Don’t try to deal with depression alone. Both of you need to know this serious illness that your marriage is up against. When one spouse is depressed, a marriage is depressed. This illness erodes emotional and sexual intimacy and suffuses a relationship with pessimism and resentment, anger and isolation. Even the sunniest, most capable partner can be pulled into depression’s strong undertow: You may be overwhelmed by extra household chores that your partner is too lethargic to finish, resentful because your spouse won’t just snap out of it, or feel that you’re somehow to blame for the illness itself. You may feel alone yet unwilling to tell anyone there’s depression in your household, or you may simply wonder when the sparkle and joy, the humor and fun seeped out of your relationship.
Meanwhile, a depressed spouse may believe these sad, empty, tired feelings will pass, that it’s not a big deal — or is all the fault of the well spouse, the boss, or life circumstances. Or that depression must be kept secret.
If there’s depression in your marriage, it’s time to act — for your partner and yourself. Waiting increases the chances that your relationship won’t last; depressed couples are nine times more likely to divorce. And trying to fight or make peace with this often misunderstood illness on your own raises risks for both of you. The longer a nondepressed spouse lives with a depressed partner, the higher his or her own risks for depression. The deeper a depressed spouse sinks, the tougher it may be to finally treat the depression — and the greater the risk for alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, and even suicide. The stakes are high, but the odds are that things will improve.
Remember, you’re not alone. An estimated 19 million Americans are currently going through depression. In the Reader’s Digest Marriage in America Survey, 42 percent of respondents named depression as a major challenge in their relationships. It’s not surprising that most said this insidious illness had a negative effect on them. But there was an unexpected ray of hope: One in four said depression had a positive outcome for their marriages. “Getting diagnosed and treated makes all the difference,” says Emily Scott-Lowe, Ph.D., an assistant visiting professor of social work at Pepperdine University, who leads workshops across the country about depression and marriage with her husband, Dennis Lowe, Ph.D., a psychologist and director of Pepperdine’s Center for the Family. “Just 33 percent of people with depression seek and get help. But when you do, your chances for significant improvement are 80 to 90 percent. Almost everyone gets some relief.”
In a University of Colorado study of 774 married couples, researchers found that when depression entered a relationship, both partners became unhappy with their marriage. That’s no surprise for the Lowes. Their struggle with depression began many years into their marriage and surprised them both: “I was never someone that anyone considered most likely to become depressed,” Dennis Lowe says. “In fact, I was voted ‘best smile’ in my high school yearbook.” His depression isolated his family and strained his marriage, yet it took years to diagnose, even though he and his wife are both mental-health professionals.
“There’s a bias that says women get depression more often than men, but it may just be that men don’t ask for help or realize what’s wrong, or respond to depression by abusing alcohol or becoming aggressive or violent,” Emily Scott-Lowe says. “And often with men, there’s more agitation than lethargy. A man may seem worked up. He may have frenetic, restless energy that doesn’t fit with the typical picture of someone in bed with shades down and the sheets up over their head.”
The battle won, the couple now present workshops about depression’s impact on couples and families based on their own experience. Their advice? See depression as an unwelcome guest — it’s an illness, not a shortcoming. Get help, and support, together.