Depression and Relationships

Logan was a doctoral student studying ancient Italian poetry. His life was filled with shelves of old books and a teaching job where he was supposed to inspire lethargic first-year students.

His doctoral adviser was ambiguous and inconsistent, and Logan was a people-pleaser who worried that his adviser and students were always upset with him.

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He came to see me at the request of his wife, Yuko, who was starting to panic at his change in personality. “He used to be cheerful, fun-loving, and interested in his work,” she said.

 Now he is a zombie. 


He goes through the motions and does not talk to me, or anyone.  He comes home and goes to bed and then shuffles off in the morning. Even when he is in front of the computer or with a book he is not engaged with it. 


He has not paid any attention to me in ages.”
When we first met, Logan was hunched in his chair like he was trying to disappear. His voice was small and weak, and he listed so many things that were overwhelming him, I couldn’t keep track of them. 


Life was squeezing him, and he was making whimpering noises.

The Look of Depression
Logan was severely depressed. Changes in sleeping and eating? 


Check. Loss of interest in activities he used to like? 


Check. Feelings of guilt? 


Nonstop. 


And so on. 


He spoke in self-defeating terms: “I am dumb, why did I think I could do this? 


I am a disappointment to Yuko.” 


And he described intense emotional pain and suicidal thoughts: "I will never finish, and my family will be better off without me." 


Clearly, his pain was killing both him and his marriage.


“A man with a toothache cannot be in love, and it is the same with emotional hurt. A throbbing ache in the soul leaves little for anything else.”


Depression and Relationships

Depression takes the relationship down with the victim. Many studies show how this happens. For starters, depressed people often exude waves of negativity, which is hard for a partner to deal with.

They also make more bad choices when depressed, like driving drunk or saying mean things. Non-depressed partners often worry or feel guilty about what is happening. One study found when a person looks at their depressed partner’s face; it causes a depressed reaction in their own brain. It is stressful to see another in pain, and this feeds a vicious cycle.

When Yuko would become upset, it would trigger Logan’s distorted perceptions. He saw her emotion as hostile, even when it wasn’t. He assumed she became upset because she hated him, when the reality was that she was worrying.

The cycle continues as the depressed partner is consumed by their pain and can’t feel affection or attend to the other person. When someone is distressed, they lose touch with their intuition and can’t understand others’ expressions or body language.

The pain takes all the focus. There is a proverb that says a man with a toothache cannot be in love, and it is the same with emotional hurt. A throbbing ache in the soul leaves little for anything else.

Logan demonstrated many altered, depressed perceptions. He “knew,” his students thought he was a horrible teacher when the reality was that most were tired and not into poetry. His melancholy mood amplified his self-criticism, and his words became irrational and harsh.

Fortunately, therapy, better self-care and open communication with Yuko helped Logan rebound. After his depression lifted, he saw things more clearly, was less inclined to extreme negativity, and his hope returned that he could succeed in his studies and his relationship.

If you or someone you love is struggling, reach out for help. A relationship can be a healing force, and partners can work to find resources and feel better together.

Adapted from the book, Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways We Deceive in Relationships.

How relationships can affect depression

Strong and healthy relationships have the potential to help us cope with the symptoms of depression - and, in some circumstances, can be a big influence on whether a person becomes depressed. 

They give us a support network – people to talk to and loved ones we can rely on when things are difficult. They can help us to maintain perspective and just generally feel less alone. ONS figures on what matters most to our wellbeing show that relationships with friends and family are joint-top of the list (89%).

Conversely, evidence suggests that people in troubled relationships are three times as likely to experience depression as those who aren’t. Unhappy or unsupportive relationships are a risk factor for depression. Some studies have found that over 60% of those with depression consider relationship problems to be the main cause of their illness. 

How depression can affect relationships

Depression can make it difficult to maintain supportive and fulfilling relationships.

If your partner is suffering from depression, they may be so overwhelmed by their symptoms that finding the energy to communicate feels impossible.

As a partner or family member, it can be easy to find this really draining and upsetting. You might become exhausted with the effort of feeling you need to support your partner and also keeping up with running the house or looking after the rest of the family.

And in turn, the person with depression may begin to feel like a burden – as though they’re simply getting in the way and making the lives of those around them worse. They may be aware of the effects their depression is having on their relationships, but feel powerless to do anything about it. This can make them feel guilty, and lower their self-esteem even more.

This film by the World Health Organisation looks at how depression can interact with relationships:

How can counselling help?

Here are some of the specific techniques Relate use.

  • Open communication. This is something we encourage in any form of counselling, but it can be particularly important when it comes to depression. The kind of pressure that mental health issues can place on a relationship can be eased by talking openly and honestly about what each person is finding difficult. The counsellor will enable this process, making sure that each partner is able to speak and be heard.


  • Externalising. This means detaching the condition from the person so you’re able to see the depression as the problem, not the person suffering from it. This could even mean giving it a name or referring to it in the third person. The idea is to help the person with depression see it as a separate entity, rather than being part of their personality.


  • Breaking down the details. This means identifying the exact nature of the depression so we can see if there are any triggers and get a better idea of its severity. Lots of people come into counselling feeling like depression affects them all the time, but when you look at things in more detail, they begin to realise there are times when it’s not such an issue, or that there are times when it’s particularly bad. Acknowledging what might be contributing to the depression and whether there are any specific sources of stress can be really useful.


  • Making a timeline together. This is where we look at positive and negative events throughout the relationship. This helps to pinpoint when the depression first intruded itself into the relationship and looks at what else was happening around that time. Depression can often be linked to a loss of some kind (death or separation from a loved one, loss of identity, loss of job/status, loss of health/mobility, loss of purpose).


  • Doing a timeline can also give each partner a better idea of how the other is feeling. We often find that some events feel more or less significant to one partner than the other.  

Is depression affecting your relationship?

If you think you might benefit from couples counselling for people affected by depression, then please get in touch.

You can also speak to a Relate counsellor by telephonewebcam or you can Message a Counsellor.

You can also get information on mental health from:  MindRethinkTime to Change and SANE.

References

Steven R. H. Beach, and Evelyn E. Sandeen, Depression in Marriage: A Model for Etiology and Treatment: Treatment Manuals for Practitioners (New York: Guilford Press, 1990).

Megan Oka, Jason B. Whiting, and Alan Reifman, "Observational Research of Negative Communication and Self-Reported Relationship Satisfaction," The American Journal of Family Therapy 43, no. 4 (2015): 378-391.

Rachel Pruchno, Maureen Wilson-Gunderson, and Francine P. Cartwright, "Depressive Symptoms and Marital Satisfaction in the Context of Chronic Disease: A Longitudinal Dyadic Analysis." Journal of Family Psychology 23, no. 4 (2009): 573-584.

Bianca P. Acevedo, Arthur Aron, Helen E. Fisher, and Lucy L. Brown, "Neural Correlates of Marital Satisfaction and Well-Being: Reward, Empathy, and Affect." Clinical Neuropsychiatry 9, no. 1 (2012): 20-31.

Joseph P. Forgas, and Rebekah East, “On Being Happy and Gullible: Mood Effects on Skepticism and the Detection of Deception,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44 (2008): 1362-67.


Further reading

https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-depression-damages-your-relationship-what-you-can-do/

https://www.relate.org.uk/relationship-help/help-relationships/mental-health/relationships-and-depression

https://www.alustforlife.com/tools/mental-health/depression-and-relationships-what-you-can-do-to-retain-intimacy-when-depressed

https://www.talkspace.com/blog/dating-a-man-with-depression-what-you-need-to-know-and-do/

Tony

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