When two individuals choose to form a marital union, their decision has enormous power, for better or worse, over the quality of their lives. Their marriage can bring them infinite blessings or can usher in disappointment, strife, anger and depression. Understanding how to fix relationship problems therefore is key to sustaining both personal well-being and a positive partnership. Otherwise chronic anger or it's opposite, depression, may set in.
My theoretical model for explaining how depression forms in a marriage is as follows:
Interactions in which one partner takes a dominant and the other a one-down or submissive role are likely to trigger depression in the partner who feels the lessor power or victim role (Heitler, 1990).
As a clinician who treats couples, I have worked for multiple decades with couples whose marriages have been “for the worse.” In most cases, changing the dominant-submissive patterns to collaborative patterns eliminates depression from the relationship.
I was pleased therefore to find confirmation of my theoretical understanding from recent research on marriage and depression. A hearty thank-you to B. Fink and A. Shapiro for the literature review in their just-published journal article in Couple & Family Psychology (March 2013) from which I culled these findings:
Do Marriage Problems and Depression Go Together?
1. Problems in getting along as a married couple definitely can play a significant role in the development of depression.
2. Husbands and/or wives in marriages with a lot of tension, disagreement or arguments are 10 to 25 times more likely to experience depression than people who are unmarried or in collaborative marriages. That's a lot!
3. If marriage discord is high, depression treatment for one partner alone is unlikely to be effective.
4. 50% of women taking one particular anti-depressant medication reported that their marital disputes were a prominent and contributory feature of their feelings of depression.
5. When people saw improvements in their marriages, their depressive symptoms also improved.
6. When women took antidepressant medication and the medication initially improved their mood, if the marriage problems continued their depression soon returned in spite of staying on their medication.
7. Marriage discord typically precedes the onset of depressive symptoms.
8. When a marriage includes on-going fighting, depressive symptoms continue.
9. When people try to cope with marriage problems by drinking to relax, distancing and avoiding each other, or by venting their anger to “get it off their chest," depression is all the more likely to set in.
The Good News
When couples learn to engage together in effective collaborative problem-solving when they have differences instead of getting into tiffs, depressive reactions disappear.
The following example is from the introduction to a workbook on marriage, The Power of Two Workbook, that I co-authored with my daughter, psychologist Dr. Abigail Hirsch:
Bonnie and Jack, an attractive, bright, capable, and likable couple, found that their marriage had become a source of ever increasing unhappiness. After one especially distressing evening, Bonnie phoned our offices to schedule an introductory session. “Maybe I should divorce him!” she told us. “I’m fed up. I’m not in love anymore. I don’t know this man!”
How did Bonnie and Jack’s marriage, launched with great hopes, disintegrate? Bonnie and Jack seemed on every dimension to be a perfectly matched pair. What had gone wrong?
Like all couples, Bonnie and Jack from time to time had faced difficult situations. Unfortunately, however, when they had tried to talk over these difficulties, their talking increased their distress. One would bark and the other would badger. Bonnie would explode, and Jack would back off, “I give up—Do it your way.” The price Jack paid for his attempt to end the fighting? Depression.
Unable to resolve their differences in a way that left them both feeling satisfied, Bonnie and Jack talked less and less. Tension replaced affection, they turned away from each other, chose separate paths, and grew apart.
Fortunately, Bonnie decided to get help via a marriage communication skills program. Jack agreed to join her. Both genuinely wanted to remedy their skill deficits in hopes that that they then could talk through the divisive issues that had mounted over the years.
Their hope was fulfilled. They studied, and as they gained better communication and conflict resolution skills Bonnie and Jack regained their positive connection. Laughter and affection returned to their home. With the anger and depression gone from their household, a rekindled sexual relationship brought them pleasure and closeness. Instead of evenings in separate rooms, now after dinner they sat together on their back patio, sharing the day’s events.
Bonnie and Jack were elated to discover that all they had really needed was a how-to course. At the same time, Bonnie lamented, “All those years when I thought the problem was you, and you believed that the problem was me, the problem was really skill deficits. I just wish someone had given us this information thirty years ago!”
“Better yet,” Jack added, “Why didn’t anyone teach us these tools in high school or college so by the time we met we would have known how to succeed as a couple?”
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