What happens to a marriage when one or both partners in a marriage are depressed?
While many illnesses have an effect on relationships, depression can be particularly debilitating to marriage because so many of the symptoms of this illness are relational: people feel isolated, communicate ineffectively, and have doubts about their worth as a partner.
It’s probably not possible to completely protect your marriage from the effects of depression, but you may be able to communicate in ways that help minimize these issues. The research on depression in romantic relationships illuminates three suggestions for couples coping with depression:
1. Partners should understand that uncertainty about the relationship is normal for depressed couples. Communication is key to coping with relational uncertainty.
Relational uncertainty is central to the depression experience. In any partnership, we might doubt our own investment (Am I willing to make this relationship work?), our partner’s commitment (Does he/she really love me?), or the status of the relationship (Are we going to make it?). For depressed couples, they might also have uncertainty about the relationship that is closely tied to the depression. Depressed couples grapple with uncertainty around physical harm (Will my partner hurt him/herself or me?), the source of the depression (Did I cause this depression?), and a lack of understanding in the relationship (Why can’t my partner understand me?).
If depression affects your relationship, first, be aware that feelings of uncertainty are normal. All couples experience these doubts to some degree, and depression can include unique uncertainties about the partnership. Communicating reassurance (I want to be here for you. I love you!), offering support (I am here to listen if you want to discuss your tough day.), and accepting the uncertainty inherent in the depression (I know we are struggling, but that is normal for couples who deal with depression.) could be communication tools that help both partners tackle the uncertainty in the partnership.
2. Non-depressed partners should work to understand his/her partner’s experience with depression.
Depressed individuals struggle in relationships where they feel like their partner doesn’t understand what he/she is going through. Depression is an isolating illness, and feeling misunderstood by loved ones can make depressed individuals feel even more alone. Each person’s experience is different, and sometimes folks with depression struggle to describe how they are feeling to others. But a little effort can go a long way in this area. If your partner tries to share how he/she is struggling, be sure to really listen and do your best to respond in ways that acknowledge what he/she is sharing. Avoid communicating in ways that invalidate or doubt his/her experience (Why are you so down? You don’t have it so bad). Instead, offer responses that indicate you are trying to understand, even if you can’t fully know how they feel. Try active listening. With active listening, you re-phrase what your loved one is telling you (It sounds like you’re really feeling alone right now.) and confirm that you’re grasping what he/she is sharing (Is that correct?).
Depressed couples are prone to avoiding difficult conversations about the relationship and about the depression. This makes it especially important to find ways to navigate these tough conversations. If my partner is feeling unsure about the relationship, but becomes even less likely to discuss our struggles, we are missing out on opportunities to address the issues in our relationship and reach a common understanding. We might also be missing out on opportunities to talk about the depression in ways that can (a) help me to better understand what he/she is going through and (b) figure out strategies for coping with the depression as a team. So even though these conversations are tough, they are important for helping build bridges of understanding about the depression and to tackle the illness together, which is our next suggestion.
3. Both partners should take an active role in treatment of depression.
Research and practice both suggest that involving partners together in the treatment process can have better outcomes for patients and for the relationship. Even if only one partner has a depression diagnosis, the effects of the illness are relational. Non-depressed partners can face feelings of rejection, encounter more conflict in the relationship, and might even feel like their partner is no longer the person they fell in love with. Because depression affects both partners, both partners should be involved in treatment efforts. For couples, tackling the effects of depression on the depressed person, the partner, and the marriage together can be key to navigating the illness.
There are several ways partners can work together in treatment. Attending therapy or counseling sessions is one way to team up against depression. This might mean entering couples counseling, but could also mean a non-depressed partner occasionally attending a counseling session with his/her depressed partner. Non-depressed partners can also offer support as depressed partners start and maintain a medication regimen. Additionally, partners can work together to maintain healthy lifestyle choices that can alleviate depressive symptoms. In terms of communication, try using collective language to let your partner know that you are in this together (We are going to get through this. You and I are a team.). If you appraise the symptoms of depression as affecting both partners, you can work together to manage those effects.
The takeaway: depression can have wide reaching effects in marriages. The symptoms of depression can spill over to influence non-depressed partners, and the relationship can suffer in many ways because of one or both partners’ depression. To combat these effects, partners must communicate about their uncertainties, strive to achieve understanding, and tackle the depression as a team.
Amy Delaney is a doctoral candidate in Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and could use your help. She is studying how romantic couples communicate about their sexual relationship and tackle challenging health situations.
She is currently conducting a study and looking for couples that meet these criteria:
(a) both partners are willing to participate,
(b) both partners are 18 years of age or older,
(c) one or both partners has been professionally diagnosed with depression, and
(d) each partner has his/her own email account.
Participation involves completing an online questionnaire with questions about the relationship, communication, and sexual intimacy. The study takes 45-60 minutes, and each couple that completes the survey will receive $20 in Amazon e-gift cards ($10 to each partner). For more information about participating, check out their Facebook page “Romantic Relationships and Depression” or visit her website at https://amydelaney.wordpress.com/research-participants/.
If you’re interested in participating, first, talk with your partner about the study. Make sure both partners are aware of the eligibility criteria and what participation entails. Then, if both partners are willing to participate, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with:
(a) your name and email address,
(b) your partner’s name and email address, and
(c) who has been diagnosed with depression (you, your partner, or both).