most superficial issues. Take it as a sign they are re-opening channels. Indulge them a little and don’t force the pace. Let them get into the habit of expressing views and trading ideas with you. But at this point don’t expect rapid progress. You may find it’s two steps forward and one back. Time and timing are the key ingredients here.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.