The First Thing To Do If You're In An Unhappy Marriage

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couple having conflict

Is your depression a result of your unhappy marriage, or is it fueling the unhappiness in your marriage?

When you walked down the aisle, you expected eternal bliss, even though you knew better. Eventually, you settled into more realistic expectations, learning as you went that happiness evolves and deepens in meaning with life’s challenges.

But sometimes, there's a harsh reality check: You’re in an unhappy marriage and depressed.

You don't know which came first or if one is causing the other, and you wonder if your spouse is unhappy, too.

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So, what do you do when you're in an unhappy marriage and depressed?

Despite the futility, you're feeling, your questions have merit. And doing the uncomfortable work of answering them could be the difference between saving your marriage and your health... and not.

The interconnectedness of being in an unhappy marriage and depression has research to back it up.

Each component — marital dissatisfaction, depression, and anxiety — can affect the other. And the task incumbent upon the suffering spouse is to figure out if one factor is giving rise to or exacerbating the other.

When you’re unhappy in a relationship, you may be so aware of your emotional unrest that you don’t realize the physical and mental unrest happening behind the scenes.

Understanding how an unhappy marriage affects you will clarify the relationship between marital dissatisfaction and depression.

Physically, it can lead to a weakened immune system, increased blood pressure and cholesterol, and poor sleep.

Mentally, it can disrupt cognition, memory, and decision-making, and even increase your risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s.

And on an emotional level, it can increase your risk of depression and anxiety, making you vulnerable to negative emotions like anger.

Research on the effects of marital conflict on depression and functional impairment corroborates these mental and emotional effects, as well as risks to physical health.

Turn the tables and ask if being depressed can lead to unhappiness in your marriage, and the answer is another yes.

Research has shown that a spouse’s level of anxiety and depression predicts marital satisfaction. But the “aha” lies in the fact that they also predict the partner’s level of satisfaction.

Despite anxiety having an influence, it is nowhere near as detrimental as depression.

In other words, not only is it difficult to live with depression, it’s difficult to live with someone who suffers from it. A double-edged sword that would challenge the happiness of even the best relationships.

What causes depression and marital dissatisfaction?

"Which came first? Which issue do I focus on so I can fix the problem? What if I can’t fix my depression? What if I can’t fix my marriage? Is it too late to be happy?"

It would be easy to get lost in a pasture of chickens and eggs.

Unless one or both spouses enter the marriage with a history of diagnosable depression, it’s more likely that marital discord leads to depression. And one of the most frequent causes of being unhappy with marriage and depressed is a dominant-submissive dynamic in the marriage.

When one person assumes a controlling role in the marriage, the spouse in the one-down position is more vulnerable to depression. Even with successful antidepressant intervention, it’s the resolution of marital problems that prevent relapse of the depressive mood.

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When marital problems and fighting continue, depression continues. When marital problems and fighting subside, depression decreases.

But problems don’t go away on their own. And hiding behind alcohol, avoidance, and acquiescence only breeds its own issues and resentments.

When dominant-submissive inequality is at the root of marital unhappiness and depression, learning collaborative engagement skills is foundational to healing.

But don't disregard the damning influence of an undiagnosed mood disorder like depression.

Depression is an unreliable lens. Depression, by its very nature, causes its victim to experience life through a cloud of gloom in varying intensities. The person may not even know why the "darkness" is there because it's "wired in."

If there are marital problems — like the dominant-submissive dynamic described above — depression will likely intensify for the subjugated spouse.

But if there's nothing unresolvable causing the depression, there may be an undiagnosed underlying disorder. And that brings us back to the effects of depression on both spouses.

If you’re evaluating your marriage through an underlying, hard-wired depression, you may be unaware of the problem, which can spell unnecessary demise for an otherwise salvageable marriage.

You may wonder how to know if you need to stay in your miserable marriage or divorce. Assuming there are no issues like abuse, addiction, and chronic infidelity, the person who's both unhappy with marriage and depressed should consider a mental health evaluation.

It’s important to imprint the message that depression and other mood disorders are not judgment or value statements. Whether or not you or your spouse receive a diagnosis that points to a genetic or chemically-based depression isn’t a statement of blame or absolution.

Marriage is still the responsibility of both parties. And that means learning to communicate and problem-solve in ways conducive to mutual well-being and happiness.

It also means learning to navigate unforeseen obstacles like health, including mental and emotional issues.

The big question is whether, upon the acknowledgment of your marital unhappiness and depression, you want to save your marriage. You don’t need to have all the answers to answer that one important question.

If the answer is "yes" for both you and your spouse, you will be able to find your way to health and happiness.

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Dr. Karen Finn is a divorce and life coach who works with clients struggling with questions of whether they can save their marriage. Her writing has appeared on MSN, Yahoo! and eHarmony, among others.