Why Your Marriage Might Be Making You Sick

It's possible to lift your depression and your marriage.

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In an indirect way, depression is actually contagious. While the blessings of married life include companionship, intimacy, stability, and family, living in a close relationship with another human being can be challenging, especially when people bring emotional baggage and unfinished business from their families of origin.

Depression affects one in six people at some point in their lives. And it affects every aspect of their lives. If an unhappy marriage leads to depression in one spouse, the marriage itself is considered depressed.


Disappointment, strife, turmoil, conflict, and anger often lead to depression because couples lack the communication and conflict resolution skills to move beyond the negativity and helpless feeling.

If one spouse is depressed, they can learn how to manage their depression and settle into a rewarding, lasting marriage.

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Your marriage could be making you sick — but what does depression look like in an unhappy relationship?

Knowing what to do when an unhappy marriage leads to depression requires an understanding of what depression is.

Everyone goes through periods of sadness and grief. But the signs of depression linger and worsen if left untreated. They can diminish a person’s self-esteem and infiltrate every corner of the depressed person’s life. They impact sleep, social life, and interest in enjoyable activities.

At its worst, dealing with depression can rob a person of feeling a sense of purpose and even the will to live.

What causes depression in a marriage?

In circumstances when an unhappy marriage leads to depression, one cause can be an unhealthy dominant-submissive relationship pattern. In such marriages, one person takes a dominant, controlling position and the other person assumes, inevitably, a one-down, submissive role.


The powered-over spouse is most vulnerable to depression. They feel dominated, powerless, and "smaller" in the relationship. They feel criticized, put down, and bossed around and controlled by their partner. At the most extreme end of the continuum of dominant-submissive patterns is a relationship marked by abuse in all its forms (emotional, verbal, physical, sexual).

If you are a victim of abuse, please seek immediate professional help to secure your safety and well-being.

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The central role of unresolved negative feelings and conflict:

Spouses in marriages with a lot of tension and discord are 10-25 percent more likely to experience depression than people who are unmarried or those in relationships with effective communication and problem-solving skills. And if the fighting is ongoing, so is the depression.


But when improvements are made in the marriage — how the spouses communicate, how they equalize their roles — the depressive symptoms improve, as well.

So if your unhappy marriage leads to depression, what can you do about it?

Since depression in marriage can be caused by emotional distancing, avoidance, withdrawal, power imbalance, or inappropriate venting of anger, learning and practicing effective communication and conflict resolution skills is an essential first step to lifting the depression…and the marriage itself.

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Here are 4 ways to deal with depression when your marriage is making you sick:

1. Pay attention to the clues.

Timing is important in treating depression. Any lingering sadness, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, isolation, and hints of suicidal ideation should be taken seriously.


Be aware of small changes, as depression isn’t always easy to recognize, especially in its early stages.

2. Figure out the root cause of the unhappiness.

It’s important to know if there are any other factors — internal or external — that could be influencing your depression, and therefore your marriage.

Body chemistry, genetics, and medical issues can all play a behind-the-scenes role in depression.

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3. Open up a conversation.

Talk with your partner about your feelings and concerns. If your marriage is in a state of high tension or the dominance-submissiveness is severe, you may have greater success in the presence of a counselor.


No matter what, don’t allow the depression "monster" to continue wreaking havoc on you, your spouse or your marriage.

4. Consult a marriage therapist.

When an unhappy marriage leads to depression, the solution isn’t a two-point straight line. There are multiple people (including, perhaps, children) who are affected and affecting.

Because power imbalance is often at the root of depression in marriage, intervention by an objective professional is needed to help a couple create a more egalitarian relationship.

Finding the right therapeutic fit is essential to ensure that both parties are motivated to work toward a solution and feel emotionally safe doing so.


Working with a married counseling team can do wonders for balancing the energy of gender differences and power struggles. And intensive marriage retreats can provide an ideal format for learning and practicing collaborative problem-solving for expedited results.

Anyone who suffers from depression knows, on a very deep level, that depression is a thief of vitality.

It pervades everything, impedes everything, and diminishes everything. It’s even worse when an unhappy marriage leads to depression because the assumed well-spring of blessing and support is now the antagonist itself. Indeed, this dynamic sets up a complex and elusive downward spiral.


In order for a marriage to thrive, it has to be built on a foundation of power-sharing and mutual respect. A spouse who is "powered-over" is automatically at a higher risk of becoming depressed. And once depression takes up residence in one spouse, it takes up residence in the marriage and family.

The conversion of a marriage marked by power imbalance to a more collaborative framework has proven benefits for lessening depression from an unhappy marriage.

Research shows that power-sharing together with effective communication and conflict-resolution skills create happier and more satisfying marriages. Thus, happily married people tend to have lower rates of depression.

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Dr. Jerry Duberstein, Ph.D., is a couples therapist and his partner, Mary Ellen Goggin, JD, is a relationship guide. They lead private intensive couples retreats and are the co-authors of Relationship Transformation: Have Your Cake and Eat It Too.