Recently I received a request from Susan, a longtime reader of my Pure Sex, Pure Love column:
How do you deal with a partner whose dealing with depression? Can you help—and if so, how? And where the lines are drawn between being supportive and looking after your own emotional needs, since depression doesn’t just affect the person going through it. Do you deal with a loved one’s depression differently if you are married versus dating?
I pondered this email as I left for my final week of the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship, where one of our lectures happened to be about the recent studied of Buddhist meditation used in the treatment of chronic depression.
The first episode of a clinical depression usually occurs in a person’s mid-20s—right when we’re finishing up school, starting jobs, in the middle of dating and early relationships or marriage. Estimates are that 1 in 6 people will experience depression at some point in their lives, and women are more likely to experience depression than men. Worse yet, if you’ve been depressed once, you’re more likely to become depressed again, and each bout of depression further increases your chances of a relapse.
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- Fake name
- Relationship status (single, dating, engaged, married, separated/divorced, widowed)
- Should Susan continue her relationship with John? (Yes/No)
- What would be your advice to Susan about how best to deal with John’s depression? (Short answer)
- Susan and John are dating. If they were married, would you offer different advice? (Yes/No)
- If yes, what kind of advice would you offer to a married person whose spouse is dealing with depression?
- In your opinion, is prayer a useful tool in treating depression? (Yes/No)
- What can the Catholic Church do to address the challenges for young-adults dealing with depression? (Short answer)
- In your opinion, should Catholics be open to meditation and practices from Buddhism and other faiths in the treatment of depression? (Yes/No)
- Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who was depressed? (Yes/No)
- If yes, how did you handle it? Please share your story. (Short answer)
In their book on mindfulness and meditation to try to stop relapses of depression, John Teasdale and three other psychologists and practitioners argue that our attempts to think our way out of depression actually make us dwell on bad thoughts that pull us back into it. Mindfulness training and meditation, they say, can help.
Mindfulness, according to Dr. Teasdale, is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are.” Enjoy little moments. Don’t try to suppress emotions, but don’t dwell on them, either. In a series of exercises over eight weeks, Dr. Teasdale’s book, along with its accompanying CD of meditation exercises, teaches awareness of body, mind and spirit.
I thought about these Buddhist principles of both being in the moment and letting go as I continued my email exchange with Susan. When you are in a relationship with someone who is depressed, you often feel like you’re getting pulled in to their sadness and mood swings, and may worry you might become depressed yourself. Can a bit of mindfulness—through prayer and meditation—help both the depressed person, and those who love her?
Susan told me she’s dated two men who have struggled with depression. In college, she dated a man named Dave who became depressed toward the end of college. He flunked out of school, and both withdrew from their relationship emotionally and also lashed out verbally at Susan. “We had some fights and lots of crying, and at some point, after much ‘trying to make it work,’ I couldn’t take it anymore and got out,” she said.
Now, she’s dating John, a freelancer who recently lost a big job contract he’d hoped would be his livelihood for the year. He’s crushed, she said, and has started down the road to depression. He has started to withdraw emotionally, and Susan is afraid that this might turn into a replay of her college relationship.
“I’m trying to figure out how much I can give and how I can be there for him. I know it’s not my responsibility to make him feel better (and conversely, that if he gets worse, it isn’t my fault), but even as logically as I understand and know that, my heart is still trying to make him feel better. I’m also scared that he could get worse, I’m scared that he’s going to find some negative way to let his emotions out, I’m scared that I’m going to get hurt in the process, and I’m scared that I’m not going to be strong enough to stick it out.”
This is a big topic— and before I weigh in with some specific advice and questions, I’d like to hear from you.
What do you think Susan should do? Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who was depressed? What might she do to support John through this situation? How can prayer have a role in helping a couple through depression?