If you’re dealing with a depressed girlfriend, here’s how to help without making it worse.
I’ve been dating my girlfriend for almost a year. She is 25 and has had depression much of her life.
She tells me she is hopeless, wants to die, and is not sure how much longer she can go on like this. She sees a therapist and psychiatrist regularly.
When I ask, she’ll tell me that it wasn’t this dark when we started dating. (I think?) She can recognize how the recent events may have impacted her emotionally as well. I get confused and frustrated when she says things like “there is no hope and it’s not going to ever get better” because she’ll also tell me that it wasn’t like this a few months ago.
Is it normal for someone who has severe depression to not be able to acknowledge and recognize that she wasn’t feeling this hopeless not that long ago?
Is there anything I can do to help her see past those blinders?
I have hope for her and I want her to be able to see that there is hope since she didn’t always feel like this. I am aware that’s not my job and that I can’t make her see anything.
I would also appreciate any other feedback on how I can support her. I’ve been working on acknowledging her feelings when she says things like “I don’t want to bother you” “You’d be better off without me” and other things that are 100% not true from my perspective.
First, I’m not a licensed medical professional and this is not medical advice. If you or a loved one requires professional counseling, therapy or other intervention, please consult the appropriate professionals.
I’m glad your depressed girlfriend already has a treatment team in place. If you hadn’t mentioned she was seeking treatment for depression, I would have suggested that you help her get in contact with the appropriate mental health professionals as your first step.
Just making the first call to get help can be really, really hard when you’re clinically depressed.
With that out of the way, I’m really sorry you and your girlfriend are going through this.
When someone finds themself in a relationship with a clinically depressed partner, they can fall into a few nasty traps that don’t make the situation better at all, so I commend you on trying to get answers for how to help your depressed girlfriend.
Falling into patterns of codependency is a big problem for depressed partners. If you’re naturally a caretaker type of person, the subconscious fact you have a new “project,” namely “Help Fix My Girlfriend’s Depression” can be a really, really seductive idea.
Suddenly, you have renewed purpose in life. Fixing your girlfriend’s depression.
This attitude will cause you heartache to no end.
In the case of clinical depression, wondering how you can fix your girlfriend’s depression is like googling how you can cure your girlfriend’s cancer using only the powers of your mind.
Not exactly a research-supported strategy I would bet on in a pinch.
While you didn’t cause her depression, can’t cure it and it’s not your responsibility, I deeply respect your desire to help her or at least not make things worse.
So, with that said, here’s how help your girlfriend with depression.
1. Quit arguing, disagreeing or trying to “reason with” her negative thought distortions.
Never argue or disagree with whatever feeling or intense and overriding hopeless judgement your depressed girlfriend is making in the moment.
Just quietly listen to her, look in her direction and let her talk it out if she wants to open up.
Hug her if she’s open to that.
Don’t add your opinion, advice, helpful suggestions or any analysis. Just empathize and be understanding (even if you really don’t and can’t actually understand).
Try your best not to sound patronizing in any way.
The more you disagree with her about how bad she thinks things are, the more obvious it will be to her that you can’t understand her, which will make her feel even more alone and isolated. This is a good explanation of what depression might be like for her.
That goes along with my next point.
2. Completely abandon the idea of “cheering her up.”
When you try to do things to try and make your depressed girlfriend happy, you are implying that the way she is right now, in this moment is not right for you.
The underlying message behind having someone try and cheer her up is that she needs to be tended to or fixed somehow.
Also, you’re implying that she’s experiencing a feeling of sadness.
In the case of clinical depression, sadness might not actually be her current experience at all.
Your depressed girlfriend might actually feel numb, nothing, or a nagging emptiness. She might be extremely frustrated with her current inability to feel things at all.
Clinical depression is simply not like being, “really, really sad” as people often imagine when they attempt to empathize.
Sometimes it’s more like, “I can’t feel anything.” Sometimes this includes body sensations since everything feels dulled.
Imagine you have suddenly gone deaf.
Now, imagine if people, in a well-meaning attempt to help you hear again, suggest that if you would just humor them by listening to different sounds, then everything would be okay and you would be back to normal.
Every time you see them, they tirelessly try to play different music in an effort to bring your hearing back.
Seems a little silly, right?
At first, you might be flattered that they are trying to help you.
Soon you would probably feel annoyed.
