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Personal Intimacy as an Overlooked Antidepressant

Love is the no-cost mood enhancer.

Key points

  • Real love takes courage, but offers powerful rewards.
  • Love relationships can be mood lifters—when couples are relating to each other on a personal level.
  • Being open and vulnerable rather than withdrawing from a partner can help foster greater intimacy and satisfaction over time.

Depression is commonly linked to career disappointments, financial setbacks, and the disruption of normal routines—especially sleep patterns—as well as social pressures and conflict in personal relationships. It is this last factor that has captured my attention in relation to depression. Personal relationships, in particular the most personal, love partnerships, have a profound impact on our mood. In fact, researchers report that unhappy marital relationships are associated with a risk of depression that is much higher than those in marriages that work (1)

The most natural antidepressant

Treatment of depression may involve psychotherapy, medication, physical activity (if possible), and sometimes hospitalization, along with more serious measures. All of these forms of treatment deserve merit. However, there is an under-appreciated addition to the armory of medical and psychological weapons against depression: interpersonal intimacy.

New love, where openness and validation abound, is probably the most natural mood booster we will experience. What if the interactions of young love can be resuscitated in an ongoing relationship, one that is no longer “young” but contains the elements that fueled the early mood boost?

The value of getting past caution

A shared intimacy that is characterized by real openness, acceptance, and validation is a valuable addition to the antidepressant armament. There is no better opportunity than our love relationship for us to be truly ourselves. What happens that corrupts that early process and so commonly drags a thriving relationship into an abyss is not complicated and not out-of-reach. It does not have to be sacrificed to our busy lives.

Rekindling emotional intimacy is not as much about busy lives as it is about fear of being judged or rejected by the person sharing our life. And it is not an empty fear; most of us were judged by parents and friends and bring the tendency to judge into our primary relationship.

Being guarded can block the path to wellness

Each of us longs to be loved and accepted for the person we truly are. Love relationships, at their best, provide an opportunity to discover and nurture our authentic selves. Ironically, our need for validation and desire for approval is often so strong that in an effort to avoid judgment, we become guarded against the most important person in our life—our love partner. Early openness evolves into a quiet caution.

Love requires courage. We become guarded against our mate because he or she is central to our lives, and the need for approval is strongest with the person with whom our life is shared. We want to play it safe to avoid being judged.

After all, spilling our secrets and revealing ourselves to a stranger is much less difficult and feels safer. Getting emotionally naked with your mate is different; you have to face each other the next day and the next.

Turning back the clock

Would bringing back that early openness address mood problems? Try it!

Here are some instructions: Talk personally, the way you did early in your relationship. You and your partner should both feel heard; you should feel validated and, if done regularly, both should experience a strengthened emotional connection with each other, even if neither of you thought you needed a stronger connection, or you thought it was outside your reach.

Getting and staying real

The point would be to safely address real issues with your partner and to become less defensive with each other, accepting yourself and your partner more fully. Most important of all, as the relationship strengthens and becomes more personal—shifting from the business of the day to more intimate exchanges—a degree of protection from depression is likely.

The moral: Depression involves withdrawal, withdrawal from oneself and others. Feeling safe enough in a relationship to reveal our innermost feelings is connective and should be considered a valued part of the antidepressant lifestyle. Continued relationship satisfaction is based on respectful openness and validation, the kind of communication that built love in the early days. To do otherwise is to risk a relationship with no real relating and to miss out on a factor that may be not only part of the treatment for depression but also a powerful deterrent.

References

1. Annu Rev, Clin Psychol. 2017 May 8; 13: 421–443.

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