For a spouse or children of someone who is depressed, life can become dark indeed. Feeling each others’ pain then can make matters increasingly difficult for everyone.
The examples below all come from a specific case I have been working with as a therapist. Thank you to Dick and Jane (names changed to protect confidentiality) who have given me permission to illustrate depression’s contagiousness with their experience.
Here’s 5 aspects of depression that make it contagious.
The following list of the five main attributes of depression clarify five ways that one family member's depression can inadvertently spread to their loved ones.
The negative cognitive triad
Psychologist Aaron Beck coined the term “negative cognitive triad” to describe three arenas in which depressive thinking becomes darkened. Depressed people see a) themselves, b) others and c) their future as if they are looking through dark glasses. In all three of these realms their attentions tend to focus on what’s wrong and ignore what’s good.
My client Dick felt empathy when his wife Jane showed initial signs of depression. Over time, however, Jane’s negative thinking began to pervade the household. Conversations with Jane too often took a negative turn. Jane criticized herself (“I should have....” or “I was so dumb to ...), pointed out what the kids, Dick or others were doing wrong (“You guys didn’t...”; “Those politicians always..”) and expressed gloom about the future (“There’s no point in trying to launch my new business with the economy likely to collapse ...”).
In addition to the downward emotional drag he felt from Jane’s specifically negative comments, Dick sensed and felt susceptible to a pall of negative energy surrounding Jane. He keenly felt the difference in his own mood when he spent time with his wife versus when he was interacting with the kids.
Dick and Jane’s kids isolated themselves from their Mom’s emotional state by limiting their interactions with her. As teenagers, they could busy themselves in their own increasingly independent worlds.
Jane herself seemed spontaneously to protect other family members by isolating herself in her room during the evenings when everyone was home from work and school.
While it to some extent Jane’s social isolation may have protected her children from “catching” her depression, staying alone at home or in her room contributed to Jane’s downward depressive collapse by preventing others’ positive energies from lifting her spirits.
Yet when people are depressed, they generally do tend to isolate themselves. Potentially uplifting activities like socializing with friends, getting exercise or even leaving the house to do anything feels too effortful.
Dick was concerned that his depression/resentment would be inappropriate to express to Jane. He genuinely didn't want to worry her, or to hurt her feelings. The suppressed resentment seeped out nonetheless, usually via snippy comments that further deepened Jane’s negative feelings about herself. Her emotional state deteriorated from bad to worse.
Psychologist Martin Seligman identified the depressive phenomenon of “learned helplessness.” When people are seriously depressed, trying to do anything feels overwhelming.
Gradually however Dick felt increasingly depressed himself, feeling hopeless about being able to keep up the additional pressure. “This is too much for me. I work hard during the day at the office, then no longer have a partner at home to pitch in with her half of running the family. Jane also used to bring in helpful income from her half-time job. Now everything’s on me. I’m overwhelmed.”
A given episode of depression is generally triggered by a dominant-submissive interaction (Heitler, 1990, From Conflict to Resolution). The interaction may be within one’s own thoughts, between people, or between a person and a circumstance.
Jane’s depression may have begun when she and Dick “jointly” decided to move to a new house on the far side of town. Jane truly did love the house. At the same time, its additional distance from her work, an extra 30 minutes of drive time each way added onto what already was a significant commute, had concerned her from the outset. Rather than dampen Dick’s enthusiasm about buying the home though, Jane had muted her concerns about the potential impact a longer drive might have on her.
Jane hated driving, especially in the city’s stoppered-up rush hour traffic. Soon after moving into their new home, Jane decided to give up her job rather than deal every day with the annoying long drive. Loss then piled on loss, with Jan no longer having her job, a professional identity, a place to go during the days, close-by friends or her old neighborhood.
Dick saw that his fear of making Jane’s depression worse was resulting in his saying yes to too much that he really didn't want to do. “Yes, I can clean up the kitchen.” “Yes, I’ll cancel our plans to go out this weekend with friends.”
Dick also was muzzling himself from fear that he might make come across as overbearing, a stance he’d too often seen his Dad take with his mom. Dick's resulting submissive stance however fed the resentment which, as described above, then seeped out in sarcasm or low-level irritation...again, not great for Jane’s distressed state.
In sum, each time that Dick and Jane made a decision together with one of them giving up on something of import to them, depression was the by-product. Each submissive rather than equal-power, win-win-oriented moment was sinking one or both of them all the more into the depressive morass.
The good news about depression.
The good news is that depression is highly treatable.
Multiple research studies have found that psychotherapy helps, medications can help, and psychotherapy plus medications can be a particularly effective combination.
I would add from my experience working with depression that for depressed people who are in a committed or married relationship, couples therapy is particularly high-impact and essential component of treatment.
Effective couple treatment for depression generally includes teaching both partners at least four skill sets. They need to learn how to:
a) upgrade their cooperative communication skills,
b) decrease the anger and other negative energies in the household
c) share more positive energies through expression of appreciation, agreement with their partner's viewpoints, and frequent signs of affection like smiles, hugs and "eye-kissing." [cont on p. 2]
d) make win-win decisions together instead of utilizing winner-loser, dominant-submissive decision-making patterns.
About recovery from depression
Earlier posts from Dr. Heitler’s PT blog that are relevant to this article:
Additional brief articles related to this post:
Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D. is author of From Conflict to Resolution, which offers a conflict-resolution-based theory of psychopathology and treatment, and of The Power of Two on how to sustain emotionally positive interactions. Her website PowerOfTwoMarriage teaches the skills for marriage success.