Depression and Marriage

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Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT has been a therapist for over 30 years, specializing in work with couples, families and relationships. She has expertise with clients ...Read More

Question: Does depression cause problems in a marriage or do problems in a marriage cause depression?

Answer: Yes and Yes.


When half of a couple is depressed, the relationship suffers. Sometimes the relationship suffers and then one of the partners becomes depressed.

Depression, particularly clinical depression, is a mental health condition characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, loss, or anger that interfere with daily activities. Within the context of marriage, it can act as both a cause and a consequence of marital strife, creating a complex interplay between the mental health of one partner and the overall health of the relationship.

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In the following sections, we explore the multifaceted ways in which depression can influence a marriage, from diminishing emotional connection and intimacy to complicating communication and daily responsibilities. Moreover, we provide strategies for couples to effectively recognize, discuss, and manage depression, emphasizing the importance of education, open communication, and mutual support. Ultimately, our goal is to help couples not only navigate the challenges posed by depression but also to emerge more connected and resilient.

Stress in a Relationship When One of the Partners is Depressed

Depression in one person affects those around and involved with him or her. It touches the quality of each member‘s life, as well as their thoughts about the depressed person and their overall happiness with the relationship.

Those who are depressed are generally apathetic, sad, tired, and negative. They have little energy for the tasks and pleasures of couple and family life. Much of what they talk about is negative and even those experiences that might be seen as neutral or positive may become negative when seen through the lens of depression.

Normal responsibilities and relationship tasks are not handled. Partners and older children often find themselves picking up the slack as they notice what is not happening. Spouses do a lot of things on their own without the depressed partner. All of these changes in the family dynamic can lead to feelings of resentment and anger.

Emotional connection, intimacy and sexual desire often disappear cascading into loneliness, sadness and disappointment in the marriage.

Many people who are not depressed or have never struggled with depression have questions about why the depressed person can’t just get on with life and do the things that would make him or her feel better. Impatience, feeling overwhelmed by the situation and a lack of understanding on a partner’s part can create additional problems as couples struggle with depression.

Depression or Sadness from Problems in the Marriage

Events can trigger depression, especially for people who are already prone to bouts of the blues or depression.

A high level of conflict, uncovering an affair, feeling lonely and distant from your partner are just some of the patterns in a marriage that can trigger depression.

Depression evolves especially for those who believe that their partner is unwilling to work with them to change the pattern, who lack the communication skills to work through things or who do not have openness in their marriage. Life seems out of control.

People who have had other experiences with depression are more likely to become depressed by marital problems, especially if the pattern continues over time.

For those new to the depression it can be transient and clear up as problems in the relationship abate.

A few words about postpartum depression

Women can experience postpartum depression immediately after the birth of a baby or up to a year later; however, it most often occurs within the first 3 months after a baby is born.

Postpartum is different from the “baby blues” as it can last for a long time rather than clearing up as new routines of sleeping and eating evolve. It seems to be triggered by sudden hormone changes coupled with risk factors such as prior bouts of depression and poor support from spouse, family and friends.

Identifying Depression in a Marriage

Depression can cast a long shadow over every aspect of life, including marriage. Recognizing the signs of depression within the context of a marital relationship is crucial for timely intervention and support. However, symptoms of depression can sometimes intertwine with typical marital issues, making it challenging to differentiate between ordinary relationship ups and downs and the more serious indications of clinical depression.

Symptoms of Depression in a Marital Setting

Depression within a marriage might not always present in the ways we expect. Beyond the common symptoms of persistent sadness, loss of interest in activities, and changes in appetite or sleep patterns, depression in a marital context can manifest as:

  • Withdrawal from the relationship: One partner may seem increasingly distant, disengaged, or uninterested in joint activities, communication, or decision-making.
  • Increased irritability or conflict: Minor irritations can escalate into frequent, intense arguments, often with a change in one partner’s tolerance level and patience.
  • Changes in sexual desire: A noticeable decrease in sexual interest or intimacy, which is not explained by other relationship issues or life stresses.
  • Neglect of shared responsibilities: This can include household chores, parenting, or financial obligations, leading to an imbalance in the partnership.
  • Emotional numbness: A lack of emotional response or engagement in situations that would typically evoke joy, sadness, or empathy within the relationship.

