How Depression Affects Romantic Relationships

Delta Winds cover 2017Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


How Depression Affects Romantic Relationships

Alia Asdaq Kawish

According to the "Women and Depression Fact Sheet" of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, depression is a mental illness that affects nearly fifteen million Americans. One in ten adults experience depression each day (1). Although depression affects "mood, sleep patterns, appetite, motivation, and even the will to live," there has not been much information as to how depression affects relationships (Rosen and Amador 3-4). In this paper, first I will present my research findings from various printed sources on how depression affects romantic relationships. Then, I will discuss the results of an interview I conducted relevant to this topic. Finally, I will connect the research with my own experiences with depression and the strategies that my husband used to help me cope with it and to preserve our marriage.

In When Someone You Love Is Depressed: How to Help Your Loved One Without Losing Yourself, Rosen and Amador describe depression as a devastating mental illness that affects not only the depressed person but also his or her relationship (3-4). According to the authors, someone who is married to a depressed individual is nine times more at risk of getting a divorce than a person who is married to someone who is not depressed (4). In one study, a group of strangers were exposed to depressed people for a short period of time. The researchers then asked the strangers to express their feelings while they were in contact with depressed people. The strangers reported feeling down and complained about the attitude of the depressed people. Researchers concluded that "depression clearly can affect those who live with a depressed person" (Rosen and Amador 6). The researchers report that "this finding is bad news for depressed people because close, supportive relationships are essential to their recovery from depression" (Rosen and Amador 5).

Then the authors suggest eight guidelines to couples with suggestions on how to interact with each other effectively and to reduce tension in their relationship. These guidelines include learning about depression, having realistic expectations, giving unqualified support, keeping a routine, expressing feelings, not taking depression personally, asking for help, and working as a team (Rosen and Amador 9). The authors explain each of these guidelines in detail. For example, trying not to take the depression personally helps the supportive partner blame the depression rather than the partner when the depressed partner does something annoying or irritating. This method of thinking will allow the supportive partner to think constantly that the depressed "partner's actions are part of the depression rather than intentional" (52-53).

In another book, When Depression Hurts Your Relationship: How to Regain Intimacy and Reconnect with Your Partner When You're Depressed, psychologist Shannon Kolakowski describes how depression interferes with partner relationships by fostering self-doubt, criticism, and hostility. The author offers some helpful suggestions on how to improve these relationships.

According to Kolakowski, self-doubt is an inner feeling that tells the depressed person that he or she is imperfect, worthless, and failing (29). She states, "people with low self-esteem tend to perceive their relationship as more fragile and tend to expect their partners to have a lower estimation of them" (28). She shows that the way couples see life, negatively or positively, will have a direct impact on their relationship. Kolakowski suggests that the best way to have a healthy relationship is to replace self-doubt with self-compassion: "self-compassion means being able to have more empathy, concern, and genuine care for [self]" (30). Kolakowski adds that taking an action as small as washing the car or doing some household cleaning can reduce the sense of self-doubt and can foster self-compassion. The author believes that as people build and gain self-confidence, "[they] will see those positive feelings about [themselves] mirrored in the love [they] are able to give to and receive from [their] partner" (30).

Criticism of others, including the partner, is another aspect of depression that Kolakowski cites: "Depression tends to make negative things appear large and looming while minimizing or diminishing the good things in life" (30). The author shares an example of one of her clients who says that when she feels depressed, any little mess her husband makes, such as leaving soiled dishes or clothes, strikes her as "so inconsiderate" and makes her irritated. However, when she is not feeling depressed, she concentrates more on her husband's positive traits. This passage indicates that a depressed feeling makes people prone to blame and criticize others more often. Kolakowski suggests that positive traits of a partner help overcome the issue of criticism. For example, one should make a list of five to seven positive qualities about the partner and keep adding to it. Another way of counteracting criticism is identifying ways to show appreciation, such as making a partner laugh (Kolakowski 30).

The author also points out that depression in the form of hostility makes a person "prone to being combative" (39). She explains that when partners continue criticizing each other, it creates the ground for "a power struggle to emerge," which leads to the argument of "I'm right, you are wrong, and I'm going to prove to you that I'm right" (390). As a result, partners "start to see each other as foes, as opposed to being on the same team," and this environment of hostility will lead couples to feel disconnected (Kolakowski 39). The best way to avoid hostility is to "get on the same team, and celebrate the victories" (40). Kolakowski also suggests using statements such as "I want to be on the same team" or "It is not worth it to hurt each other" (40). This book shows that as much as depression can hurt a relationship, adopting a positive attitude can strengthen a relationship. A positive attitude can fight against depression.

