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Sympathy Pains: Are You Feeling Your Partner's Depression?

Looking back, I wish I had understood that my sympathy pains reflected the seriousness of the situation. I hope that sharing these signs will help you identify a loved one's depression, and get both of you the help you need to end the cycle of sadness.
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Sebastian Pichler via Unsplash

When a partner experiences some of the same symptoms and behavior of the expectant mother, we're not surprised -- in fact, we expect it and we think it's adorable! We call it "sympathy pregnancy." But is there such a thing as sympathy depression if your partner is depressed instead of pregnant?

My husband's battle with depression raged for years: At first it was silent and uncomfortable, and then it grew loud and menacing. I felt all parts of it to my core until his depression became mine. This wasn't the nausea or cravings a husband feels during his wife's pregnancy -- something to commiserate and bond over with the person you love. No, this was debilitating while consistently reminded me how much I loved him.

I was terrified. There was no guarantee that this was only going to last for nine months. I didn't know if there was something to celebrate at the end of the journey -- if there was no bundle of joy, then what would be in its place?

Looking back, I wish I had understood that my sympathy pains reflected the seriousness of the situation. I hope that sharing these signs will help you identify a loved one's depression, and get both of you the help you need to end the cycle of sadness:

Insomnia. My husband would pace endlessly in our bedroom when he couldn't sleep. This routine would repeat itself through the night, and he would calm down only when the sun came up. I couldn't sleep either, but it wasn't his restlessness that kept me up: it was my relentless worrying for him.

Loss of appetite and weight.
We were once the couple that enjoyed elaborate meals and made our dining experience the focal point of every day, but my husband's depression made him lose interest in our shared ritual, and eventually I no longer felt the desire to put energy into it either. Even eating anything at all became a daunting task.

Withdrawal from friends and family. Although my husband was able to mask his depression when socializing, over time he began to withdraw from friends and family, pleading with me,

"Let's keep this our secret -- please don't tell anyone what's going on."

I understood his intense desire to be left alone as I too wanted space to sort my own feelings and figure out the best options to help him.

Lack of concentration. My husband couldn't focus enough to perform even the simplest of tasks. Remembering to take out the trash on Tuesdays and feed our cat daily became too difficult for him. He didn't mean to stop caring; it just happened. And then it happened to me: I no longer had the focus or desire to cook, clean, or look after my appearance.

Overwhelming sense of hopelessness. I sensed that my husband was feeling hopeless and was half-heartedly pretending to fight his depression for my sake. I started wondering if things really were hopeless: every attempt at finding him help failed, and I lacked the insight to find better resources. I never truly gave up, but I can also honestly tell you I felt cornered and didn't know where else to turn.

Loathing or hatred for themselves. We were both successful entrepreneurs before we met, so we knew how to keep our cool and make smart decisions. The depression wore my husband down to the point that he was easily upset by tiny hiccups he barely would have noticed before. This significant wavering in confidence made me question my own decisions, too. I'd always been so resourceful, and the one time it mattered most dealing with the life of someone I loved, I hated myself for not being able to remedy the situation.

Not every sign of depression is something that you will feel, too. For instance, my husband experienced paranoia towards the end of his life. When he accused me of having feelings for another man, I was completely stunned by this ridiculous notion, but I knew he must have felt so insecure and low that he couldn't fathom how I could still love him.

According to WHO, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide -- yet we live in a world that does not understand mental health. Often we can identify signs of depression but we don't feel that we know enough to do something about it. The first step is to recognize that the problem exists, so if you're aware that you're experiencing sympathy depression, that's already one step in the right direction.


If you or someone you know needs help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.