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Depression and Divorce

How does depression affect marriage and relationships?
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WebMD Feature

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 resentful.

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 affair."

"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.

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