By Brittany Risher– Self
Living with depression makes basically every aspect of life so much harder than it should be, including romantic relationships. If you’ve ever experienced depression’s hallmark symptoms (like feelings of hopelessness and emptiness, decreased energy, and a loss of pleasure in activities you used to enjoy), you know they don’t exactly seem conducive to a fun, open, and carefree relationship.
But being able to share your depression with your partner—and having them act as your rock when you’re struggling—is incredibly healthy, romantic, and completely worth the fear that might come with discussing your mental health.
Talking about your depression means you’re being authentic about something that can have a huge effect on both of your lives. “If you feel like they are a good candidate for the long term, you feel you can get very close to them, and they’re someone you could potentially love, then you should tell them,” Michael Brustein, Psy.D., clinical psychologist in New York City, tells SELF.
Plus, letting your partner understand what you’re going through is the only way they’ll be able to fully support you. “One of the by-products of depression is isolation,” Ryan Howes, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California, tells SELF. “And that can cause the dark and negative thoughts that often accompany depression to amplify. You need support to lend a different perspective, help you see hope and possibility, and know that others love and care about you.”
That said, this can be a really intimidating conversation to have. Here’s what Brustein and Howes recommend for navigating it.
First, remember that depression is incredibly common.
Around 16.2 million adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2016, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. (This means they experienced at least five symptoms of depression for a period of two weeks or longer.) Although having depression is nothing to be ashamed of, the instinct to hide it is understandable. For so many people, depression can also be a source of overwhelming shame, leading far too many to live in secrecy.
“The unfortunate reality is that even in 2018 we still have a stigma against mental illness,” says Howes. “While having depression is no more the fault of the individual than an allergy or multiple sclerosis, people avoid talking about it because they don’t want to be blamed for feeling bad.”
The thing is, depression is so common that there’s a good chance your partner knows someone else who has gone through this at some point—or maybe they’ve even dealt with it before. Keep that in mind when it feels like you’re about to drop a terrifying truth on them. Chances are, they won’t react with shock and confusion.
So when is the right time to tell your partner about your depression?
It’s really about whatever feels most comfortable for you. If you want to blurt it out one day when you’re flipping pancakes, that’s cool. If you’d rather it come up more naturally in conversation, that works, too. The point is to do your best to remove embarrassment or guilt from the equation. “Treating it any differently than disclosure of your student loan debt says it’s something … to feel ashamed of,” Howes says.
If you’re not sure how to bring up your depression, consider using pop culture to open the door. Suggest watching a movie like The Hours, Garden State, or Little Miss Sunshine together, then spend some time talking about it afterward, Howes suggests. “Ask if your partner has ever felt anything similar to the depression depicted in the film, and then tell your own story. Sometimes being able to compare and contrast with the characters in the film can help you describe your own experience,” he explains.
Another tactic is simply telling your partner you’d like to get to know them better by sharing life stories, says Howes. “Go year by year, asking about the significant memories and events in their life, and feel free to add your opinions and observations. Then share your own story, with an awareness that you’re laying the groundwork for your depression disclosure,” he says.
Or, if you’re in therapy, you might consider mentioning something you learned in a recent appointment as a way of sharing what you’re dealing with. You could even ask your partner to come to a session, particularly if you think having your therapist there will make it easier to talk about your mental health. If this sounds like a good option, talk to your therapist about the best way to go about it.
And don’t feel like you need to have all the answers and information in order to start this conversation—there’s also the internet. Find articles about depression that shed some light on your experience, Howes suggests. You can print them out and have them ready to share during the conversation, or you can bookmark them to send afterward.
Finally, make sure you also let your partner express how he or she feels and what questions they have. “It’s part of your story, and they can take it or leave it,” Howes says. “If they leave it, it wasn’t a good match.”
It can be particularly helpful to tell your partner what depression really looks like for you.
As hard as this can be, discussing the details of how depression affects you will make it easier for your partner to know how to support you. This might include letting them know what your common symptoms are, or what you tend to struggle with when your depression becomes hard to manage. Maybe you wall yourself off from loved ones or stay up late watching TV because you can’t sleep.
Equally important is telling them how they can best support you during these times. Obviously you might not know exactly what you need or what will help, but if there’s anything that you know you’d appreciate (or not appreciate) from them when your symptoms are at their worst, let your partner know. Maybe it’s reminding you to check in with your therapist about medication or going on walks with you when you have the energy. Since depression can look so different for different people, it’s important to explain the shape it takes for you.
Ultimately, your depression is just one part of you, which means it’s just one of many factors in your relationship.
Telling your partner about your depression probably won’t change everything in the way you might fear. Depression may be a part of you, but it isn’t all of you. Try to think of it as one more important thing to be open about—like a chronic illness or the fact that you’re really into comic books.
That said, if they don’t handle the disclosure well, or if the relationship ends at some point, do your best not to assume that it’s a reflection of your worth. Having any illness, whether physical or mental, isn’t your fault, and being open about it is incredibly brave.
“Know that you’re taking a step forward and getting valuable information that will help you progress and find the right person for you,” Brustein says.