If your relationship is struggling, depression may be the culprit. A resounding body of research has shown how closely depression is related to relationships in a cyclical fashion: Depression affects the quality of your relationships, and the features of your relationship can affect your level of depression (1, 2, 3). In other words, being depressed can cause you to pay less attention to your partner, be less involved, be more irritable or have trouble enjoying time together — all of which can cause your relationship to falter. On the other hand, relationship problems such as high conflict, lack of communication, withdrawal, and difficulty resolving problems, can all lead to depression.
Psychologist and researchers also point to the key fact that building a strong and loving relationship can fortify you and your partner against the withering affects of depression (4). But in order to know what you’re fighting against, you must be able to identify when and how depression is interfering. And the warning signs of depression in a relationship aren’t always clear cut and obvious. Here’s a list of what to look for:
Your sex life has diminished or is non-existent.
A staggering number — 75 percent of people who are depressed — report a lack of sex drive (5). While it’s normal to have an ebb and flow of sexual desire within a relationship and within an individual, a long-term lack of sexual connection in your relationship may signal that depression is present. Lack of sex drive can manifest from a variety of causes related to depression: hidden resentment, shame about sex, poor body image, feeling exhausted, taking medications, performance anxiety, and so on. By addressing these problems, couples can use their sexual connection to reignite their passion and strengthen their relationship.
You feel hopeless about your relationship.
A sense of hopelessness is one of the central predictors of depression and suicidal thoughts (6). Feeling hopeless about your future together doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doomed. Instead, cognitive distortion that so often comes with depression may be manipulating your thoughts into believing the future looks hopeless and that things will never get better (7). While everyone feels overwhelmed about the future at times, this pervasive sense of hopelessness is a signal that depression is skewing your perception.
Emotions feel like the enemy.
Most of us have a hard time dealing with negative emotions, but people who are depressed have particular trouble in this area. They tend to become overwhelmed by the intensity of their emotions and therefore shut them down when strong emotions arise. With depression, you may react to strong emotions by becoming ruminative (thinking about the same problems over and over), denying or ignoring your emotions, or by becoming overly self-critical.
This means that in a relationship when conflict arises — as it always does in a relationship — you’re less equipped to deal with problems that elicit strong emotions. You may withdraw from you partner altogether, or you may push the issue and explode. Both of these forms of handling conflict (or avoiding conflict) are detrimental to your relationship. Moreover, you have trouble having empathy for your partner (8) and hence have less motivation to see things from your partner’s perspective.
You’re tempted to act out.
Men, in particular, who are depressed are more likely to express their depression outwardly. If you’re a depressed man, you’re more likely to act out your depression through drinking alcohol, becoming aggressive, having affairs, or shutting out your loved ones and withdrawing (9). In addition, men have more somatic symptoms — backaches, headaches, and low sex drive. Men also have a more difficult time identifying their own depression, and are less likely to get help for it because they may not even recognize their behaviors indicate an underlying depression.
Anxiety is affecting you.
Anxiety and depression are highly comorbid, meaning the two disorders are often seen together, often in the form of mixed anxiety and depression (10). The problems that come with mixed anxiety and depression — sleep trouble, concentration difficulties, low energy, high irritability and worry, expecting the worst, and being constantly on guard, can also present a challenge to your relationship. When you encounter the everyday relationship problems that arise, you often perceive that there’s grave threat to your relationship. It feels like the relationship is doomed to failure. This perceived threat can trigger heightened anxiety and excessive reassurance seeking — which can place your relationship under even more stress. This false alarm of danger to your relationship can be stressful for both of you, and leaves you with constant feelings of uncertainty.
With all of these challenges, it might seem like the odds are stacked against a relationship where depression is involved. But many of these issues can be resolved once you’re aware of them and can implement effective coping strategies. It’s only when the issues are hidden and ignored that irreparable damage may occur.
Adapted from When Depression Hurts Your Relationship: How To Regain Intimacy and Reconnect With Your Partner When You’re Depressed. Copyright 2014 Shannon Kolakowski. Originally published by Scientific American.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
1. Davila, J., T.N. Bradbury, C.L. Cohan, and S. Tochluk. 1997. Marital functioning and depressive symptoms: Evidence for a stress generation model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 4: 849-861.
2. Goldfarb, M.R., G. Trudel, R. Boyer, and M. Préville. 2007. Marital relationship and psychological distress: Its correlates and treatments. Sexual and Relationship Therapy 22: 109-126.
3. Whisman, M. A. 2001. The association between depression and marital dissatisfaction. In Marital and family processes in depression: A scientific foundation for clinical practice, edited by S. R. H. Beach (Ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
4. Proulx, C.M., C. Buehler, and H. Helms. 2009. Moderators of the link between marital hostility and change in spouses’ depressive symptoms. Journal of Family Psychology 23: 540-550.
5. Beck, J.G. 1995. Hypoactive sexual desire disorder: An overview. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 63: 919-927.
6. Wenzel, A., Brown, G.K, and Beck A. T. 2009. Cognitive Therapy for Suicidal Patients: Scientific and Clinical Applications. Wahsington, DC: American Psychological Association.
7. Beck, A. T., A. J Rush, B. F Shaw, and G. Emory. 1979. Cognitive Therapy of Depression. New York: Guilford Press.
8. Gadassi, R., N. Mor, and E. Rafaeli. 2011. “Depression and Empathic Accuracy in Couples: An Interpersonal Model of Gender Differences in Depression.” Psychological Science 22 (8): 1033-1041.
9. Eaton, N.R., K.M. Keyes, R.F. Krueger, S. Balsis, A.E. Skodol, K.E. Markon, B.F. Grant, and D.S. Hasin. 2012. An invariant dimensional liability model of gender differences in mental disorder prevalence: Evidence from a national sample. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 121: 282-288.
10. Rapaport, M.H. 2001. “Prevalence, Recognition, and Treatment of Comorbid Depression and Anxiety.” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 62 Suppl. 24: 6-10.
Shannon Kolakowski, PsyD is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice. She is the author of When Depression Hurts Your Relationship and the forthcoming Single, Shy, and Looking For Love: A Dating Guide for the Shy and Socially Anxious. Dr. Kolakowski’s work has been featured in magazines such as Redbook, ParentMap and Men’s Health Magazine, as well as online at Shape.com, About.com and eHarmony Advice. She’s made television appearances on New Day Northwest and ABC news. Visit her online at drshannonk.com.