Depression is a touchy topic. Many of the people I work with don’t want to acknowledge their depression. But that’s a healthy response to a lot of what’s going on in the world around us.
For people living with clinical depression, however, the low mood becomes difficult to function with. Especially when it comes to dating. But what can you do for a date mate who is struggling with it?
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The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Text Revision (DSM-5-TR) is the latest updated criteria for diagnosing mental illness. These are the standards by which someone is diagnosed with depressive disorders1.
There are quite a few diagnoses within this group of disorders. But I’m not going to go into the specifics here. Formal diagnoses should be made by a trained professional, not by a girlfriend, wife, or partner.
For the sake of this article, we’ll stick to a general understanding of depression.
Depression generally refers to a lack of engagement, enjoyment, and connection with one’s life. Someone can have bouts of depression when dealing with significant exhaustion or stress. Someone working two jobs, for example, may have less interest in their hobbies or spending time with friends.
The severity of depression varies from person to person. Those with mild depression experience fewer and less frequent depression symptoms. Those with more severe forms of depression will see a significantly higher impact on their daily life.
For many people, changes to their habits and environment can reduce or eliminate symptoms of depression. But for others, it’s more complicated.
I like to think of mental health as hiking up a mountain. Your habits and skills are your strength to climb. Your environment, the people, places, and things around you, is how steep that hill is. And your health and biological factors impact the size and shape of your hiking pack.
For many people, depression happens when the hill gets too steep. Stress from work or in an important relationship, or money issues. They feel bad, maybe they go to therapy to learn different coping skills, and when things level out, they feel better.
But for someone with chronic depression, often, the pack is heavy and awkward. Even when the ground is even, and they’re feeling strong, it’s hard to move forward. Even when things are good.
A person with chronic depression isn’t just sad. They’re not just moping. They are apathetic: sometimes they don’t feel much of anything. They might be able to go through the motions of their life, but they don’t find enjoyment in it.
For someone with depression, dating can be just as difficult as it is joyous.
Think of your favorite movie, dessert, or activity. Now imagine you just don’t care about it anymore. You want to, you know it’s your favorite. But you just… don’t.
Imagine trying to do all those things with your favorite person, and you don’t feel like it.
Depression affects dating, on both sides of the relationship2. It impacts the energy a person can bring to the relationship. Dating someone with depression might result in negative feelings on both sides.
That being said, depressed people can have healthy, happy relationships. They may need extra support to feel motivated, but they still seek connection and love.
People experiencing depression don’t experience exactly the same symptoms. And because every romantic relationship is different, symptoms impact each relationship in unique ways.
Often, depression manifests in negative thoughts about yourself and the world around you. These persistent negative thinking patterns are called cognitive distortions. These include perfectionism, black-and-white thinking, and catastrophizing, just to name a few.
These cognitive distortions might make it difficult for a depressed person to think positively. Thinking positively is not saying nice things and pretending you feel better than you do.
Positive thinking describes a pattern of positive beliefs that influences how a person understands the world around them. Problems are approached as solvable, instead of hopeless.
Because depression makes positive thinking difficult, dating a depressed man can be tricky. He may approach conflict with the assumption that even minor arguments can end the relationship. He might feel frustrated when things don’t go perfectly. You might feel like he constantly thinks the worst about you or the relationship.
People dealing with depression tend to have a limited amount of energy for self-care. In disability communities, this energy limit is often described with spoon theory. Basically, a person starts their day with a limited amount of spoons, and every task requires a set amount.
For tasks that you might not think of as difficult, take spoons. If it takes 3 spoons to start laundry, that’s not so bad. But if you started the day with just 10 spoons, that’s a huge drain. Getting into the shower or making a meal can be insurmountable.
Unfortunately, a lot of care tasks are important for regulating mood. It’s much easier to manage depression with regular sleep and balanced eating than without.
Being in a relationship with someone who has depression will probably challenge your ideas of low-energy activities. Your partner might take a longer time to recharge from events. He might eat out a lot more often than he cooks. He might use mouthwash because it’s too hard to brush his teeth.
