Karen Kleiman MSW, LCSW
This Isn't What I Expected
Postpartum Depression Is Hard on a Marriage
Pay attention to your relationship
Posted Mar 09, 2015
No one expects to be blindsided by depression after the birth of their baby. Although it’s true that increased awareness is enabling more couples to better prepare for the possibility and thereby reduce its impact, still, when it happens, it doesn’t matter how well you’ve prepared. You feel cheated. You are cheated. Even later, after symptoms have improved and healthy coping skills begin to emerge, remnants of the earlier ambush can, and will, create various degrees of turmoil in your marriage.
The early postpartum weeks and months divert couples away from themselves and invariably diminish the time they have for each other. More specifically, it diminishes the time a woman has for her partner, which can reduce his marital satisfaction. Studies show that depression has been linked with “marital problems” (Whiffen & Gotlib, 1993) and poor “marital adjustment” (Whiffen, 1988). Although the question has been raised: do poor marital relationships cause postpartum depression, or does postpartum depression cause poor marital relationships? Both are true, depending on the circumstances, but there is no clear, causal association that would hold true across the board. Without a distinct definition of poor marital relationships, it’s difficult to generalize, but it’s interesting that despite the research, which supports this, many couples exhibit a consistent, though frustrated, effort to settle what has been disrupted during the crisis. In fact, many women report after the fact that their relationships were strong and their partners were particularly supportive. I have been witness to countless numbers of women and men who fight tirelessly to regain the love temporarily lost in the shuffle of emotions.
If you are recovering from depression, taking a look inside your relationship is probably the last thing you feel like doing right now. It may even feel like a waste of time. Digging into your marriage just when you have recovered from the tumult of postpartum depression may present a hardship for you, which you simply cannot muster the energy.
But you should.
Here’s why: As far back in 1957, LeMaster’s reported that 83 percent of new parents experience moderate to severe levels of crisis during the transition into parenthood. Although initially disputed, other researchers have validated this high degree of distress during the transition to parenthood. In fact, one study shows that marital quality decreases sharply for 40 to 67 percent of couples during the first postpartum year (Shapiro, Gottman, & Carrère, 2000). When we factor in postpartum depression, the picture is even bleaker. Research shows that husbands of women with postpartum depression report less satisfaction in their marriage and feel less capable as parents compared to husbands of postpartum women who are not depressed. Additionally, there is evidence that women with postpartum depression report inadequate communication with their partners (Paykel, Emms, Fletcher & Rassaby, 1980) and, specifically, that they feel less able to talk openly about problems with their partners than postpartum women who are not depressed.
In summary, there is: 1) a high degree of distress during transition to parenthood (without depression), 2) a decrease in marital quality during first postpartum year, 3) less satisfaction reported by husbands of women with PPD. and 4) inadequate communication with spouses reported by women with PPD. Additionally, lesbian couples, who conceived a child through artificial insemination, showed an increase in relationship conflict after the birth of their baby (Goldberg & Sayer, 2006).
Another reason why you should rally around this effort is that research shows that couples therapy reduces depression, especially in women. This is partly based on his finding that women tend to use emotion-focused coping and blame themselves for marital problems, which puts them at greater risk for depression. It follows, then, that if couples learn to tend to the relationship with effective tools, this could conceivably relieve depression or likely protect from relapse (Beach, Fincham & Katz, 1998).
Thus, the impact of postpartum depression on the marriage has striking implications and can potentially damage to the relationship. This is true whether it is the mother who has suffered from depression or whether depression affects the father. Do not make the mistake of minimizing the impact, regardless of who suffered from depression. As one woman told me, “Postpartum depression changed my marriage. It actually made it better in some ways, I think. We learned things about each other we never knew. But it crushed our spirit, and it hasn’t been a smooth road home. It rocked our foundation.”
If you are the depression sufferer, right about now, you might be feeling guilty about how the depression affected your marriage. Not only will that not help, it will keep you locked into some of the old distorted thinking patterns that emerged during or, perhaps, triggered your depression. I know, first you felt guilty about the depression and now you feel guilty about the state of your marriage. Right now, it’s important that you exercise the ability to ignore your temptation to feel guilty about this. Do not blame yourself. Save your energy for this work you have ahead of you. If you are the non-depressed partner, it will be helpful if you can remind your partner that they are not to blame and that the two of you are on the same team here, working on making things feel strong again. Note that if your marriage feels either too fragile or too volatile, self-help measures will not be sufficient. In those instances, you should seek professional assistance for further support.
Adapted from Tokens of Affection: Reclaiming your marriage after postpartum depression (Routledge, 2014) By Karen Kleiman & Amy Wenzel