Since they seem so intent on helping, you might try to explain the flaw in their plan by explaining that it doesn’t matter what music they play— the problem is that you can’t actually HEAR IT.
They just keep bringing new music anyway.
After awhile, you would probably want to spend less time with them since it is so obvious that they cannot understand you and they won’t stop bringing you new sounds to try and jog you back to full hearing.
You might also feel embarrassed that you weren’t able to please them by using their solutions and feeling the way they expect you to feel.
That’s what it’s like for her when you try and help her remove these “blinders” you say she’s wearing.
In her experience, things ARE worse than they were before. The premise that you can show her that things aren’t so bad simply because YOU believe that is the case invalidates her experience and misses the point that in her world, things really ARE that bad.
You’re still under the illusion that you can do something to magically talk her out of this and that if she would just accept YOUR perception of reality, she would feel better and the depression would go away.
Abandon the concept of “helping” and you’ll automatically feel safer to her because instead of spewing out positivity or ideas, you’ll just be there.
“Being there” might be how to help your depressed girlfriend and all she really wants or needs from you right now.
That ability to just be there and empathize can be the difference between a depressed person cutting off their entire support system and at least keeping someone around who actually gets it or at least doesn’t make the feeling of hopelessness worse.
Don’t underestimate how precious it might be for her if you would just stay in your own lane and be present with her.
Depression is lonely enough on it’s own without a troop of well-wishers who continually suggest that if you would just do something different, you would feel better. Clinical depression is just not that simple.
3. Make it clear that you’re with her because you want to be.
NO ONE wants to feel like they’re your pity case.
When your depressed girlfriend protests that you, “could do better,” in the sense that you should go out and immediately date someone else, do your best to simply ignore it.
She’s likely very aware of her limitations right now in the affection department. And, research suggests she might be even more reactive to your pain since low mood can make empathetic distress worse.
The fact that she can’t really reciprocate your affections in a normal way most likely makes her feel more shame and guilt, that in turn, causes her to feel like a bigger burden to you and so on.
Other than that, liberally use the words, “I’m not bothered,” when she says the stuff about your relationship and then don’t act bothered.
This strategy to help your depressed girlfriend won’t work if you let her protests get to you, because she’ll see you’re upset and feel worse about her behavior then push you away “for your own good.”
Make it clear that you’re with her because you want to be and don’t take her cognitive distortions about your relationship personally. That leads me to my next point.
4. Don’t take things personally.
Pretend you’re at a movie. You don’t take whatever happens at the movie personally do you? You don’t prepare for a real zombie apocalypse after watching Brad Pitt kill zombies in WWZ, right?
Use this same mindset with your depressed person.
Prepare mentally for her to potentially push you away, withdraw from your relationship and dump you.
Don’t be afraid of this or try to talk her out of it when it happens.
Don’t make any dramatic declarations about your love for her if she goes this route.
Don’t put any pressure on her at all for any reason.
The more you chase a depressed person, the more they will withdraw from you.
And, your misguided persistence about keeping the relationship going at all costs will eventually make her feel pressured and force her to make unilateral decisions about your relationship (using black and white thinking) that you don’t want her to make right now in this state of mind.
You might be thinking, “Of course I would be offended and hurt by a breakup.”
And, I completely understand. During normal times, a breakup is the height of personal rejection.
During a normal breakup someone is essentially saying,
“You know this amazing, vulnerable, loving relationship we share? Remember all the sex, love, affection and great times when we ate pizza in the rain together? How about our shared love of garden gnomes? Remember that? I’d rather do that with ANYONE else except you. No thanks.”
When a clinically depressed person breaks up with you, this is one of the rare times when “it’s not you, it’s me” is the 100% pure, gospel truth.
I’m NOT saying that if your depressed girlfriend breaks up with you that you should stick around like a jilted puppy dog and keep sending her “encouraging messages” as heartbroken lovers often attempt to do.
Not at all. In fact, DO NOT STAY IN TOUCH.
The concept of not taking it personally doesn’t mean you put up with crap, I’m simply encouraging you to detach and avoid letting her confusing statements about your relationship hurt your feelings.
Your boundaries— what you’re willing to put up with— should remain.
Speaking of which:
5. Shore up your boundaries.
I realize I just told you to avoid taking things your depressed girlfriend says personally. Detaching from her whims and moods will really help you.
However, if your depressed girlfriend starts lashing out at you, don’t allow it. Even though you’ll be using the thicker skin you’re growing, that doesn’t mean you should passively ignore it when or if she is actually mean to you.
