Depression is hidden cause of many divorces

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The official reason for your marriage breakup was infidelity, your partner's addiction or financial difficulties. But could the root problem have been depression?

Mark Whisman, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder says more study is needed but based on his latest research into depression and marital satisfaction this could be the case in some divorces.

`What we were really looking at is how satisfied spouses are with their relationship, not at divorce per se. But certainly one could imagine that to the extent that you're less satisfied with your relationship when you and/or your spouse are depressed, it may indeed be a contributing factor to relationship problems and potentially, ultimately divorce," Whisman says.

The study looked at 774 couples from seven states in the United States, married an average of 16 years. Whisman and Lisa A. Uebelacker of Brown University Medical School in Providence, R.I., examined how much each person's marital satisfaction was predicted by his or her own level of depression and anxiety and/or by his or her spouse's level of depression and anxiety. They found each person's level of anxiety and depression predicted not only their own marital satisfaction, but their spouse's as well. Marital dissatisfaction was highest when both partners reported high levels of depression. Couples where neither person was depressed were the most satisfied with their marriage. And depression was found to influence both husbands and wives more than anxiety.

The findings show how important it is to evaluate both partners' mental health when dissatisfaction occurs in a marriage, Whisman says. "Seeking help when trouble starts may prevent further declines in marital functioning and ... may help to prevent the dissolution of the marriage."

Edmonton chartered psychologist Susan Henderson says it's important not to generalize on the basis of one study, "but one thing I can tell you is that we have known for a long time that when people are depressed they have kind of a negative skew in all of their perceptions including their spouse, their kids, their job. Everything you can think of, they tend to perceive as negative and hopeless," she says. "They get into a state of mind where they feel very powerless and so they don't try to improve things and things just spiral downward from there."

Some people recognize they're depressed, others don't. A third party can help them figure out what's wrong with their relationship, Henderson says.

People who are depressed are sad, may experience loss of appetite, loss of sleep and loss of interest in things including sex.

Symptoms of anxiety are heart racing, palms sweating and worry about the future. In either case, the spouse can take it personally and then things sort of spin out of control.

Unfortunately, many people wait too long to seek help.

"So often we get people who have already pretty much made up their minds that they're going to get a divorce and then, kind of as a last effort, they call a marriage counsellor. By then they're so alienated from each other, it's very difficult to repair things. This happens frequently," Henderson says.

Other research that has tried looking at the causes of divorce has found that one of the reasons people list is mental or physical health problems in one or both partners, particularly substance abuse, Whisman says.

Edmonton chartered psychologist Colleen Hammermaster says addictions to things like work, food, alcohol, and lately Internet porn, are a way of band-aiding deeper issues like low self-esteem, which can also be a symptom of depression, and that is going to negatively affect your relationship.

Addictions take away negative feelings -- it's a numbing effect she calls "dysfunctional coping."

Hammermaster says people have to take responsibility for their own issues and for their past, which can interfere with their ability to fully participate in a relationship.

"I think you're not even capable of participating in a relationship when you're depressed because you're already in a sort of imbalanced state.

"I don't believe another person can make you depressed," Hammermaster says, "but they can make your life stink."

Results of other studies that have tried to tease apart the question of depression and marital dissatisfaction suggest depression contributes to relationship problems, but relationship problems also contribute to the greater likelihood of depression, Whisman says.

"What we're trying to underscore here is if people were to get treatment for depression and anxiety problems, not only is it going to make them feel better in terms of their symptoms, it's also potentially going to have an effect on the quality of life in ways like improving their marriage. It has ramifications not only for the person's own mental health, but also for their marital health and their partner's mental health as well."