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Depression and Marital Strife: Dealing with a Double Whammy

by Lindsey Scott


Intro  |  An Age-Old Question: Chicken or Egg  |  New Directions



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 inter-personal 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.

While matrimony can be a port in the storm, such singular reliance can over-burden a relationship. As a result, couples may find themselves dealing with both depression and marital problems.

Beach completed a study involving couples experiencing that volatile combination of marital strife and at least one partner who was depressed. Each couple was randomly assigned to a treatment group: marital therapy, cognitive therapy for depression, or no treatment. Couples in marital therapy attended counseling together, while only the depressed partner was counseled in cognitive therapy. “I was interested in finding out whether improving the marital relationship could help someone who was depressed as much as the leading-individual approach to treatment,” said Beach.

In the end, “marital therapy indeed acted as an intervention for depression. Couples tended both to improve their level of marital satisfaction and recover from their depressive episode regardless of which came first,” he said. By contrast, cognitive therapy often was successful in relieving individuals’ depression but only helped the couples’ marital problems if they were a direct result of the depression.


Intro  |  An Age-Old Question: Chicken or Egg  |  New Directions


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