Sometimes people in relationships with depressed people avoid confronting their partner and enacting consequences when they cross the line because they are afraid that whatever they say will cause more shame and guilt, thereby making the illness worse.
This is a mistake for several reasons.
First, by not explaining your boundaries and feelings around her unacceptable behavior, you’re training her that it’s okay with you.
No one knows where your line IS when they have no idea you actually have one.
Same with all your relationships— even those with non-depressed people.
Second, since her ability to genuinely empathize with you might be disconnected or temporarily out of service right now— she might have a serious and REAL blind spot around whether her behavior is hurtful or abusive that simply wouldn’t be there if she wasn’t mentally ill.
This doesn’t mean you should accept her abuse, quite the contrary.
Instead, not confronting a depressed person is like not warning your friend about the giant piece of spinach in her teeth at the debutante ball.
You might not want to embarrass them or make them feel worse, but in the long run, the nasty behavior will spread to others and likely drive everyone away who they haven’t already isolated from.
For extra style points, you’ll experience the relationship-destroying joy of dormant, buried resentments waiting in your psyche to explode at any second.
And, when they out of this depressive episode, they will get to go back and rebuild all of their relationships from scratch.
Trust me, the “sorry I was a jerk for 9 months” talk is NOT a fun way to spend an afternoon.
When a someone is irrational, removing the real-world consequences of their irrationality doesn’t magically make them more rational. Later on, they might not even remember the terrible thing they said to you because they were so far in the depressive fog.
So, if your feelings are hurt by something hurtful your depressed girlfriend actually said or did, gently but firmly sit her down and speak your truth.
Be mindful of when and how you choose to confront her.
Angrily screaming at her while threatening to end your relationship is not going to help things or “wake her up.”
In fact, talk about the exact behaviors which are affecting you and NOT the depression at all unless she brings that up.
Understand in advance that she might not apologize and the talk might not go over well. It probably won’t feel super for either of you, but if you can be light and well-composed when you choose to confront her, that would be best.
Unfortunately, depression’s tendency to catastrophize might kick in and you might find yourself in a strange, circular talk where you feel forced to reassure her that you aren’t leaving as she explains why you should.
To get out of there, if you have to, distract her in an order to get her attention off how you deserve better. Many a depressed person has dumped someone right after they complained “they deserve better.”
The twisted depression logic works like this:
“Well.. I can’t do any better. They DO deserve better. And I’m clearly hurting them. It would be a mercy if I just left them. I’ll do that to spare them.”
If you find yourself on the other side of this, you’re going to deal with more withdrawal since you’re asking a person who CAN’T right now, to do something they CAN’T do.
In the past she might have been the most loving, sweet girlfriend imaginable. The fact that she’s not anymore could be because of the clinical depression or because she’s genuinely thinking of winding your relationship down. Either way, complaining about her ability to give you affection will not help your cause or inspire her to be MORE affectionate.
6. Familiarize yourself with your depressed girlfriend’s actual capabilities right now.
There is a difference between meanness, abuse and shitty behavior and “things depressed people have a hard time doing.”
And, it might seem like having boundaries like I just suggested would extend to normal relationship behavior since when everyone is healthy, having your loved one withdraw their affection feels like a very personal rejection of you and not a result of what is going on with them.
It can be a really fine line, so I want to talk about that.
If you’re disappointed that your depressed girlfriend isn’t emotionally available as often, isn’t affectionate, doesn’t want sex, has withdrawn and has a hard time making or keeping plans, sure, I can understand wanting to sit her down and ask about this.
Now, like I mentioned since you have most likely crossed over into “can’t” rather than “won’t” territory— trying negotiate with her for more or better time, sex, love or affection will go very badly since she doesn’t have these things to give you.
Just as continually trying to train a cat to bark will leave you scratched up and frustrated, so will trying to get more genuine caring and affection from a depressed person. They are already trying as hard as they can and are well aware they’re coming up short.
She isn’t withholding because she doesn’t want to give, she’s most likely withholding because there isn’t anything to give.
The reality is that depressed people in the middle of an episode generally aren’t super fun to hang out with. They aren’t very affectionate. They don’t empathize well. They may catastrophize and have severe and negative opinions about everything.
Often self-care is incredibly difficult, so wearing a clean shirt or showering might be a real triumph.