In researching depression and romantic relationships, I also conducted a personal interview with a woman who reported feelings of depression due to her son's diagnosis of type one diabetes mellitus. Since she wished to remain anonymous, I will refer to her as Mary Smith. For the interview, I asked questions adapted, with a few modifications, from a book called When Depression Hurts Your Relationship (Kolakowski 25).

First, I wanted to know how life stressors can cause distress and depression. When asked about the current stressor in her life, Mrs. Smith stated, "My stressor is my son because he is struggling with his health condition." Next, I asked, "What behavior of your husband was helpful in reducing your depressed mode and why?" She answered, "My husband is very supportive of me whenever I feel emotional; he never reacts in a negative way. Sometimes he surprises me with gifts. For example, last month he gave me a new purse." Finally, I wanted to know how Mrs. Smith and her husband cope with the situation to maintain a healthy romantic relationship. I asked, "What word or phrase of your partner makes you feel loved and happy?" Mrs. Smith smiled and said, "In my culture, the husband typically does not express love with empty words. Instead, when I feel stressed and emotional, my husband gives me a massage or takes me out for a romantic lunch or dinner." She continued, "He is there for me when I need him" (Smith).

The answers provided by Mrs. Smith demonstrate that her romantic relationship could have been impacted in a negative way by her son's health condition, but the support of her spouse helps her to cope with the situation and keeps her relationship healthy and balanced. Mrs. Smith explained that when she is under stress and reacts emotionally, her husband sees it as a temporary symptom of "caregiver fatigue," resulting from chronic caring of an ill child. This state leads to anxiety and depression. Mrs. Smith added that her husband calls her even when he is at work to check on her and to give her emotional support to prevent her from becoming overwhelmed. Even though depression can hurt others, the contribution of love from family and friends can help the depressed person to cope with the situation and to minimize its negative impact.

From a personal point of view, I suffered from mild depression three years ago after suffering a miscarriage and after being subjected to religious discrimination at my workplace. Moreover, I have felt the negative impact of depression firsthand in both my personal and married life. However, with the help and support of my family, especially my husband, I have been able to overcome the adverse effects of depression. My husband suggested that I return to school. And he encouraged me to perform physical exercise and to be more involved with my community.

When I went back to school, my husband recommended not taking more than six units at a time to prevent additional stress. Being in school not only kept me busy, which spared me from frequent negative thoughts, but also helped me to rebuild my confidence and self-esteem. For example, I did very well in school compared to other students, which increased my sense of accomplishment and decreased my self-doubt. Physical exercise helped me with my memory, increased my energy level, and enhanced my sleep. Finally, community involvement, such as volunteering at my children's school and at my mosque, helped me to socialize with people and thus gain a sense of hope. Instead of blaming me for my depression and turning away from me, my husband helped me to cope with the problems I was facing. In doing so, I found my way back to a more positive approach. Researching the topic of this paper also provided me with more guidelines and new tips on how to promote a positive mindset.

Sources clearly indicate that depression has a devastating impact on intimate relationships. At the same time, each of these sources has contributed in giving helpful suggestions and guidelines to help couples improve their relationships. The main finding is that even though depression hurts relationships, the support and love of family members, especially a spouse, can help to keep the relationship focused on positive rather than negative attitudes.

Works Cited

Badger, Terry A. "Family Members' Experiences Living with Members with Depression." Western Journal of Nursing Research 18.2 (1996): 149+. Popular Magazines. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Choi, Namkee G. and Jung-Hwa Ha. "Relationship Between Spouse/Partner Support and Depressive Symptoms in Older Adults: Gender Difference." Aging & Mental Health 15.3 (2011): 307-317. CINAHL Plus with Full Text. Web. 6 Nov. 2016.

Kolakowski, Shannon. When Depression Hurts Your Relationship: How to Regain Intimacy and Reconnect with Your Partner When You're Depressed. New Harbinger. 2014.

Rosen, Laura E. and Xavier Amador. When Someone You Love Is Depressed: How to Help Your Loved One Without Losing Yourself. Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Smith, Mary. Personal Interview. 18 October 2016.

"Women and Depression Fact Sheet." The National Alliance on Mental Illness. 209: 1-3.