Depression affects one in five people in the UK and is an illness that, thankfully, people are beginning to understand better as awareness grows. Less understood, however, are the ways in which depression can affect relationships and how your relationships can help you manage depression.
How relationships can affect depression
Strong and healthy relationships have the potential to help us cope with the symptoms of depression – and, in some circumstances, can be a big influence on whether a person becomes depressed.
They give us a support network – people to talk to and loved ones we can rely on when things are difficult. They can help us to maintain perspective and just generally feel less alone. ONS figures on what matters most to our wellbeing show that relationships with friends and family are joint-top of the list (89%).
Conversely, evidence suggests that people in troubled relationships are three times as likely to experience depression as those who aren’t. Unhappy or unsupportive relationships are a risk factor for depression. Some studies have found that over 60% of those with depression consider relationship problems to be the main cause of their illness.
How depression can affect relationships
Depression can make it difficult to maintain supportive and fulfilling relationships.
If your partner is suffering from depression, they may be so overwhelmed by their symptoms that finding the energy to communicate feels impossible.
As a partner or family member, it can be easy to find this really draining and upsetting. You might become exhausted with the effort of feeling you need to support your partner and also keeping up with running the house or looking after the rest of the family.
And in turn, the person with depression may begin to feel like a burden – as though they’re simply getting in the way and making the lives of those around them worse. They may be aware of the effects their depression is having on their relationships, but feel powerless to do anything about it. This can make them feel guilty, and lower their self-esteem even more.
This film by the World Health Organisation looks at how depression can interact with relationships:
How can counselling help?
We see a lot of couples affected by depression. While Relate counselling is not a treatment by itself, it can really help to work with someone who understands how depression can impact on a relationship.
They can help you begin to unpick what’s happening so you can get a better grip of the situation and how you might begin to address it. The idea is to help you feel like everything isn’t hopeless – that, actually, there are ways of managing what’s happening.
Here are some of the specific techniques we use.
- Open communication. This is something we encourage in any form of counselling, but it can be particularly important when it comes to depression. The kind of pressure that mental health issues can place on a relationship can be eased by talking openly and honestly about what each person is finding difficult. The counsellor will enable this process, making sure that each partner is able to speak and be heard.
- Externalising. This means detaching the condition from the person so you’re able to see the depression as the problem, not the person suffering from it. This could even mean giving it a name or referring to it in the third person. The idea is to help the person with depression see it as a separate entity, rather than being part of their personality.
- Breaking down the details. This means identifying the exact nature of the depression so we can see if there are any triggers and get a better idea of its severity. Lots of people come into counselling feeling like depression affects them all the time, but when you look at things in more detail, they begin to realise there are times when it’s not such an issue, or that there are times when it’s particularly bad. Acknowledging what might be contributing to the depression and whether there are any specific sources of stress can be really useful.
- Making a timeline together. This is where we look at positive and negative events throughout the relationship. This helps to pinpoint when the depression first intruded itself into the relationship and looks at what else was happening around that time. Depression can often be linked to a loss of some kind (death or separation from a loved one, loss of identity, loss of job/status, loss of health/mobility, loss of purpose). Doing a timeline can also give each partner a better idea of how the other is feeling. We often find that some events feel more or less significant to one partner than the other.
Is depression affecting your relationship?
If you think you might benefit from couples counselling for people affected by depression, then please get in touch.
Relationships and anxiety and OCD
Problems with anxiety or obsessive thinking can put a lot of pressure on a relationship.
It can be upsetting for your partner too. They may feel stressed or upset by seeing you suffer, or feel frustrated by their inability to help.
What does anxiety and OCD mean?
The symptoms of both anxiety and OCD are varied, and can range from mild to severe. But generally speaking:
- Anxiety is feeling fearful or worrying about the future. If you have an anxiety disorder, you may worry excessively about everyday events or social situations. You may find it difficult to relax or obsess over things that could go wrong. If you have generalised anxiety disorder you may experience general feelings of anxiety that aren’t necessarily prompted by any event. This can be exhausting and stressful, and over time can cause issues with your physical health.
- OCD is a pattern of obsessive or repetitive thinking or behaviours. This can include washing your hands repeatedly or needing to carry out specific ‘rituals’ as you go about your day. These patterns can make it difficult to live a normal life, as you may find it hard – or even impossible – to relax until they’ve been carried out, and you may feel compelled to keep carrying them out until you feel they’ve been done correctly.
