Welcome to Relationship Helpers! This week therapists Vincent and Laura are discussing nine things you can do to support your spouse who is suffering from depression.
If this is your first time listening or haven’t heard us speak on depression before, be sure to check out our other episodes on depression (How Discouragement Leads to Depression & Depression and the Whole Person. And episodes 54 through 63 where we discussion 101 different activities that you can do to help improve your mood.)
Today’s episode marks the fifth episode in an eight part series on “How To Support A Spouse…” Each week we are addressing the problems mental health issues can bring to marriage and ways to cope through recovery. Learn how to help your spouse who is struggling with depression by reading further.
Help Them Become Aware Of It
Many people are not attuned to their depression—they may not even realize they have it. You may play a role in helping them combat denial. This must be done delicately.
Gentle observations that start with “I’ve noticed that (when it’s time to go to work you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning)” are much more effective than “You always sleep too late!” Or “You sleep all the time!”
Another example would be “I’ve noticed that you really enjoyed your exercise class in the past, but lately you’ve not been going and you seem sad.” This is a nice segue into showing your spouse they are no longer doing an activity that they once enjoyed, which is a sign of depression.
Reframe What They Say In A Positive Way
People who struggle with depression have a tendency to speak negatively as though much of what they say goes through a negative filter. Your job as the supportive spouse is to challenge their unhelpful thinking habits.
Catastrophizing is a common unhelpful thinking habit. This is thinking that the worst possible scenario is going to happen. If you hear your spouse catastrophize, you can ask them “What’s the likelihood that the worst thing is going to happen?”
If your spouse just got a ding in their car, rather than fixating on the new flaw, you can say, “Your car has more character.” That would be a “re-frame” of the situation—taking a bad situation and making it less severe.
Vincent gives the example of a positive reframe through the situation of a person staining a shirt and how that person could be upset about it, but that the supportive spouse could compliment them on how creative they were with mixing and matching to make a new outfit out of another top.
Someone who is depressed is his or her own worst critic. Let them know that friends and loved ones would not think these negative things about them so why should they. This is a CAREFUL conversation though, as self-awareness about depression without the ability to cope is unhelpful.
The person suffering depression is already beating themselves up, they don’t need someone adding to it. They need someone supportive enough to say “Hey, okay, we see that you’re thinking a negative thought, but just because you’re having a negative thought you don’t have to judge yourself as bad.”
In other words, recognize negative thoughts non-judgmentally. Someone can have a negative thought and let it pass for other thoughts to come through, much like cars on a train passing by. One does not stay stuck on the tracks, others take its place. It’s shifting the mind by saying “Okay, I had a negative thought, moving on.” instead of “I had a negative thought, I’m a bad person, something bad is going to happen.”
Engage Them In Conversation
Find opportunities to initiate conversation with your spouse. Schedule meals when you can eat together.
Don’t fall into the trap our busy culture has created. Don’t make a plate and go do your own thing behind a tv or closed doors, sit down together at the dinner table and talk.
Our busy culture has made it more difficult to be intimate and relational. Put away your phones. It’s very isolating. We have to be intentional about how we spend our time.
Many couples struggle with praying together, but it is a very beneficial weapon against depression. Being prayerful means putting yourself in a vulnerable position.
This is particularly difficult with couples who struggle with resentment towards one another. Prayer forces you to lower walls and defenses. It refocuses you upon God instead of yourself.
Prayer also shifts our focus onto what we are grateful for. People who struggle with depression have difficulty maintaining focus on the positives so making a habit out of praying together is practicing gratitude and positive thinking.
Be sure not to isolate yourself just because your spouse has. You run the risk of isolation and depression yourself if you stay at home and entertain their way of thinking.
Just because your spouse does not want to participate at some family function or go to some activity does not mean you shouldn’t. You need to be getting out and have social interaction to take care of yourself.
(Disclaimer: This does not mean you should avoid your spouse. When you care for yourself it fuels you to be a more supportive spouse.)
Encourage Them To Seek Help
Not only would it be helpful for your depressed spouse to seek therapy, it may be helpful for you to seek help, as well. A therapist can help you see how you may be contributing to the situation. The therapist can give you direction into how you can be supportive as well as teach you how not to enable certain negative behaviors of your spouse.
Also, if you seek therapy yourself, it may encourage your spouse to do so as well. You can even make it a part of initiating conversation by saying, “I’ve noticed that when I go to therapy I’ve been able to learn so much and feel so much better. It’s been a positive thing.”