These might seem like things every person should be able to do. Remember, depression can serve as an invisible barrier.
One of the depressive symptoms that I hear the most of as a therapist is a lack of interest or pleasure. It’s hard not to feel hopeless when you can’t enjoy time with friends, your favorite food, or even sex.
This lack of interest can result in social withdrawal. A depressed man might have difficulty building and maintaining friendships. He can find it hard to commit to social events. Even if he likes spending time with people, it can be hard to get out of the house.
You might notice that your partner will spend a long-awaited vacation scrolling on their phone instead of going to the beach. He may express excitement about plans and then lose interest when the time comes to go out.
Being able to manage emotions is a skill that takes practice and intent. For someone with depression, there might not be enough extra energy to express themselves in a healthy way.
Some depressed people have a flat affect or lack of emotional expression. Dating this person can be frustrating because you don’t know what they’re feeling. It’s hard to get a feel for what they like or don’t like because they can’t express themselves to you.
On the other hand, some people can’t keep themselves on an even keel. A negative thought spiral can lead to feeling overwhelmed. They might lash out. You might feel hurt by your partner if they use unkind or derogatory language, even if he apologizes afterward.
If you find it difficult to connect with your partner emotionally, it might be a sign of depression.
Alcohol, cannabis, and other substances change the way our brain interacts with the world. A lot of people with mental health struggles use substances to cope with difficult situations and experiences3.
The use of substances is not in and of itself a terrible thing. A lot of people have a glass of wine to unwind at the end of the night. Many people use and hold a prescription for cannabis products to manage stress, pain, and appetite issues.
Unfortunately, when someone uses substances as a way to cope with stress, it’s easy to develop a substance use disorder. The line is crossed when substance use interferes with daily activities.
A lot of people think about driving under the influence or not being able to go to work as signs of substance abuse. But other signs include difficulty handling conflict or using substances to avoid responsibilities.
If you’re dating someone with depression, you might notice significant use of substances as a way to cope with stress.
Something to keep in mind here is that mental health issues can occur together. For a lot of people, depression is experienced alongside anxiety. The cognitive distortions that contribute to depression can just as effectively cause anxiety.
It can be difficult to tell if he’s interested if he has depression. His communication is probably spotty. He could be making and breaking plans with you. But someone who isn’t interested in dating wouldn’t make an effort to stay in contact and make plans in the first place.
See if he would be willing to pick a way to let you know when his mood is low. A codeword or even just an emoji can be a way for you to know that he’s not just blowing you off.
You will not always know how to help when you’re dating someone with depression. You might feel frustrated. That’s okay.
The first thing to keep in mind is that everyone needs support in different ways. Ask your partner what it is that they need, and listen, actively. If your partner is having a difficult time answering you, table the discussion for later.
If you have the energy, offer tangible help that can make things take less energy. Offer to drive him to pick up his meds. Help with meal prep. You might even open the windows to air out the apartment.
These may seem like things he should be able to do on his own. When he’s feeling his best, he probably can take care of these maintenance tasks. For now, though, he may need help.
Our environment has a big influence on our ability to do the things we need to do. For people with disabilities, physical or mental, their environment determines how much they can participate in their lives4.
KC Davis, a licensed professional therapist, maintains that changing our environment to suit our needs is the key to managing our energy. She suggests ways to address depressive habits based on the principle that care tasks are morally neutral. That is, you’re not a bad person for caring for yourself in ways that don’t fit into “normal” ways of functioning.
Consider laundry. For some people, hanging up and folding clothes is a relatively easy task. But for someone dealing with depression, it can be a big hurdle. Having a laundry bag or basket ready to hold clean clothes can make it easier to keep up with washing clothes. That makes it easier to stay clean, which makes it easier to function.
What about what you eat? A balanced diet has positive impacts on mood5 so making it easier to eat a balance of carbs, proteins, and fats can be beneficial for maintaining positive energy. Keeping easy-to-eat, shelf-stable snacks close at hand can make it easier for your partner to get up and start their day.