How does anxiety affect relationships?
Again, this has much to do with how severe the OCD or anxiety is and the specific symptoms. But there are a number of common ways these conditions can affect relationships.
If you experience anxiety, you may find it difficult to relax around your partner, or you may overanalyse their behaviour or become paranoid about certain aspects of your relationship. You may worry that your partner is going to break up with you or obsess over certain comments. If you have generalised anxiety disorder, you may find it hard to feel or express satisfaction in your relationship. You might shut off – stonewalling your partner. Or, you may have a constant need for reassurance: an inability to be calm without repeated expressions of support.
If you’re in a relationship with someone who has anxiety, you may begin to feel shut out. You might wonder if you are causing your partner to feel stressed, or if you’ve done something wrong for them to be acting this way.
How does OCD affect relationships?
If you have OCD, you can begin to feel like a burden: aware that your need to repeat behaviours isn’t rational, but still feel unable to stop. You may become isolated in your obsessions – unable to control them, even as you’re aware of the negative effect they’re having on your life and relationship. As with anxiety, if you suffer from OCD you may find you repeatedly think about negative things happening in your daily life or relationship – such as your partner cheating on you or breaking up with you.
The burden of carrying out these rituals can begin to affect the partner of the sufferer too. If your partner has OCD, you may become exasperated or exhausted by the effort of navigating around your partners’ compulsions. You may struggle to understand it, or find you become the subject of these obsessions.
If you’re affected by anxiety or OCD, you’re not alone. Anxiety and OCD are commonly diagnosed: 4.7 in 100 people have some form of anxiety and 1.3 in 100 some form of OCD.
If you feel this is becoming a real issue, there’s no shame in seeking help. Although taking that first step can be hard, it can also be a chance to take some of the pressure off yourself, your partner and your relationship.
There are many organisations offering support and information about anxiety and OCD. Mindhave an info line where you can find out where to get help, medication and alternative treatments. SANE have a helpline staffed with volunteers who offer information and emotional support.
Beyond this, your GP will be able to talk to you about ways to manage your condition. You can also call the NHS for urgent medical advice on 111 or get information online at NHS Choices.
If you feel you aren’t ready for these options, you may find discussing things with family or trusted friends can be a real help. This can give you a better sense of perspective on what you’re going through and just generally help you to feel less alone. Although it can be embarrassing or nerve wracking talking about this kind of issue, you may be surprised by how willing and keen people are to help.
Understanding one another
If you feel that anxiety or OCD is affecting your relationship, then dealing with the issue together is always going to be easier than dealing with it separately.
Sometimes, this means having an open and honest conversation so you can both understand what each other is experiencing.
If you’re the one experiencing the condition, the purpose of this will be to communicate to your partner how the condition affects you. It may be that they don’t know – or don’t fully understand – what you’re going through when you feel anxious and do certain things. Although we often like to think our partner should understand what we’re feeling without us even saying, this isn’t always realistic. The best way to make ensure they ‘get it’ is simply by telling them.
Try to start this conversation from the perspective that your partner wants to help you, but they don’t know what it’s like to deal with anxiety or OCD. Appreciate that this may be difficult for them too – and that, once you’re on the same team, you’ll be able to tackle any problems together.
And if you’re the partner of someone affected by these conditions, the main thing to express is that you care about them and you want to help. Don’t blame or label them for their actions, but instead focus on what you’re feeling: ‘I’ve noticed that you seem to be struggling with a few things, and I wanted to know how I could help’. When you phrase things this way, you’re much less likely to make the other person feel ambushed or get defensive. Our article on communication tips to try with your partner has some useful information on having tricky conversations: we’d recommend you give it a read as a first step.
If you’re supporting a partner with anxiety or OCD it’s also important to look after yourself. Talk to friends and family if you’re beginning to feel isolated or overwhelmed. Mind’s website has specific advice on living with someone affected by mental illness. You may also find it useful to read up on OCD and anxiety so you can better understand what they’re going through.
How we can help
If you come in for an initial consultation, we can talk through what you’re experiencing and discuss whether counselling might be a useful route for you to take.
Alternatively, you can talk to a Relate counsellor online.
Read more, sources from RELATE charity and others:
 How common are mental health problems