In order for a marriage to have a fighting chance when one member is suffering from depression, it is crucial that their spouse understand what to say and what not to say in order to support their partner through a very painful time in their life. It is often difficult to know what to say to a depressed partner. As crucial as what we do say is what we don’t say to someone who is depressed. While the following list can apply to either gender, I have decided to create this article with men in particular in mind, since there are often differences in how depression manifests in men and women.
Additionally, men can be particularly sensitive to certain reactions and labels, due to messages they are sent by our culture from a young age. They are told that it is okay to feel angry, but not sad or afraid, for example, so it is often more difficult for men to recognize and discuss these feelings. Due to these differences and others, I have created the following for those whose partners are men suffering from depression.
Things NOT to say your depressed male partner (or anyone else suffering from depression):
1. Get over it.
If you’ve been reading about depression you’ve probably heard this one before, and it’s a bad thing to say to anyone who is feeling badly, since it just encourages them to bury their feelings, making the problem much worse. Men may be especially sensitive to this one in certain ways since society sends them messages from an early age that certain feelings make them less of a man.
Men often feel ashamed of their depressive feelings, worrying that it means they are weak or somehow deficient, and telling them to get over it simply makes the depression worse. If they are made to feel more ashamed, they may start to pretend that they don’t feel depressed.. This can actually leave them feeling even more alone since they no longer safe to share how they feel. There is a whole myriad of ways to tell them to “get over it” including “look on the bright side,” “don’t dwell on it,” and or anything else that implies that they should feel differently than they do.
It is normal to want your partner not to be depressed since it makes life harder for both of you. However, the way to help them is NOT telling them how they should feel but being their teammate in their battle with depression. It is hard for many partners to believe that it is often helpful to sit, listen, perhaps even silently. They might feel they are doing nothing because they are saying nothing. However, in a culture that emphasizes doing over being, silent listening can be an incredibly valuable gift.
2. “I know exactly how you feel.”
This sounds like it might be helpful, but in reality, we never know exactly how someone else feels, so this statement can, in fact, make the listener feel even less understood. Assuming you know exactly how another person feels doesn’t leave room for them to talk about their experience. It is a conversation stopper that can make the depressed person feel more alone rather than less. It is a common misconception that people who are suffering need you to feel exactly how they feel. Although they may express a desire for this, it is not necessary in order to be helpful. You only have to demonstrate that you are interested and willing to listen. In that process, you might LEARN how they feel, thereby growing more connected with each other, which is about the best thing in the world for your depressed partner.
3. “Don’t be so angry.”
A very common if not a universal symptom of depression is irritability or anger. The roots of depression lie in the misplacement of anger on oneself, so it is very important that a person who is depressed be given the space to feel angry. Ironically, the safer they are to feel angry, the less depressed they will be. This is a complex concept that can easily be misunderstood, but the main point for spouses is to make sure not to send messages that they are wrong for feeling anything, especially anger. This DOES NOT mean that it is okay to EXPRESS this anger in any way they like. There are constructive and destructive ways of expressing it. Attacking or berating, or expressing anger that is in any way physically intimidating is NOT okay and it is important to set limits around any such behavior. You are not obligated to tolerate any of this behavior, and it is VERY important to separate FEELINGS from BEHAVIORS.
A constructive way of expressing it would be to talk about how they feel or channel into a productive activity. Saying, “I’m feeling very angry right now,” can be very constructive. Making space for anger can then lead to deeper discussions where you can uncover feelings buried beneath the anger.
By the way, this item applies even more to women, as women in our society are often taught that it is not okay to feel angry, so men, you need to be an advocate for the women in your life to be allowed to feel angry as well. My next article will on what men shouldn’t say to their wives who are suffering from depression.
4. “Just leave it to me.”
It is very important to remember that it is not your responsibility to cure your partners depression. This can lead to many unhealthy, sometimes called codependent, dynamics. Not only is taking responsibility for your partner’s depression a set up for failure, but it is also a set up for you to feel resentful of them when it ultimately doesn’t work. Additionally, your partner will then begin to feel more like a failure because they aren’t getting better, and feel like they are letting you down. If you find yourself feeling responsible for your partner’s depression, it is a red flag that you probably need to seek treatment yourself.
Understanding their depression and its relationship to anger is HIS job to work out with a therapist. Your job is just to try to know what you can and can’t do AS HIS PARTNER to support him. EVERYONE is responsible for their own feelings and behavior, even as they may struggle to understand and control them.
Encourage their partner to get into treatment.
Listen without judgment.
Offer affection and support.
Remind your partner that they are lovable.
Feel responsible for their partner’s depression.
Feel frustrated with themselves if the depression doesn’t go away.
Blame their partner for their depression.
Discourage anything that they are feeling, as long as it is done safely.
Convey the message that they should simply be able to get over it in any way.
Depression can sometimes take a long time to treat, so it is important to be patient. However, with good quality therapy and support from those they love, most depression is very treatable. Treatment can bring rewards that one never thought possible. Beneath depression often lies hidden energy, talents, and passions that the sufferer hadn’t felt in years, or didn’t even know they had, so there are plenty of reasons for hope if you are patient with yourself and your partner.
This article was originally published on Marriage.com 4 Things Not to Say to Your Depressed Husband
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About Dr. John Lundin
Dr. Lundin is a licensed clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area, with offices in San Francisco and Oakland California, specializing in relationship therapy for adults and depression therapy for adults, teens, and children. He is an instructor, supervisor and author of numerous publications on trauma therapy, psychotherapy for depression & anxiety and what makes psychotherapy effective.