135 Couples Told Scientists How Depression Affects Their Relationships

Photo: Neil Bradfield

Depression can feel isolating, like it’s you — and only you — against your own mind. And yet, the mental illness affects the people closest to you too; this is perhaps especially true if you’re in a long-term romantic relationship. In a new study, highlighted today by BPS Research Digest, a team of psychologists consider the impact the mental illness can have on a relationship, by doing something novel: asking couples about it.

Previous studies, as it turns out, focused on individuals, but for this report, three researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign gathered stories from couples — 135 of them, to be exact, of which either one partner, or both, had a history of depression. The people within the couples ranged in age from 20 to 83, and had been together as little as six months or as long as 46 years. It’s a qualitative study, meaning no wacky experiments necessary, thank you. Instead, the researchers simply recorded the experiences of each couple, who together tackled the not-so-simple question, ‘‘In what ways, if any, do feelings of sadness or depression affect your romantic relationship?’’

Many of the answers, not surprisingly, focus on the hardships of trying to maintain a healthy relationship under the specter of depression. Some wrote about how one person’s depressive symptoms can trigger the other’s; others wrote about their struggles communicating, or their problems with their sex life.

Then again, many of the couples’ answers were rather hopeful, focusing on the unlikely way that mental illness has brought them closer together. Here are a few of those answers.

From a husband whose wife has major depression:

More often, I have strong feelings of love and support for my spouse, and feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction when I am able to help her feel better.

From a wife, who has major depression, about her husband, who has depression and bipolar disorder:

My husband is very understanding because we both suffer from depression. It helps us deal with things better because we both understand what it is like.’

From a 27-year-old husband with persistent depressive disorder whose partner does not have depression:

Feelings of sadness generally lead to discussions about the cause and what can be done to improve the situation, which can take some time away from the romantic relationship, but working through the sadness together often leads to a closer connection that enhances it.’

From a woman with major depression whose husband has depression in the context of bipolar disorder:

During my depression, I actually felt more connected with my partner than I had for a long time because I understood what he had been going through with his recurrent depression.
135 Couples on Love and Depression