Your spouse may benefit from talking to a counselor, support group or pastor. A bible study or club may be a great social outlet for them to interact with others as well as give them an opportunity to talk to someone other than their spouse. Some churches have Stephens Ministers who are laypeople specially trained to support people who need someone to talk to.
Oftentimes when a spouse struggles with depression, their marriage suffers because a toxic, parasitic relationship develops where the depressed spouse requires too much of their spouse. Having other social outlets and therapy can help to create balance in your relationship.
Plan Some Fun Things To Do
Have you done anything fun? Have you avoided it? Have you intentionally pursued fun or have you put too much on your plate?
As marriage counselors we like to get our client’s relationship history. What do couples normally do at the beginning of their relationship? They have fun.
Reminiscing about the fun you had early in your relationship could be a great opportunity to inspire you to do some of those things again. Many times couples become complacent. They don’t do the things they used to enjoy. Remembering these activities and doing them anew could be a great mood-lifter and marriage-enhancer.
Encouraging Them To Be More Socially Engaged
This must be done with care. If your spouse has completely withdrawn, it would probably be most helpful to approach social activities in baby steps. This could mean instead of not going to a function, committing to fifteen minutes of it to see what it is like.
It may be something as simple as having coffee at a coffee shop or walking around a store. A trip to the park may be a small step towards getting out more. Visiting friends may be a larger step.
Volunteer work is an excellent opportunity to be social but also can help someone feel like they are contributing to a greater cause, making them feel purpose.
Help Them To Learn Healthy Coping Skills
When people have depression they often feel stuck. Sometimes it’s hard for them to get creative with ways to improve their moods. In our series “101 Ways to Cope With Anxiety & Depression” you’ll find tons of low to no-cost activities that are healthy and mood-boosting. We’ve included a free PDF (link here) of this list to inspire you.
Coping skills are different for different people, depending on their likes and dislikes and skillsets. Our purpose in creating a list of 101 activities was to prove that there is always SOMETHING that you can do. You can’t say ‘no’ to all 101 activities. That is encouraging!
Other helpful coping skills that you can encourage your spouse to partake in include spiritual disciplines such as gratitude journaling. This is a great way to praise God for what you do have and to shift your focus from the negative to the positive.
An added bonus is that if you date when things occur in your gratitude journal, you can look back in your journal and remember these great times. It can be a mood-shifter. Vincent mentions that through his own prayer journaling, he has been able to see how faithful God has been. He has found it to be very encouraging.
Another great spiritual activity is praising God through song. If the music you are listening to is bringing you down, it may not be in your best interests to continue listening to it. Instead, singing praise songs is a way to shift a negative mindset to a positive one.
We see through the spiritual discipline of bible study how people such as Paul praised God through imprisonment, as well as people like Job who suffered through loss and infirmity, weathered trials through faith. These people’s lives are examples of the benefits of actively seeking God through trials.
Don’t Belittle or Minimize Your Spouse’s Feelings or Symptoms of Depression
We have included many suggestions today, but they very well could fall on deaf ears if they are not presented in a loving, kind way. Many spouses who are trying to encourage their depressed spouse actually do it wrong. They get frustrated and sometimes make the situation worse.
When your spouse is having a difficult time, don’t immediately go up to them and say, “You need to do this…” or “You need to do that…” Instead, they need you to listen. They do not need you to “fix it.”
Validate how they feel. Mirror what you are hearing. We call this reflective listening. This helps them feel heard.
Reflective listening also helps both of you to think deeper about things, otherwise you are left with just a bunch of “yes” or “no” answers without what is underneath it. When you use reflective listening you are also providing an opportunity for your spouse to help correct you if you are “mis-reading” what they are saying.
Don’t say “I understand,” this comes across as dismissive. SHOW them you understand. You do this by validating their feelings, by showing empathy. This would be you putting yourself in their shoes.
Be careful, however, in your use of empathy and reflective listening. These are great starters, but if you ONLY provide these, you are not working towards a solution; it’s keeping things stuck.
Reflective listening helps as a springboard for conversation and to establish alignment with your spouse, but you will need to move forward towards healing through using the re-framing we talked about earlier, paired with some of the coping skills (ex.: ways to be more social, volunteer work, or any of a number of the coping skills in our list of 101).
We hope that today’s episode encourages you as you work to improve your marriage and help your spouse through their difficult time with depression.