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How to cope with a depressed spouse

Standing on the side lines when your spouse battles depression can feel like a helpless experience. You might feel confused, frustrated and overwhelmed. You might feel like every attempt you make to “help” is either rejected or ignored.

Depression isn’t a choice or a little case of the blues. It’s a physical illness as serious and life-altering as diabetes. A depressed spouse can’t just “snap out of it”, or “get on with life.” It is an isolating illness that can negatively impact relationships and leave loved ones feeling helpless, frustrated and afraid.

When one spouse is depressed, the marriage is depressed. This illness erodes emotional and sexual intimacy, and fills the relationship with pessimism, resentment and anger. Even the sunniest spouse can be pulled into the dark hole of depression. You may be overwhelmed by extra household chores that your spouse is too lethargic to finish, resentful because your spouse won’t just ‘snap out of it’, or feel that you’re somehow to blame for the illness itself. You may feel alone yet unwilling to tell anyone there’s depression in your household, or you may simply wonder when the sparkle and joy, the humour and fun seeped out of your marriage.

The mood in major depression is often described as sad, hopeless, discouraged or feeling down, but it can also include persistent anger. Angry outbursts and blaming others is common. Social withdrawal and lack of interest or pleasure are common among depressed people. Depression may cause your spouse seem not to care about finding joy anymore.

All of these factors can make it difficult to know how to help a depressed spouse. But your support is vitally important nonetheless. You can’t cure your spouse’s depression, but you can help them along the journey to recovery.

Get a diagnosis 

The first thing to do when your spouse behaves in a suspicious manner is to educate yourself. There’s plenty of material to help you determine if certain a behavioural pattern is really something to worry about. Learn of the symptoms, but don’t draw conclusions yet.

Get a professional diagnosis from your health professional. Don’t assume anything. Ask your spouse if it’s okay for you to attend the evaluation together. When you’re down that low, you may not be able to express what’s going on or even realize what all the symptoms are. And your spouse may not be able to be attentive on the treatment recommendations the doctor makes. And if you’re going to live with a spouse with this condition for better or worse, you need to know what you’re dealing with, and what kind of support you should offer.

Be alert to small changes

Depression can come on slowly, almost imperceptibly. You look for all types of other explanations: “We just had a new baby, it’s a tough time at work, it’s a phase”, spouses would often conclude. It can take a while to notice the pattern, or to be ready to accept that depression might be the cause.

Often it’s up to the non-depressed spouse to take the lead. The illness itself often prevents depressed people from recognizing that something’s wrong or that they to seek help. They may feel too lethargic or withdrawn, or may think they can fix it alone.

Be gentle

Never blurt threats out like: “You better shape-up or I’m out of here. I just can’t deal with your moods anymore.”

In order to begin the process of healing, approach your spouse with concern and with an action plan. You might say, “I’m concerned about how feeling tired and losing your appetite are affecting you. You deserve to feel better. Our doctor may be able to help you, and I’d like to arrange a time when we can meet with her. Next week, I can go on Wednesday or Friday. What’s good for you?”

When you delay taking action, you make it harder on your marriage, as long-term depression does. Inevitably, you also make the illness tougher to treat and more likely to recur. Consequently, it’ll leave the patient in despair. The most chilling risk of it all is that it leaves open the very real possibility of suicide.

Keep doing stuff you both enjoy

Depression, like many mental health problems, can take over your life. It’s important to remember and remind your spouse that depression doesn’t define who they are. As a spouse, they have roles and interests. Being able to fulfil these roles is a big part of recovery.

We know that exercise and staying active can protect our mental health. You may like to suggest going for a walk or visiting your favourite places. Keep trying but don’t push too much if they aren’t ready to join you.

Stay on the same team

The enemy is depression, not your spouse. Unite to tackle the illness rather than allowing it to drive your marriage apart. We understand this isn’t easy. But actively work to help your spouse get better. Practical advice and tips can help, but sometimes rather than trying to ‘fix a problem’, it’s better to listen to your spouse. Be a safe place for them to turn to. Don’t reinforce their isolationist attitude by making them feel alone.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group is Africa’s largest mental health support and advocacy group. You may contact them for counselling queries at: or their 24hr helpline, 0800121314

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