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.
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.”
Depression isn’t a choice or a little case of the blues. It’s a physical illness as serious and life-altering as diabetes, heart disease, or arthritis. A depressed spouse can’t just “snap out of it” or “get on with life.” The reason: Depression is marked by dramatic shifts in brain chemistry that alter mood, thoughts, sleep, appetite, and energy levels. Genetics usually make many of us susceptible to depression; any number of factors can trigger the slide, including prolonged or severe stress, financial problems, a big loss or change in your life, the birth of a child, parenthood, and even some health conditions and prescription drugs. Marriage itself even raises your risk: Up to 1 in 10 brides experience “postnuptial depression” in the months after the wedding. And up to half of all women and men in unhappy marriages may be depressed, perhaps due to marriage problems (though some experts suspect that undiagnosed depression is behind the problems).
If you think your partner may be depressed, your first step is to pay attention to the clues—and help him or her get a diagnosis and treatment. These steps can help.