When you’re in a bad mood, everything looks bleak, including your relationships. When your relationships aren’t going well, you’re also more likely to feel sad and perhaps a little anxious. Clearly, the relationship between your emotions and your relationships is a strong one. You can take steps to improve things in your relationships, and this can help you feel better. However, if your mood is chronically depressed, this can greatly complicate the process. Without knowing it, you’re causing others to stay away from you or to regard you with a less than enthusiastic welcome when you walk into the room.
One way to know if your mood is creating problems in your relationships is to take note of what others say to you. Do you hear your partner, friends, or coworkers calling you a “buzz kill?" How about a “Debbie Downer?" If you remember, she was the Saturday Night Live character played by Rachel Dratch who could ruin the mood of everyone around her by reminding them of the tragedies, diseases, and disasters going on in the world. Somehow her friends kept inviting her to parties and dinners despite her sour observations about the world. In real life, though, most people would not tolerate so easily such a constant negative attitude.
Similarly, in your closest relationships, a tendency to see the dark side of a situation can permeate your interactions with those who love you. According to University of Waterloo psychologist, Uzma Rehman and colleagues (2015), people who have major depressive disorder (the clinical form of depression) have higher levels of distress in relationships, feel that their marriages are less satisfactory, and become unusually upset when problems develop in their relationships. They are more likely to blame their partners when things go wrong, and they tend to shut down emotionally instead of reach out and connect. Their partners, in turn, feel more emotionally burdened and distressed themselves.
As Rehman et al. note (p. 716): “individuals with depression or those exhibiting depressogenic vulnerabilities may inadvertently behave in ways that increase interpersonal stress.” It’s those depressogenic vulnerabilities that seem to be at the heart of the problem. If you have those tendencies, you see situations in the most negative light possible and carry those perceptions into your interactions with others — the “Debbie Downer” effect, we might say.
Rehman and colleagues believed that anxiety might also play a role in this complex interweaving of depression and relationship quality. Just as depression and relationship satisfaction are linked, so is anxiety and distress in the relationship. Being in a poorly functioning relationship may make you more susceptible to the experience of anxiety which, in turn, can lead relationship quality to worsen.
The other factor in all of these equations, of course, is your partner. You might be a sunny optimist, happy and relaxed, but if your partner casts a negative light on your interactions, this will take its toll on your mood and relationship satisfaction.
To try to disentangle these complex factors, Rehman and her team decided to follow a group of 48 married heterosexual couples over two times of testing, measuring both anxiety and depression in each partner. It was important to follow the participants over time in order to help gain a hold over the problem in one-shot studies, where correlations can never equal causation. In fact, this turned out to be a key factor in the findings.
Examining only the first time of testing (prior to follow-up), Rehman and colleagues found that, indeed, an individual’s depression levels (but not that of the partner) was related to lower relationship satisfaction. Anxiety played no role, nor did the depression level of the partner.
In the follow-up, which was six months to a year later, the picture changed dramatically. Over time, depression itself did not play a role in predicting relationship satisfaction. Instead, anxiety became the major factor. In fact, anxiety interacted with the partner’s gender. Wives whose husbands were anxious at the first time of testing had lower relationship satisfaction at the second time of testing; no similar effect was found for the effect of a wife’s anxiety on her husband’s satisfaction.
The findings highlight the importance of what is called the anxious attachment style in predicting relationship outcomes. Men who experience anxiety may seem to be more rejecting to their wives and because wives are typically more sensitive to rejection, this, in turn, can cause them to question and doubt their marriage’s quality.
Nevertheless, depression remains an important predictor of relationship quality, even if only at one point in time. Rehman and her fellow researchers believe there may be a shared vulnerability between depression and anxiety, and that in reality, they are difficult to distinguish. When you or your partner are stressed and unhappy, ordinary life becomes more of a struggle. You’ll fail to see what’s good about your relationship and as a result, either shut down (which appeared to be the case for men) or blame yourself for everything that’s going wrong (the women's response).
Fortunately, however, depression and anxiety are both treatable conditions as long as you are sensitive to their role in your relationship quality. Things may seem to be going downhill due to your bleak assessment of your life; as such a negative mood continues, what seems to be problems may evolve into actual problems. However, if you can intervene before that happens, you’ll be better able to redraw the map on your relationship so that it heads in a favorable direction.
Fulfillment in relationships is clearly important to our mental health. However, recognizing that your mental health affects your relationship can help salvage both your mood and your relationship.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016
Rehman, U. S., Evraire, L. E., Karimiha, G., & Goodnight, J. A. (2015). Actor‐partner effects and the differential roles of depression and anxiety in intimate relationships: A cross‐sectional and longitudinal analysis. Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 71(7), 715-724. doi:10.1002/jclp.22162