Even though my husband and I share the same diagnosis — it doesn’t mean we always understand each other. Here are some tips I’ve learned to navigate our different needs.
My husband, Paul, and I realized we were meant for each other when we finished each other’s quotes from “The Simpsons” on our first date. Once we made our relationship official, everything was coming up Milhouse as we first attempted couple-y dates, like going to art museums and fancy new restaurants.
This shifted into the less impressive stage of staying at home, ordering pizza, and marathoning episodes of “The Simpsons,” or as we came to call it, “Homer.” Now after 4 years of marriage, we examine weird bumps on our bodies and still quote our favorite sitcom.
While our relationship has been and continues to be smooth sailing, we have hit a few storms. Both Paul and I have been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and anxiety. Since clinical depression isn’t a one-size-fits-all diagnosis, our symptoms don’t mirror each other.
Through the help of couples counseling, individual therapy, and a bit of trial and error, we’ve learned how to help each other best. The following techniques often help us navigate the complexities of depression together.
As is true in any relationship, not just romantic ones, communication is crucial. We only discovered that we didn’t know how to communicate with each other when we went to couples therapy. As Kamilah Stevenson, a health coach and counselor, explained, “Communication is a dance that requires the perfect blend of listening, expressing, understanding, and patience.”
My husband and I quickly learned that we needed to work on our dance steps and had been following the wrong choreography. Some of the biggest pitfalls we fell into, and that Stevenson noted are quite common, included assuming and not actively listening.
At times, I would assume how my husband was feeling without actually asking him, and vice-versa. We would bottle emotions up and then unleash them all at once, usually starting with something trivial like, “Why aren’t you doing the dishes?” all the way up to “I don’t feel supported by you.”
As Whitney McSparran, a clinical counselor with Thriveworks in Cleveland, who specializes in relationships and depression, described, “These assumptions are usually negative and are coming from a place of unaddressed hurt. A statement like ‘I washed the towels’ can easily end up being heard as ‘You don’t pull your weight around the house’ when assumptions are at play.”
To alleviate this problem, we now tell each other how we feel in the moment. We don’t store up our emotions for a rainy day — we ask clarifying questions.
McSparran provided what a sample question may sound like: “Saying ‘Hey, when you said you washed the towels, I felt like you were saying I don’t do enough around the house. Was that what you meant?’ can either avoid a lot of hurt feelings or open up a bigger conversation about how the relationship feels.”
Earlier in our relationship, both my husband and I didn’t fully listen to each other. When he explained how he was feeling, my mind immediately launched into how I could fix him.
McSparran noted, “If your focus when your partner is speaking is on what you want to say next or how to ‘fix’ whatever they are sharing with you, you’ve already lost. Not only is this approach counterproductive and prevents you from understanding what your partner actually needs from you, but it can also leave your partner feeling dismissed and unheard.”
Now when Paul tells me how he’s feeling overwhelmed or is struggling to make a decision, I simply listen to him, and he does the same for me. Rather than try to provide solutions, we acknowledge the other one’s feelings.
“I feel” statements are a useful tool in our communication. McSparran defined why: “Ambiguity breeds conflict and ‘I’ statements are the backbone of clarity. They allow us to speak directly and clearly about what we want, need, feel, or think.”
Prior to using “I feel” statements, my husband and I would say things like, “You’re being a jerk” or “Why can’t you ever take out the trash?” These accusations immediately put the other one on guard, and we felt the need to defend ourselves.
We’ve found that rewording these comments has helped our conversations feel less combative. For instance, instead of saying “You’re being a jerk,” we now say, “I feel really hurt right now” or “When you don’t take out the trash, I feel like you’re not helping me around the house, and that makes me frustrated.” This in turn opens up a healthier conversation.
It’s a word that pops up a lot in modern psychology, but self-care plans are important! Paul and I both struggle with self-care, which as McSparran pointed out, isn’t uncommon with depression.
Some of our self-care plans overlap, like checking in about our medication and ensuring we’re getting a healthy amount of sleep. Other parts of it vary. For instance, dance makes me happy while my husband prefers video games.
We’ve learned it’s healthy if our self-care plans don’t exactly match. As Stevenson said, “While it’s important to share activities and experiences, it’s equally important to respect and provide for personal space and time. Everyone needs a moment to recharge and enjoy their own company.”
When asked to describe couples counseling, Stevenson said, “Couples counseling is a transformative journey for couples battling depression. It creates a space where love meets understanding, where challenges transform into growth, and where couples find new ways to connect amidst the chaos.”
I certainly found this to be true for Paul and me. Couples counseling often gets a bad reputation, and it’s assumed that if you and your partner go to couples counseling, the relationship is doomed. This misconception is only true if one or both of you has already mentally given up. However, if you want to better communicate with each other, then couples counseling can be quite helpful.
Stevenson further elaborated, “Couples counseling isn’t just about managing the present; it’s also about shaping the future. It supports recovery by involving the other partner in the process, promoting a shared journey toward healing.” While couples counseling is helpful, it shouldn’t serve as a replacement for individual counseling but rather as an additional resource.
Like any mental illness, depression differs for everyone. My husband’s and my depression manifest in different ways, and our triggers vary. It can also be difficult to pinpoint exactly what causes a depressive spell since sometimes it seemingly comes out of nowhere.
To better help one another, we’ve done our best to understand our own unique brand of depression and explain it to the other. This is where the “I feel” statements come in handy — as well as a whole lot of trust. Without trust, we wouldn’t feel comfortable opening up to each other. Keep in mind that trust isn’t something built overnight.
There are also several resources available to help you better understand your depression. Stevenson recommends the following:
Relationships are complicated. They’re even more convoluted when you add in depression. However, that doesn’t mean two partners who both have depression can’t have a healthy relationship. With a bit of love, support, and proper communication, you can ensure your relationship is one “big toasty cinnamon bun.”
Medically reviewed on June 22, 2023
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