Differentiating Between Marital Discontent and Clinical Depression

While it’s natural for marriages to go through phases of discontent and adjustment, clinical depression is characterized by the intensity, duration, and impact of these symptoms on an individual’s ability to function. To differentiate between the two, consider the following:

  • Duration and consistency: Symptoms of depression persist for most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks. Marital discontent might ebb and flow with circumstances, but depression’s grip is steadier and more pervasive.
  • Broader impact: Depression affects not just the relationship but also other areas of life, including work, social interactions, and self-care habits.
  • Physical symptoms: Clinical depression often accompanies physical symptoms like changes in appetite, sleep disturbances, or unexplained aches and pains.
  • Emotional experiences: Feelings of worthlessness, excessive guilt, difficulty concentrating, and thoughts of death or suicide are strong indicators of depression, far beyond typical relationship frustrations.

Understanding these signs and distinguishing between temporary marital challenges and the more severe symptoms of clinical depression is vital. Recognizing the presence of depression in a marriage is the first step towards seeking help and initiating recovery, both individually and as a couple. Encouraging open dialogue about mental health within the relationship can foster a supportive environment for addressing depression and working together towards healing and growth.

What Can Couples Do When Depression Affects their Relationship?

  1. Learn the signs and symptoms of depression. Education helps a lot. Read and talk about what symptoms to look for that might indicate that depression is creeping in or maybe has already come to roost.
  2. Acknowledge and talk about the depression. Keep communication open. Recognize when it is there. Bring it out in the open and talk about it lovingly, without judgment.
  3. Depersonalize it. Talk about it as “the depression”. No one chooses depression and depression is not the person. Depression affects people and those who love them. Discuss it as a factor in your life that is sometimes present and also sometimes not there at all.
  4. Share with each other about how the depression is affecting you and your relationship with the depression. Try to frame it in non-judgmental ways. That’s where the “depersonalizing” comes in handy. You can each talk about it as if the depression were an unwelcome visitor that is affecting each of you.
  5. Develop a plan of action. Each person wants to take responsibility for their own lives; however, it is helpful when couples can work together and, in the context of a loving relationship, talk about changes in conversation and behavior.

Each of you can share what you need from each other while in this period and find ways to help each other out or take care of yourself until this period is over.

  1. Seek help. This can be from family, friends or a professional therapist. Get out in front of the pain rather than letting the depression get out in front of you.

Depression does not always lead to divorce. Accepting the depression as a factor that affects the marriage and learning how to lovingly work through it can help couples grow stronger and more connected to each other. Take our online depression assessment and gain insight into your emotional wellbeing.

Holistic Approaches to Relationship Health

The journey toward managing depression and fostering a healthy marriage can benefit from a holistic approach that encompasses physical, emotional, and relational well-being. Understanding and implementing strategies that address these areas can significantly mitigate depression’s impact on a marriage and promote a stronger, healthier partnership.

Physical Health, Diet, and Exercise

The connection between physical health and mental well-being cannot be overstated. Regular physical activity, a nutritious diet, and adequate rest play critical roles in managing symptoms of depression. Exercise, in particular, is a powerful depression fighter, known to release endorphins that enhance mood and provide a sense of well-being. Couples can incorporate physical activities into their routine, whether it’s taking daily walks together, joining a fitness class, or simply making a commitment to move more throughout the day. Similarly, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can support brain health and impact mood and energy levels positively. Making these healthful practices a shared priority not only benefits the individual struggling with depression but also strengthens the marital bond through shared goals and activities.

Preserving Individuality and Personal Growth

While marriage is a partnership, maintaining individuality and personal growth is essential for a healthy relationship. Couples should encourage and support each other’s interests, hobbies, and personal goals. This support can enhance self-esteem, provide outlets for stress relief, and reduce feelings of dependency or resentment. Regularly setting aside time for individual pursuits can also enrich the relationship by bringing new experiences and perspectives to share with one another, fostering a deeper connection and appreciation for each other’s uniqueness.

Navigating Life Transitions

Life transitions, such as career changes, moving, childbirth, or aging, can be significant stressors that impact both depression and marital health. These transitions require adaptation and adjustment, which can strain a marriage if not managed with care and communication. Couples facing such transitions should strive for open dialogue about their fears, expectations, and feelings. Planning together, setting realistic goals, and remaining flexible can help mitigate the stress associated with change. Moreover, viewing these transitions as opportunities for growth and deeper bonding can transform challenges into shared victories, strengthening the marital relationship in the process.

Keep Reading By Author Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT
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