Depression and Divorce
How does depression affect marriage and relationships?
The 20-something couple, married just a few years, was eagerly looking
forward to the birth of their first baby.
Labor and delivery went fine, and the baby was born healthy. But problems
began when the new mom, overwhelmed by motherhood, suffered depression.
"The husband had to take care of everything," recalls Joan R. Sherman, MFT,
a licensed marriage and family therapist in Lancaster, Pa., who saw the couple
in counseling. When he was at work, he worried that his wife was so
depressed she wasn't paying needed attention to the baby. He became so worried
he secretly set up a "nanny cam."
She got more and more depressed; he got more anxious, angry, and
As this case history suggests, depression that affects one partner has an
effect on the other partner, the relationship and ultimately the entire family.
Nearly 15 million American adults, or about 6.7% of the U.S. population age 18
and older, is affected with a major depression in a given year, according to
the National Institute of Mental Health.
Statistics about how frequently depression affects one partner in a
relationship are elusive, say Sherman and other experts. But mental health
counselors like Sherman say depression often leads couples to seek counseling,
fearful the depression will lead to divorce.
Depression and Divorce: Inevitable?
The depression itself doesn't lead directly to divorce, experts say. Rather,
it is the consequences of not addressing the depression.
"I don't usually hear, 'I got a divorce because my wife was depressed,'"
Sherman tells WebMD. Much more typical: "My spouse became distant and had an
"Depression can lead to other problems," agrees Constance Ahrons, PhD,
professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Southern California, Los
Angeles, and an author and speaker based in San Diego who has researched and
written about divorce. Affairs aren't the only problems, she says. Often, one
partner may get so depressed he stops working, and that can lead to a cascade
of other problems.
But there's hope, mental health experts say, if couples address the
depression. Try to understand how it affects each partner, determine its roots,
keep communication open, and get professional help if needed.
Depression: Partners in Agony
Depending on the extent of the depression, the depressed spouse often tunes
out and gives up on life. A depressed person may sleep too much, or too little.
Depressed people often stop eating much, or overeat, and may have difficulty
concentrating and conversing.
"The depressed person often feels responsible, but they feel like they can't
do anything about [their inertia]," says Ahrons. "Many of them don't even know
why they are depressed."
Meanwhile, the other partner feels compelled to pick up the slack,
especially if there are children. They may be very understanding and
sympathetic at first, say Ahrons and Sherman.