Depression and Marital Conflict

A whopping 6.7% of Americans suffer varying degrees of depression and marital conflict often follows. Depression takes it place along the side of exhaustion, ADHD, chronic pain, pessimism and irritability, in it’s impact on a couple’s ability to communicate and remain intimately connected. It seems that depression and marital conflict often go hand in hand.

Depression and marital conflict is very much a chicken and egg kind of problem. It’s almost impossible to tease out. Being in an unhappy marriage can make you depressed, and being depressed can negatively impact your marriage.

A recent piece of research in Communication Monographs looks at the role depression plays in fostering relational insecurity. Depression tends to inhibit the ability to be resilient in the face of relational difficulty and challenges.  Experienced couples therapists know while under 7% of people in the US suffer with depression, it shows up about 40% the time in at least one of the partners in couples therapy.

Depression Help in Marriage

Depression is particularly hard on couples because feelings of hopelessness are all-consuming. When you are so depressed that you are spiraling out of control, it’s much harder to be fully present in the relationship. The ongoing problems of depression and marital conflict make problem resolution more difficult. It also thwarts bonding opportunities and can result in a lack of closeness and intimacy.


Depression is a struggle that is ever-present to a person’s life. On the whole, the depressed partner may feel utterly overwhelmed and incapable of regulating themselves, let alone their relationship. They are often consumed with their struggle against the affliction and are often apprehensive of any additional demands that are being placed upon them. The essential thing that the partner who is depressed wants….is to not be depressed.

The partner who is not depressed, however, is in a completely different headspace. He or she wants to be a loving source of support.

In therapy we see them asking for tips, tools, and coping strategies. Their relationship is being impacted on a daily basis because their partner has become a shadow of their former self.

Each partner is on a distinctly different path, but they are both, in their own ways, trying to get to the same place. They both may complain that their needs are not being met – but there is an obvious reason why. Depression is massively impacting them both.

 This study examined 126 couples, where one or both of them had a diagnosis of depression. Most of the couples in the study were married, and most of them were parents.
The couples completed an online survey which measured their symptoms, degree of relationship insecurity, and the degree to which avoidance was impacted their couple dynamics.
This research revealed an association between relational insecurity and the tendency to employ avoidance as an emotional regulation strategy. Significant differences were noticed between the genders, married vs. common laws couples, and both the depressed and non-depressed partners.

These research findings say that the combination of depression and relational insecurity can be predictive of the degree of avoidance behavior, and has implications for “best practices” for improving safety and a more intimate connection between partners. The researchers conclude that the tendency to avoid intimate conversation is perhaps the key area where couples therapy can help couples better navigate the treatment of depression while maintaining a higher level of marital intimacy and connection.

What is the Connection Between Depression and Marital Conflict?

1. Unhappy in your marriage? That alone may have a huge impact on your degree of depression. Couples with frequent disagreement or arguments are 10 to 25 times more likely to experience depression than marriages that are not as conflictual.

3. If marriage discord remains high, treating the depressed partner in a vacuum is unlikely to be effective.

4. 50% of women taking one particular anti-depressant medication reported that their marital arguments contributed significantly to their feelings depressed.

5. When a couple struggling with depression and marital conflict stop avoiding their issues and entered couples therapy, they often report that the depression improves as well.

6. When women took antidepressants, although they reported that they felt better at first, if the marriage difficulties persisted, their depression quickly returned, despite their still being on their medication.

7.  For couples reporting that one of them is depressed, marital spats typically were the herald of a depressive episode.

8. When fighting is a regular feature of marriage, depressive symptoms continue unabated.

9. When a couple copes with depression and marital conflict by avoidance and withdrawal, or by explosive outbursts of temper, depression is all the more likely to return.

10. Self-medication with alcohol is a popular strategy for dealing with depression and marital conflict. But alcohol abuse insults the brain and invites depression to return.

11. Identifying depression can be difficult. Depressed partners often suffer with feelings of powerlessness. Often they don’t even recognize that they are depressed.

12. Often the non-depressed partner is compelled to pick up the slack, particularly if there are children. Over-functioning can lead to feelings of anger and resentment.

13. Depression that goes undiagnosed and untreated, can often be a gateway experience to other attempts to cope such as affairs.

14. Undiagnosed depression is a separate problem unto itself. A person in the throes of a depressive episode can behave in ways that suggest that they simply don’t care about the quality of the relationship.

15. The more the depression goes undiagnosed and untreated, the more the chasm between the partners can widen. Avoidance and withdrawal are toxic to marital health.


Gender Differences in Expressing Depression and Marital Conflict

Women tend to:                                                                         Men tend to:

Engage in self-blame                                                                    Blame their partner and other people

Feel listless, worthless and profoundly sad                            Feel irritated, angry or grandiose

Feel afraid and anxious                                                               Feel suspicious and withdrawn

Tend to want to avoid confrontation                                       Tends to be confront and start fights

Feel nervous and passive                                                           Feel agitated and restless

Reluctant to engage in self-advocacy                                     Feels a need for greater control

Easily discusses her despair                                                     Avoids discussing his despair

Self medicates with food, and socializing                             Self medicates with alcohol, TV, sports

Often seeks love to feel better                                                  Often seeks sex to feel better

About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.

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