Guarding Your Own Life: How to Be There for Someone When You’re Depressed Too

For couples who both experience depression, it takes a great deal of self-awareness to keep the relationship healthy. The foundations of a good relationship – trust, boundaries, and communication – take on even more significance.

For someone like me, who tends to absorb others’ emotions, having a partner with periods of depression makes it difficult to discern whether I’m experiencing my own depression or simply a reflection of his. Perhaps you can relate. When this would happen, I lost the ability to be a supportive caregiver. Instead, I would often slip down with him into a space where we both struggled even more.

Fortunately, the last time, I had a trusted therapist who understood my patterns. She offered an interesting metaphor that helped me see my behavior in a new light. I’d love to share it with you in case it gives you a new perspective as well.

She said, “Did you know that if you attempt to save a drowning person, they’ll instinctively push you under water in order to get a gasp of air?”

As someone who’s always been afraid of water (and can’t swim), I didn’t know this, but it made sense.

She went on, “Lifeguards are taught to always have a buoyant object on hand. They give this to the drowning person, so they don’t cling to them or make it more difficult to get them to safety.”

I began to see the parallel to depression as we talked. Afterward, I thought more about how the two ideas connected.

  1. A depressed person doesn’t always think logically or behave the way they normally would – Just like a drowning person wouldn’t intentionally try to drown their rescuer, my husband wasn’t trying to hurt me, or pull me down into a deeper depression. He was just trying to survive.


  1. If you’re prone to depression, you’re going to struggle as a caregiver (and that’s okay) – Even lifeguards are at risk of drowning if they don’t have a life preserver to give the drowning person. It’s okay that you can’t dive right in and save your partner from their depression. It doesn’t mean that you don’t want to help or don’t love them enough.


  1. Keep a healthy distance emotionally to stop from getting depressed yourself – Water safety experts recommend using an object you can extend out to the drowning person rather than getting in the water with them. I realized that a healthy boundary between my husband and I was critical for me to stay safe – and ultimately, be more helpful to him.


  1. Get outside help if you feel like you can’t support your partner – If someone is drowning, the best thing to do is to get trained help – not try to rescue them yourself. Sometimes, my husband’s depression was more than I could handle. That didn’t mean I wasn’t a good enough spouse. It simply meant he needed the stronger, more capable hands of a lifeguard to lift him out of the water.


  1. Each person in the relationship is responsible for their own mental health – If you’re not a strong swimmer, it’s your responsibility to wear a life preserver. When you have a history of depression, your life preserver could be eating well and exercising, seeing a therapist, getting proper rest, or taking medication – or all of the above. Couples can support each other in maintaining their life preservers, so hopefully a drowning situation doesn’t occur.

I believe those of us with depression are often in deeper emotional waters than most. We find ourselves in the middle of the ocean through no fault of our own. That’s why it’s so important to wear our life preservers and know what to do if we see our partner struggling.

Are there any other connections you can make from this metaphor? Each time I ponder it, I seem to gain more clarity. Hopefully, it offers you a new way to view your relationship – and gives you peace of mind.