Depression does not just change our inner emotional experience; depression also significantly alters the way we experience our lives. In particular, depression significantly alters the way we experience relationships.
Normally, we use emotions to inform us about the state of our relationships.
Like pain, negative emotions in the context of relationships are meant to inform us when something is wrong. Sadness, jealousy, discomfort, disgust, and other negative emotions encourage us to make changes.
Positive emotions, on the other hand, are meant to inform us something is right. Joy, love, hope, and affection encourage us to continue on in the direction we are going.
When we are struggling with depression, however, our emotions begin to misfire.
Instead of providing accurate feedback on our current situation, emotions become so influenced by our illness they no longer correspond with our experiences.
Negative emotions become so predominate we begin to feel something is always wrong. Positive emotions become so absent we never feel satisfied and comfortable in the situation we are in. In the context of a relationship, this wreaks havoc.
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It can become difficult to determine what our feelings of guilt, sadness, and anxiety indicate. Do we need to change our romantic relationship, or are the feelings just a signal our depression is causing our negative emotions to over-fire?
It can become difficult to determine what the absence of feelings of joy, affection, and passion indicate. Are we are not on the right path, or are the feelings just a signal our depression is making it difficult to experience positive emotions?
Although depression makes it more difficult to accurately assess our relationships, it is still possible to have a healthy relationship when you are struggling with depression. It does, however, require you to take a few precautions:
First, you need to involve healthy people who know you and your relationship well.
You need to find people who see your relationship on a regular basis and love you enough to be honest with you and hold you accountable.
These accountability partners can provide some of the insight your emotions are not as capable of providing during an episode of depression.
Ask them to give you feedback on the way you and your significant other treat each other. Ask them for feedback on the way you and your significant other change–positively or negatively–when you are with each other. Ask them for feedback on any significant differences between the general changes in you due to your depression and changes in you which coincide more closely with your relationship.
Most importantly, listen to them and take their feedback seriously.
Second, you need to place more emphasis on general emotional indicators of your relationship quality than on our day-to-day emotional experience.
Some days I find myself more overwhelmed with negative emotions than other days.
I try to note the positive indicators in my relationships, and create little reminders for myself to look back to on the dark days. If I generally feel positive emotions in a relationship, but have one or two days where I feel more negative emotions, I know the negative emotions indicate depression rather than something wrong in my relationship.
Similarly, when I begin to feel sad or irritable in my close relationships, I reflect on the way I feel about other things I generally feel positively about. If I feel more negative about everything in my life, I can again blame depression instead of my relationship.
Meeting with a therapist and support team can also help you identify depressed patterns of emotions. This can help you differentiate between negative emotions originating in depression, and those indicating something needs to be changed in a relationship.
Lastly, we need to recognize the true role of our partners.
Depression leads to a feeling of emptiness, and it is easy to develop an unhealthy expectation relationships will fill the emptiness. Consequently, it is easy to become disappointed in a wonderful partner because we have impossible expectations of them.
If you have depression, reach out to a therapist and support team. They can help you understand and cope with the feelings of emptiness which originate in depression. At the same time, they can help you discover a healthy way to understand the role of your significant other.
I encourage you to adopt some of these strategies.
More than anything, I encourage you to hold on to hope.
Relationships are not easy during periods of depression, but with a few extra precautions, they can be a beautiful, life-giving part of life and recovery.
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