Sometimes it can feel like a partner's low mood is contagious. We can take our stress home with us after a challenging day at work, or feel irritable or withdrawn for a variety of reasons, impacting the moods of other family members. A large body of empirical research has demonstrated that mental well-being is closely tied to the functioning of our closest relationships. This connection can be especially apparent when one member of a family is experiencing symptoms of clinical depression. Depression can put a strain on a couple's communication and intimacy - and vice versa, difficulties in relationships can increase vulnerability to experiencing depression. One study found an almost three-fold increase in risk of experiencing a major depressive episode following a period of relationship discord, and others have shown that the risk of relapse to depression can be higher during times of relationship distress.
There are common patterns and challenges that can occur within a couple's relationship when one partner is experiencing symptoms of depression. For example:
• Depressed partner has low energy, while the other partner "picks up the slack" on household responsibilities to help out, but over time begins to feel overwhelmed
• Depressed partner shares that he/she feels "worthless" or that "nothing will get better" (or other negative views about self, the world, the future), while other partner tries to challenge these thoughts, and becomes frustrated when this is not successful
• Partner without depression begins to feel more isolated, and avoids sharing his or her own concerns in order to put on a "happy front" to protect depressed partner from stress.
While these patterns and many more like them can be disheartening for all involved, there are fortunately alternative strategies couples can learn to support one another more effectively when one partner is experiencing depression. To start, both partners can educate themselves about the symptoms of clinical depression and treatments that can help. When all members of a family are "on the same page" about treatment, its beneficial effects can be maximized. For example, an intervention for depression called behavioral activation—which works to slowly increase activities that inspire a sense of enjoyment or sense of accomplishment—can work even better when a partner is on board. Some activities can be done jointly as a couple, and other individually-based activities might work more effectively with the support of a spouse (for example, partner helps out with childcare while other partner tries out a class at the gym). Another important strategy is learning how to effectively communicate to your partner what type of support would be most helpful, and for partners to learn how to empathize with statements that might be very difficult for them to hear, rather than succumbing to the urge to challenge them during times when this might not be helpful.
When being treated for depression, it can be beneficial to arrange to bring in your partner to learn some of these strategies together and work as a team against depression—sometimes even one or two joint sessions can be helpful in this regard. If interested in learning more, please view the couples therapy section of our website or contact us to discuss couple-based treatment options.