Encourage your partner to consult a dietitian or nutritionist if they have food restrictions or difficulty eating.
Remember, you’re not responsible for taking control of his entire environment. You can just make suggestions and help him make the changes he thinks he needs.
Physical activity can be just as beneficial to mental health as to physical. There are many proposed reasons for this, including improved blood flow, distraction, and increased social interaction6. What everyone can agree on is that it improves mood and reduces anxiety.
If you’re dating a depressed man who has difficulty getting out of the house, I don’t recommend starting with a 5-mile jog. Instead, invite him to join you as you walk your dog. Ask him to dance with you, fast or slow, to songs you both love. Try games that require movement, like Just Dance.
If he’s able to get out of the house a bit more, invite him to make walking together a weekly thing. Consider biking, just the two of you, or in a group. Maybe one or both of you can join a local sports team, and playing or attending games is a way to get the heart going.
Your partner may find it difficult to get started. But the two of you will probably find it’s not hard at all over time. It’s much easier to get moving once you’ve already established a routine,
A lot of people wait until their relationship is on the rocks before seeking help. But speaking with a professional who knows how to help the two of you communicate can be helpful. And sometimes you need someone not involved in the relationship to see problems clearly.
In couples counseling, the relationship is the client, not you or your partner individually. The point is to identify ways for both of you to contribute to improving the relationship.
Couples counseling can help you and your partner identify the negative effects of his depression on your relationship. Then they can help you two skillfully navigate negotiations and potential conflict.
You’re not going to completely eradicate depression. If you make that your goal, you’ll do more harm to the relationship than good. Your partner has been managing depression a lot longer than you have. They have to live with it.
Acceptance is understanding that your partner has depression and working with it, not against it. It’s not approval of your partner’s habits and actions. It’s simply understanding where they come from and addressing their impact in a way that works.
For example, imagine you live with your partner who struggles with cooking meals. You could buy ingredients and tell him to cook, and then you could throw away the rotten veggies neither of you touched. Or you can stock up on healthy frozen meals that can be prepared quickly.
Maybe your partner has sudden bouts of depression. You could get angry that he can’t go out with you for date night. Or you could use the list of date-night movies you made together and have a night in, cuddling.
Acceptance isn’t necessarily easy. You will have to remind yourself, over and over, to practice.
Managing his depression is not your job.
Romantic relationships suffer when one party is made responsible for the other’s mental and emotional well-being. It’s important to make sure you don’t take on more than you can handle. You are not a trained mental health professional. Even if you were, you wouldn’t be your partner’s therapist.
Instead, identify for yourself what you can help with and what you can’t. Having healthy boundaries can allow you to focus on yourself.
If you’ve been dealing with your partner’s depression for a long time, it can be easy to feel discouraged. In that case, seek out emotional support from friends and family, and support groups for partners of people with depression.
Make sure you are focused on your own physical and emotional needs. Neglecting your own self-care in order to support him will only burn you out. Make sure that you are socializing, moving, and staying hydrated.
Lastly, please don’t hesitate to reach out for professional support if you feel like you might need it. Therapy is not only for people with diagnosed depression. A licensed therapist or certified life coach can help you to maintain your own health as you navigate dating a depressed man.
It can be hard to feel like the guy you’re seeing is still into you if he doesn’t have the energy to contact you and go on dates. If you’re worried, talk to him about setting up a way to let you know he’s feeling low, like a unique emoji.
If you don’t experience depression yourself, you might think you don’t know how to date someone with depression. As long as you are willing to be patient and focus on your own needs as well as your partner’s, you’ll be fine.
Depression doesn’t stop people from seeking connection and falling in love. Someone living with depression might need a little more support when it comes to participating in a relationship, but that doesn’t mean they don’t fall in love.
The only way to know how to help someone is to listen to their needs. Your boyfriend might show signs of depression and not know. If you believe this to be the case, you can gently encourage him to seek couples counseling with you.
Depression can complicate an otherwise healthy relationship. If you and your partner aren’t sure if he has depression, there are a few signs to look out for and a few tips for handling your relationship with loving kindness.