I’m not being casual or exaggerating here. That’s the reality of clinical depression.
Since affection comes from the feeling center of a person that depression takes offline, you’re wishing for something that she can’t do right now.
That’s why being upset by what your depressed girlfriend CAN’T do is only going to cause problems between you.
If you want this relationship, this is what it costs right now. You can accept that or you can leave her.
7. Don’t make her feel bad about her fatigue or for not accomplishing anything with her day.
Unless your depressed girlfriend’s choices are affecting you somehow (besides the glaringly obvious relationship problems that we’ve already discussed), take a hands-off approach to her responsibilities.
If she hasn’t left her house, she hasn’t left her house. Accept it and keep your ideas about that to yourself.
She isn’t shameLESS for not accomplishing anything, she’s full of shame— so adding more by giving her a hard time isn’t going to help.
The fact that she’s admitted to you that she hasn’t accomplished anything is probably vulnerable in and of itself because deep down, she knows as well as you do that this isn’t normal, healthy behavior.
I guarantee that she isn’t enjoying this time or viewing it as self-indulgence. Beating her up emotionally or trying to “talk some sense into her” isn’t tough love, it could be fatal.
Like I just said, basic self care things like brushing her teeth and hair, showering, wearing clean clothes and cooking might be really, really hard in a way you might not understand if you haven’t experienced it.
Instead, empathize with her and be kind. Help her if you can without it being a burden or something you’re going to throw back in her face later. Keep your own well being in mind should you choose to help with any of her general responsibilities in a temporary way.
8. Be mindful of the difference between genuinely helping a depressed person and codependency.
One problem with being in relationship with a depressed person is the tendency for the needy to mate with someone who needs to be needed.
Only you know if your relationship was once healthy and then she began a serious depressive episode— or if your depressed girlfriend has attached to you since you’re already kinda into “saving” people.
If she’s struggling with getting dressed or simply leaving the house, going to therapy or scheduling medical appointments could pose a real challenge. Genuinely helping her make it to wellness appointments is a time when I’d suggest gently helping her if at all possible.
Helping a depressed person with things around the house is a very kind and thoughtful thing to do but it can also be a REALLY slippery slope that leads to a situation that is worse for both people, so if you decide to give, examine your real motives first.
Helping out once in a while is usually extremely appreciated.
Nominating yourself “King of Environmental Management” while she’s going through hard times is a very bad choice for both of you.
Here are a few self-examination questions to ask yourself before you decide to give to or help a depressed person:
Do you want something in return?
Are you giving in an effort to exert some kind of control over this very out-of-control situation?
Will giving compromise your own life or goals?
Do you have a history of feeling resentful after people take advantage of your generosity?
Has anyone ever accused you of being codependent?
If you see yourself in these questions, please keep in mind that giving from a place of your own neediness for someone’s approval is not actually a gift, it points to a deeper issue with you.
If your depressed girlfriend is so disabled she may require residential treatment, consult with her treatment team. If not, you aren’t and shouldn’t be automatically in charge of making sure she has clean clothes to wear.
If she’s an independent type of person, be aware that excessive giving might draw attention to the fact that she can’t do whatever you’re trying to help out with. That’s another reason to be careful. If she says no to your well-meaning attempts to help, respect her boundaries and drop it.
Nagging her about how helpful you could be if she would ONLY let you help is still nagging. And, it’s not helpful.
9. Tend to your own well being first.
Depression in a relationship can be contagious. One way to prevent yourself from going down with her is to keep up on the other parts of your life that don’t involve her.
Just like it’s important to examine your codependent tendencies, it’s also good to be aware of caregiver fatigue and make sure you make your own life a priority and do things for yourself.
Dealing with depression is a marathon, not a sprint. You won’t get any extra cosmic brownie points for skipping your sister’s wedding in favor of another Saturday cartoon and cereal marathon with your depressed girlfriend.
Remember that you cannot trade your happiness for someone else’s and you shouldn’t even try.
If you’re starting to feel taken for granted or resentful, lean on your therapist (or get one) and social network for support. They might not understand why you’re choosing to do what you’re doing, but make sure you tend to your own emotional well-being first.
Do NOT make your life revolve around the fact that your girlfriend is depressed.
Don’t allow yourself to gain ego identity from how strong and admirable you are for staying and “hanging in there.”
Staying around a depressed person can be a strong lesson in patience, but it shouldn’t be doormat training.
