Depression is isolating for both partners. Maintaining a relationship can be difficult enough, but building it may seem impossible. My spouse and I have spent years building a tool kit that has proven to be invaluable for helping us stay connected through the difficulties caused by depression and mental illness.
1. Say please and thank you.
When I was growing up, my dad used to hold his empty coffee cup over the side of his recliner. My mom came by, picked it up, refilled it, and put it back in his hand without a word between them. In relationships, especially long-term relationships, it’s easy to get so comfortable with each other that you stop paying attention to what your partner does for you, especially when depression gets in the way. Saying please and thank you not only acknowledges the kind and loving actions of the other partner, it creates an environment of mutual love and respect.
2. Make touching and hugging a part of your routine.
I get it. We’re busy. Most of us do the morning dance around the kitchen getting ready for work, trying to stay out of each other’s way. That’s a perfect time to start with a morning hug just for a few moments of connection. Touching your partner’s back, or even a quick shoulder massage is a way to reassure them they are loved and appreciated. That moment of connection also releases oxytocin in the brain and can have a profound impact on both partner’s mental health. Also, there may be a side benefit where your partner makes you breakfast or prepares your lunch. (Refer to tip number one).
3. Send check-in texts
Personally, I hate being interrupted at work. I also hate talking on the phone. However, I’ve come to appreciate and reciprocate the texts I’ve received over the years from my spouse. A quick, “Hey, I’m thinking about you” or “Just checking to see how your day is going” are not only thoughtful, but especially reassuring on tough days. Side note: Avoid adding things like, “The dog ate your Airpods and the kitchen caught on fire.” Those should be separate texts, if not phone calls.
4. Have daily emotional check-ins
We implemented a 1-10 scale to check on my depression and my spouse’s anxiety. This helps us prepare for the other’s emotional state, gives them a chance to talk about how they’re feeling and see if the other person can help, and gets us out of our own heads. These conversations are usually followed by a hug, text check-ins during the day, and, if I’m lucky, a breakfast for which I say thank you. (Refer to to tips 1-3.)
5. Do ‘Naked Thursdays’
The purpose is not sex. If that happens organically, good for you, but don’t make it the focus. This intimacy-building activity is to cultivate vulnerability. Hold each other. Ask questions about your partner that you may now know, or delve more deeply into their childhood. Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin Game, is an excellent resource for hundreds of questions on all sorts of topics. As a side note, naked Thursdays don’t have to happen on Thursdays. And, if I’m honest, we’re not always naked when it’s too cold.
6. Find out your partner’s love language and put it into practice
The Five Love Languages are based on the concept that everyone has a way they like love to be shown to them. My love language is service. When people do things for me, I feel loved. My husband’s love language is affirmation. When people tell him how much of a great guy he is, he feels loved. The pitfall is that I show love by doing things for people. My spouse shows love by saying wonderful things to people. Speaking your partner’s love language takes practice. It doesn’t always come naturally. You’d think as a writer, I could whip out a quick love note, or wax poetically about my undying love. I can’t. I write non-fiction. The best I can do is send an annotated email about the psychology of love. To show my love, I first had to set notifications on my phone as reminders to write a note, send a text, or let my husband know I appreciated him. Now it comes naturally to me and has increased my love for him, as well as our intimacy.
7. Take care of yourself
Having a spouse with a mental illness is stressful. Sometimes the only thing you can control is yourself. Having a clear mind and an outlet for your stress will do wonders for developing intimacy in the relationship. Besides, there’s nothing sexier, at least to me, than having a spouse who takes care of themselves. Work out, eat what’s healthy for you and your brain, get regular therapy if you can afford it, and spend time with friends that make you feel connected.
8. Participate in a mutual interest
Abel and I bonded over our passion for education and research, along with our shared curiosity about life. We never run out of things to talk about, even if we’re boring the hell out of people around us. Focus on the thing that brought you and your partner together. Understand that there will be times when your partner won’t be able to participate, but that doesn’t mean their interest is gone forever. And if that interest has waned over time, find something new that interests both of you and make new memories and new connections.
9. Have or get a sense of humor
The concept of “Ed” didn’t come about simply from the stress of dealing with the disease of depression. Ed came about because it made the situation a little lighter. Humor has always been a central part of my relationship with Abel. We switch seamlessly between a tearful conversation to uproarious laughter and back again without losing the importance of the moment. Abel has never made light of my depression, but he’s never withheld his sense of humor when I’m depressed. Laughter can help build a bridge between you and your partner when nothing else seems to get you to them.
10. Hold your partner when they are unreachable
Your partner’s mood can suck the energy out of the room, making it uncomfortable for everyone. You wonder if you should pursue them or leave them alone. Holding your partner quietly is a powerful way to build connection and relationship. They may not be able to respond in the moment, but neural connections are being made and this act of love won’t be forgotten.