It started with a mean comment about his appearance. Then, over Thanksgiving dinner, I barely said a word to anyone, which he took as me not wanting to spend time with his family. We wound up fighting two weeks in a row. I didn’t know how to tell my partner that I was depressed, not trying to be distant. I couldn’t have predicted how much closer we’d become when I was finally able to explain.
When I began feeling depressed back in October — thanks in part to the challenge of leaving a burnout-inducing job — I wasn’t sure if or how I should tell my partner. We had only been dating for three months; until then, I could talk to him about specific, tangible difficulties I was going through, like being estranged from family members and challenges at work. This bout of mental illness, though, was harder to bring up. I was worried telling him would strain our relationship, but keeping my depression from him wound up doing exactly that.
I've been in therapy for three years to learn how to talk about my emotional needs, something I never learned growing up, but this was my first time navigating a down period in a brand-new relationship. In fact, it was my first serious relationship, period. Thanks to pervasive mental-health stigma — a 2019 CBS poll found that 9 in 10 people think discrimination is an issue for those with mental illness — it can be impossible to know how a new partner will react when you open up about your mental health. Sometimes people don’t know how to support a depressed partner. Others might feel like it’s “their fault” their loved one is struggling. The condition can show up differently for everyone, so even if someone’s previously dated a person with depression, the same coping skills or reassurances might not be relevant.
I was worried telling him would strain our relationship, but keeping my depression from him wound up doing exactly that.
Patrice N. Douglas, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says a person you’re dating doesn’t have to be depressed to understand what you’re going through. “They need to know what you’re thinking or feeling so they can support [you],” she says.
New York-based psychotherapist Liz Beecroft suggests asking yourself questions to help find the right words to verbalize how you feel. Are you exhausted? Sad? Irritable? Are you struggling with motivation? Are you concerned for your safety when you’re down?
It wasn’t until a casual miscommunication a few days after Thanksgiving — I thought we were going out for dinner, he wanted to stay home and make mac and cheese — escalated into an argument that I was able to put what I’d been feeling into words. When he told me he was dedicated to making our relationship work, I felt safe enough to tell him about what I’d been going through. I told him how empty and hopeless I felt, that I couldn’t sleep, that I’d lost most of my appetite. To my surprise, he softened his voice and asked, “How can I best support you right now?”
That’s when our relationship began to change. When I texted that I was in a bout of sadness, he said he would make the trek from Queens to Brooklyn just to hold me. In the mornings, he started asking if I’d slept OK the night before, knowing that insomnia is one of my symptoms. He’d cook dinner for me whenever he could, knowing I often don’t have the energy to make more than cereal. He started sharing why he was feeling anxious, too. Now, I remind him to eat and drink regularly, because it helps him feel more grounded.
Since my partner and I have been more open, we’ve started cheering each other on whenever we complete a self-care ritual, or take a step towards owning our mental health. Checking in with each other daily about how we’re feeling has become vital to our relationship. Open communication doesn’t have to be scary — and even when it is, it helps avoid those fights over mac and cheese.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.
Patrice N. Douglas, LMFT
Liz Beecroft, LMSW