Put things in perspective and make sure that you don’t drop everything that brings you joy in a mistaken attempt to support someone else. Keep tending to your other relationships, work, life goals and hobbies.
If you feel like you’re “missing out” on something right now by continuing your relationship with a depressed person, see how you can meet your own needs other ways instead of allowing yourself to spiral into martyrdom.
10. Keep your jealousy in check.
Often, depressed people wear a mask around other people because it’s simply easier than being loud and proud about the reality of their life right now.
Clinical depression carries a real stigma and it’s rarely understood by people who haven’t experienced it.
Faking it and acting happy is much less humiliating than admitting to the average acquaintance that you cried today because you ran out of dry shampoo and can’t fathom paying the energy cost of taking a real shower right now.
So, why do I mention jealousy?
If you happen to spend time with your depressed girlfriend around other people, she might laugh, seem to have fun and act completely normal.
This mask can be one of the most confusing things about being in a relationship with a depressed person. One minute, they can barely get out of bed and hours later, they have rallied and are yucking it up with Bob at happy hour after work.
You might think to yourself:
“Why can she laugh with Bob and Jane but not me?”
“She’s still going to work, so why can’t she go to the football game with me on Saturday?”
“She was super sweet to her dog, so why the hell can’t she show me any affection any more?”
It’s enough to make you wonder if you’re seriously being taken advantage of, completely unloved, insane or all of the above. You might wonder why she is taking it out on you, when everyone else seems to get to see her good side.
The mask is one way that depressed people manage to keep their life from completely falling apart as they navigate and manage what’s happening with them internally.
The people closest to them might intuitively know something is completely off (but not always), but Susan at work doesn’t need to.
And it really, really sucks to wear the mask.
I can’t overstate how much it sucks to feel even more minimized in your relationship and like you’re being petty over your girlfriend’s friendly interactions with the cashier at the grocery store or in the happy hour smiley selfies she took with her coworkers and put all over social media.
The best way to handle this is to remind yourself that it is a FAKE coping mechanism to prevent her from losing even more.
A depressed person is not hiding any genuine happiness from you while giving it to everyone else.
What she has shared with you IS the real story, while other people are not seeing the whole picture. You are not crazy. She IS different around other people and she’s doing it for survival.
Don’t attack how she gets through her day, because it’s not an effortless thing for her at all. Every bit of that performance takes a TON of her energy. No one wishes it was different more than she does.
Remember, don’t take her depression personally. If you want to explode over how you’re getting the short end of the stick here, I don’t blame you.
However, I would recommend venting your jealousy and frustration to your therapist, coach and/or very trusted friends you can rely upon to remain objective.
Sharing this jealousy with your girlfriend will NOT bring her closer to you— in fact, she might push you even further away because now it’s clear how much her thoughtless behavior is hurting you.
Right now, she most likely can’t respond to your jealousy with genuine reassurance— depression clouds the empathy behind that normal, human response to a partner in pain.
11. Keep the big picture in mind.
Since she’s already actively getting help, your main priority is helping your depressed girlfriend pass the time and get through this time without succumbing to killing herself, ending your relationship or ruining your bond.
Your simple objective here is to run out the clock on your depressed girlfriend’s episode without pushing anything to a head or forcing any unnecessary serious talks about your relationship.
Eventually as she starts to feel better the hopelessness and thought distortions will begin to lift. That’s why trying to talk her out of it or reason with her in the moment is a pointless exercise.
12. Take suicide threats seriously.
If your depressed girlfriend actively threatens suicide, you MUST call emergency authorities who are trained to deal with this situation.
Hopefully it won’t get to this point and you’ll never have to deal with a suicidal person, but you MUST take someone’s suicidal threats seriously. If someone is threatening their own life or the well being of others, they are very ill indeed and you are not impartial enough to deal with it yourself in ANY WAY except for saying clearly, “I’m going to call emergency services” and following through.
The other thing this does is put in a powerful boundary.
You can’t and won’t be manipulated to act any certain way except dial your phone if she threatens her own life.
You don’t want to permissively accept a situation where your depressed girlfriend cries wolf about her own life enough times that you are lulled into a sense of false safety around whether or not “she really means it” or “will really do it.”
Also, as far as you’re concerned, threatening suicide is abusive behavior if it’s meant to manipulate you. If she’s suicidal, get her emergency help and let them sort it out.
I hope that helps, and again, I’m sorry you’re going through this.