The Science Of Helping A Partner With Depression

Ashley Batz for Bustle

You've met somebody, and they're great. You're all up in each other's business, everything is going perfectly, and then, they reveal they have a serious depressive disorder. What to do? Well, the first thing to know is that you won't be on your own in figuring out how to best support them: there is a lot of scientific research out there about what precisely to do to help a partner struggling with depression. Whether it's guidance regarding how to react to rejection when they're in a depressive phase, how to best express emotional openness, or whether or not to go away for a long weekend and leave them in a funk in their apartment, science has advice.

Before we even get into the specifics of scientific advice, though, the best thing you can do to start is research depression yourself; you can also get to know how your partner's depression works and how it's managed. Partners are often useful back-ups when it comes to self-care — you can encourage structures that help your partner manage their symptoms, including getting them to take their medication, wash, get out of bed and eat properly, which is a good place to start. But you've got to do it in a way that's sustainable, doesn't make you their parent, and lets them help you in turn when you have an issue. It can be a tricky balance to strike, but luckily, there's a bit of expert advice out there to help you.

Give Love In Large Amounts

A new study gives a clue as to the best ways to support depressive spouses or partners. And it raises the issue of emotional "feedback loops" related to our self-esteem, that impact how we perceive the support of our partners, and our depression overall. It looked at self-esteem and supportive behavior in 6,385 heterosexual couples, and found that even if your partner's in a depressive loop and isn't responding well to love and affection, you should give it to 'em anyway.

The scientists defined caregiving as "displays of emotional accessibility, emotional responsiveness, and engagement," and noted that both partners in couple both give and receive it. How we perceive care, it seems, depends a lot on our own self-esteem. If we've got higher self-esteem, we show more "caregiving responsiveness," regardless of gender. Part of this, it seems, is that people with low self-esteem are less likely to see or believe in their partner's supportive behavior, or to seek support or help at all.

The scientists point out that this could lead to a pretty problematic cycle. If a partner has low self-esteem, they say, they sometimes won't go looking for help from their partners, who in turn might not be encouraged to be particularly supportive. According to the report, "This may feed into the lower self-esteem of the original partner, who may have difficulty recognizing positive caregiving from the other, which loops back into the negative cycle."

If the cycle goes the other way, however, it can be helpful. Giving support to partners who are struggling, even if their self-esteem doesn't really let them voice it or makes them reject help, boosts their perception of self-worth and lowers the risk of depressive episodes in the future. This was particularly the case with women in the study; the study also found that men's self-esteem was often boosted by being the caring partner. The gender angle also came into play when it came to relationship stability: the more unstable the relationship was, the less likely women were to say that their partners were responding well to caring behavior.

Here's the lesson here: if your partner's having a bad time, being open and loving, listening to them, and giving affection in whatever way they prefer, are always good ideas. It'll help them right now, and in the future, too.

Minimize Your Separation

A fascinating series of studies reported on by Scientific American in 2009 explain why leaving a depressive partner on their own for more than three or four days at a time will actually raise the risk of increasing their depressive symptoms — and it turns out to be more complicated than simple heartache.

Humans in romantic relationships, it seems, experience disturbances and emotional issues when separated for their partners for about 4-7 days, and show higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Similar findings have also been noted in voles, intriguingly enough. Being without a partner, therefore, increases your stress levels, but cortisol also has what seems to be a pretty strong causal relationship with major depressive disorder. A 2013 review of the science showed that "higher levels of cortisol are a risk for subsequent depression," and that monitoring cortisol levels is a useful avenue of study for depression in general. The conclusion? If you two need to be apart for an extended period of time, don't just assume things will take care of themselves; develop a game plan to help both of you cope.

Think About Getting Help Yourself

Research demonstrates that supporting partners dealing with depression can actually be pretty stressful itself. In 2016, for instance, a link was found between being the partner of a person with depression and experiencing chronic pain, possibly because of shared environmental stresses. And a series of interviews with partners of depressed people in 2016 gave the distinct impression that such partnerships are a shifting experience, with challenges to overcome and family dynamics to change in response. Scientists conducting the interviews concluded that it should be pretty commonly recommended that people with seriously depressed partners get psychological help themselves, particularly in the early stages of your partner's diagnosis or the early stages of your relationship, when you're still figuring everything out. You deserve to have support, too.