Marital Problems and Depression

As the U.S. divorce rate of almost 50 percent attests, keeping a marriage together can be pretty tough even under normal circumstances. But depression can complicate ordinary marital problems and make marital success even more challenging, said University of Georgia psychology professor Steven Beach.

Depression affects more than 19 million Americans, said Beach, who is director of UGA’s Institute for Behavioral Research. “Although people tend to dismiss it because it’s such a commonly known and diagnosed problem, depression actually causes greater difficulties than many other disorders.” Causing patients to feel helpless, unable to perform some of the simplest everyday tasks and pessimistic about the future, depression can be debilitating for the individual and make it harder to deal with the ups and downs that occur in every marriage, Beach said.

Marriage is a natural arena in which to study the interpersonal aspects of depression because it is such a powerful interpersonal environment. Events that “pile up” on a person who becomes depressed often stem from interactions with family and close friends. Some of the most powerful interpersonal events are those that occur between a husband and a wife. Although troubles in close relationships may contribute to depression, improvement in marital relationships can also help with recovery. This may reflect the importance of marriage as a source of support and the fact that many traditional sources of support are less available than they used to be, Beach said.

While the increase in rates of depression over the past 100 years is not thoroughly understood, some cultural anthropologists believe it results from the lack of inter-personal networks in modern society. For example, people are more likely to move several times over their lives — repeatedly losing contact with potential support groups — at the same time that new forms of communication have tended to replace face-to-face interactions. In the midst of this change, “marriage remains a core interpersonal relationship in modern society,” Beach said. “That may be why marital quality so consistently correlates with depression.” The loss of other interpersonal networks and sources of support may also put marriage at risk in the context of depression.

When a marriage is not working it turns into a stressor, which often causes depression among females and leads males to alcohol abuse. Stressful marriage is the leading cause for depression among women. Women genetically predisposed to stress are three times more likely to develop depression than women not genetically predisposed. Even though this is not a social factor, it is important to point it out as a possible predisposition to depression based on social factors.

If one partner suffers from chronic depression, it is very likely that the other partner will develop depression as well. Even when the depressed partner overcomes this depression, it is common to relapse if he or she has an unsatisfying marriage. Marital distress can also occur if the distressed partner’s behavior triggers negative effects in the spouse. In the large proportion of couples experiencing marital distress, at least one partner is clinically depressed, adding even more stress to the other partner.

These inter-partner problems could even lead to physical abuse. Such abuse is generally perpetrated by the male but in some instances it comes from the female.

In short, the stress-generation model of depression can help to explain the two-way relation between marital discord and depression. Marital distress can lead to depression and depression can lead to marital distress.

The connection between depression and marital distress is influenced principally through the way individuals explain the negative behavior of their partner. Individual's personal explanations of negative martial events greatly impacts marital satisfaction and their emotional state. Trying to attribute blame to someone is pointless and results in unnecessary suffering for the depressed and the caretaker spouse. Searching for a source to blame wastes energy that would be better spent in learning more about the illness and possible treatments. Those who suffer from depression don't choose to and are not simply lacking willpower, "they cannot, through any exercise of will, get out of the predicament they are in".

By understanding that depression is not intentional caretaker spouses may be able to change they way they think of their spouses. For example caretaker spouses my see their spouses as a victim rather than a saboteur of the marriage. A better use of time and energy would be to search for understanding and increased capabilities for compassion and patience. Developing patience through increased understanding is one of the best tools a caretaker spouse can acquire. Patience will be especially beneficial when dealing with the continuous ups and downs of depression and even the constant care needed for patients who may be in danger of suicide.

Caretaker spouses can provide encouragement and realistically remind the depressed of God's love, and the love of family members. It will be important not to lose patience and to avoid saying things such as "just snap out of it" or "get a little backbone". The importance of avoiding such phrases is exemplified through this quote from Helping and Healing Our Families by Morrison: “Anyone who has ever witnessed the almost unbearable pain and uncontrollable weeping of a severe panic attack, or the indescribable sadness of severely depressed person who cries all day and retreats in hopeless apathy, would never think for a moment that mental illness is just a matter of willpower.”

Recognizing that depression and not the spouse is the villain is a huge step in the battle. However while patience, compassion, and love provide support and are crucial for learning to live with depression within a marriage they are not a cure for the illness therefore it is important to seek knowledge of the illness and of treatment options.

The hopelessness model is important as well. Hopelessness can be seen in people who believe that there is nothing they can do to either better themselves or change an outcome of an important event. People who believe that future control is possible experience anxiety in an effort to gain control. If one is convinced that one is helpless in controlling important events but is not sure if the bad outcome will actually occur, a mixed anxiety/depression syndrome will probably surface. In contrast, if one is convinced that bad outcomes will definitely occur regardless of what one does, then helplessness becomes hopelessness and depression sets in. It is normal to become depressed if one believes that there is nothing one can do to prevent a negative outcome.

Stressful life events are a big cause of depression. They include marital problems, divorce, job loss, and poverty. Life events can be seen as dependent or independent. Independent life events happen due to causes outside of one's control--for example, a hurricane taking one’s house or being laid off from work. Dependent life events are ones for which one holds a partial responsibility; generally these are more likely to cause depression than independent life events. One can easily overcome independent life events by blaming the negative outcome on outside factors, hence removing the responsibility from oneself, making it easy to deal with and not turn the negative outcome inward.

Generally if a man does not feel capable of providing for his family he might view himself as not worthwhile, and this can lead to depression. Depending on the culture, a man must be able to support his family. If he feels that he is incapable of doing so and believes he is a failure, it is inevitable for depression to set in. This is true in capitalistic and developed countries, having its origins in the prehistoric past.

Social factors and stressful life events not only cause people to become depressed but also in many cases predispose people to depression by becoming contributory stressors. Thus, in effect, they can become both diatheses and stressors.

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