In the depths of winter, with daylight slipping away before evening and temperatures barely hitting the freezing mark, many couples face a different kind of seasonal change: seasonal affective disorder. The psychological condition known as SAD is characterized as a major depression that arrives in the fall or winter and lifts in the spring or summer.
Roughly 6% of Americans suffer from SAD in its most severe form, and another 14% struggle with the lesser but still significant “winter blues.” People with SAD struggle with symptoms that can mimic those of clinical depression: They have a hard time waking up in the morning, their energy level drops, they find it tough to concentrate, they eat more, and they withdraw from family and friends, becoming more inclined to hibernate.
These changes can be extremely stressful for a person experiencing them, of course—but also for his or her partner. No wonder SAD can take a major toll on relationships, says Norman Rosenthal, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School who first identified and named the disorder in 1984. We asked Rosenthal and other experts for advice on how to navigate SAD as a couple, so your relationship emerges strong—and sunny—come spring.
Don’t brush off early symptoms
Sometimes the partner of someone with SAD will spot early symptoms before their significant other even notices them. That can be incredibly helpful, because the sooner you start treating SAD, the easier it is to keep it from spiraling out of control, says Kelly Rohan, PhD, director of clinical training in the department of psychological science at the University of Vermont.
“It’s not like one day the person wakes up and they have a full-blown episode of SAD,” Rohan tells Health. If you can recognize it early, or even anticipate the symptoms and have a plan in place, prevention is much easier than treatment.” Besides changes in focus, eating habits, and sleep patterns, look out for agitation, unexplained physical aches and pains, and a preoccupation with negative thoughts or self-doubts. If you detect any of these signs, tell your partner you’re concerned.
The same techniques that have been proven to treat SAD can be used preventatively, Rohan says. The most effective are bright light therapy (you can find a large selection of light boxes online), cognitive behavior therapy, antidepressants, and good self-care.
When someone is struggling with SAD, there’s a good chance they’ll bail on social plans, take longer than usual to get things done at home or at work, and spend most of their free time curled up under a blanket mindlessly watching TV. But it’s important to remember that what might seem like a lack of interest or initiative—or just plain laziness—is actually a mental health disorder.
If your significant other displays any of these behaviors, be empathic. “You’ve got to understand that this person feels really lousy, and that they really are trying,” says Rosenthal. “Because it looks like they’re not trying. It looks like they’re not getting their ass in gear. And I use that expression because people…blame the other one for things that are not that person’s fault.”
Keep your sex life strong
SAD can sink your sex drive, but that doesn’t mean you can’t maintain a physical connection during the winter months, Monica O’Neal, a licensed clinical psychologist in Boston and lecturer at Harvard Medical School, tells Health. If your partner feels too blue for full-on intercourse, “focus on having sexual intimacy in other ways,” she says—like hand-holding and flirtation. “And recognize that more foreplay might be needed.”
Encourage them to be active
Look for opportunities to be active together and help your partner fight that hibernation urge. “The more you withdraw and the more you ruminate, the more negative you become,” says Rohan. “Even though it takes a lot of effort and feels like moving mountains to get someone to take those steps, they end up feeling better once they’re out there doing it. At the very least, they don’t feel worse.”
Of course, how you suggest these activities can have a big impact. For example, Rosenthal suggests that instead of saying, “You know you’ve got SAD, why don’t you go for a walk? I see the sun’s just come out,” try, “The sun’s just come out. Let’s go for a walk! It would be so much fun.” The difference, says Rosenthal, is that “one is being presented as a couples’ suggestion; the other is, go fix yourself.”
Plan a trip to a sunnier skies
Consider planning a vacation or two to a sunny spot, says Rosenthal. The trips will give you and your partner something to look forward to—and offer some temporary relief from early darkness and the cold, bleak winter landscape. Exposure to sunlight can kick up levels of serotonin, a mood-regulating brain chemical that plays a role in triggering SAD. Even if it’s just a long weekend in a sunnier part of the country, it can help immensely.
Resist playing therapist
As the significant other of someone with SAD, you can offer invaluable support in countless small ways. “If your partner’s having difficulty waking up in the morning, you could turn the lights on,” says Rosenthal. “It could be as simple as that. You could turn the lights on, you could say, ‘Hey, how about a cup of coffee? I’m making myself a cup.’ Get the person up, set up a light box at the breakfast table.’”
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At the same time, know your limitations. “Don’t try to be their therapist,” says Rohan. And if you think he or she could benefit from seeing a therapist for their disorder, recommend that they go into treatment, she says. “Even if they’ve been in before, maybe they need a tune-up session. If your very best cheerleading has been done, and you just see this person slipping further into a depression, I would be inclined to point that out and express your concern.”
Know that SAD gets better
Whether it’s through therapy or other forms of self-care, the good news is that SAD is treatable. “It’s a fixable problem,” says Rosenthal. “That’s one reason why I’ve enjoyed staying with it all these years—because you can really fix it. And winter can turn out to be wonderful for both people.”