From "I do," to "F*ck off": The Relationship Between Depression and Divorce

Monday, August 03, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

“As a therapist, some of my most satisfying treatments have begun with the suspicion that what looks like martial discord is best   conceptualized as depression in one or the other spouse,” says Dr. Peter Kramer.1 

In other words: “Want to leave? You might be fucking depressed.” 

Okay, okay, so that’s a loaded statement. But it might not be that far off. 

In the circumstance of relationship distress, mood disorders are a common thing. It has long been known that divorce can trigger depression. Part of this is because nearly any life stressor can cause symptoms to worsen in someone who has a depressive history. In men, divorce can even trigger a first episode, though women tend to have had at least one prior to the divorce itself10. In Against Depression, Peter Kramer notes that because women tend to (but not always) have deeper feelings surrounding relationships, they may set themselves up for additional losses inadvertently, which may partially explain the higher rates of depression in women2. Women also have the added burden of economic strain, as their standard of living tends to decrease following divorce while men’s increases. Which sucks giant lion balls and not the tiny shriveled dentist variety. (Asshole poacher burn.)

With the strain of fighting over child custody, the inherent loss of the relationship as well as overall alterations in lifestyle, it is not a surprise that divorce can lead to depression or anxiety. But what if, for some people, the depression comes first and leads to the divorce itself? What if the issues inherent in the relationships were colored by this depression in such a way as to make them seem hopeless leading to separation?

In a study of 774 couples in long-term relationships, each person’s level of depression and anxiety predicted their marital satisfaction and their spouse’s satisfaction3. In other words, if someone reported being anxious or depressed, they would reliably report lower satisfaction in their marriages as would their spouses.

But why would this be? Are those with depression or anxiety issues more likely to be in relationships that are inherently bad? 

Probably not, as prominent relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman notes that only the weakest of connections exists between mental health issues and troubled relationships4. According to Gottman all of us have out own issues, what he calls “crazy buttons” in The Seven Principals For Making Marriage Work. It’s not the diagnosis that matters; it’s about finding someone with whom your craziness meshes4

However, these weak associations Gottman refers to are usually based on those who have clinical diagnoses, which tend to ignore the fact that most mental health issues come on a continuum (discussed more here in When Do Personality Traits Become Mental Illness? The Answer Might Surprise You). And, for many, depression can make relationships that much more difficult particularly if one or the other partner remains undiagnosed and therefore untreated. 

Dr. Peter Kramer, author of Should You Leave? subscribes to this train of thought, noting that even if you don’t meet criteria for a major depressive episode —and therefore don’t fall into the category Gottman refers to—subclinical depression can well be affecting your relationship.

But how? 

Depressive Symptoms Masquerading as Relationship Issues

Okay, first a quick review of the official symptoms of major depression:

To qualify as a major depressive episode, symptoms must impair your functioning and last a minimum of two weeks. You must have at least five of the following symptoms, including the first two. 

  1. Depressed mood
  2. Trouble with pleasure (anhedonia)
  3. Lack of energy/tiredness
  4. Too little or too much sleep
  5. Changes in appetite
  6. Changes in mental or physical processes (slowing or increasing)
  7. Worthlessness/guilt
  8. Trouble concentrating
  9. Suicidal thoughts or attempts

But there are a more tendencies that are common in those with both clinical depression (those who meet the above criteria) and subclinical depression (those who don’t meet the above criteria). These traits include: 

  • Pessimism 
  • Vulnerability to emotional issues or slow recovery from slights
  • Higher sensitivity to events, like losses or relationship issues
  • Trouble accepting compliments
  • Trouble recalling good events in the past, or seeing positives in the present
  • Withdrawal from others or isolation

These can cause some major issues more overtly, say if you suddenly stop speaking to your spouse altogether. But many of the ways these issues come out is in blaming the relationship itself as you seek an explanation for the symptoms. AKA: Feel like shit? You might feel better if you can pin it on your partner. 

This is not to say that your husband isn’t being a dick. Hell, all partners are sometimes; I’m pretty sure it’s in the handbook. But there may be other issues within yourself that are coloring how you see his behaviors as well as your own. Even the most seemingly minor or ambiguous symptoms can be magnified a hundred fold within marriages.


For Kramer in Should You Leave? falling out of love may be a type of anhedonia, or issues finding pleasure in things you used to enjoy1

Now some of this loss of pleasure is evolutionarily relevant and normal as we are not inherently monogamous. We tend to respond more amorously to new partners and boredom is also a very real, very normal, thing in long-term couples. 

But when there is no pleasure left in being together, Kramer notes that one may find that they have lost pleasure in other areas as well. For some, burying themselves in work or hobbies, or spending extra time drinking with friends, are outlets that emerge as time goes on. Yet on closer examination, individuals may find that they are engaging in these things as a coping skill, more out of compulsion and distraction as opposed to pleasure. 

And lack of pleasure is a reliable hallmark of depression. 

Pessimism/Negative Outlooks

Pessimism, while a marker or at least red flag for depression, does not meant that you are necessarily depressed on its own. But those who are pessimistic or depressed—either clinically or subclinically—often perceive faults in others as well as themselves. Within the context of relationships, this can make long-standing complaints become more urgent, more hopeless, and lead to more marital dissatisfaction1

These more negative outlooks also tend to lead to blaming behaviors. Those who attribute negative events to a partner’s shortcomings as opposed to a benign explanation tend to have more marital dissatisfaction as the relationship progresses5. If you have a tendency to say, “He’s late because he’s an asshole and he’s avoiding me,” as opposed to, “He’s probably late because he got stuck in traffic,” you're at higher risk for relationship strain. 

And all that pessimism can also lead to more issues with relationship confidence. 

Loss of Autonomy, Lower Self Esteem and Lack of Relationship Confidence

Many attribute their own negative qualities to others as opposed to risking vulnerability by examining those issues within themselves. Say I’m a damn slob (which might or might not be true). I might magnify this in my partner by focusing on every little thing he does that is disorderly. This is, in part, a coping mechanism, as taking responsibility for shortcomings can lead to further self depreciation. But in this attribution is a type of merging, which makes some feel less independent even if they are unsure exactly why. Likewise, some with lower self esteem find that they only respond to others when they are being treated badly because humiliation or insults makes them feel more understood, and thus closer to their partner than they might in the face of compliments. 

Tricky, tricky shit. 

But one of the overriding issues here is that of self esteem. Those who are depressed tend to either consciously or subconsciously feel unworthy of their partner. This can lead them to find faults in the other as a way to bridge the perceived gap between them. 

That lower self confidence also tends to bleed into a lack of relationship confidence. Some researchers note that the depressed tend to report being less confident that their marriage will work out from the very beginning, both prior to marriage and one year later6. One study also found that in women, but not men, negative interactions had an impact on depression by further decreasing confidence in the relationship which served to deepen the depression6. So not only do depressed women tend to see their relationships as less favorable at the outset, but any negativity or trouble with communication deepens the cycle further leading to even lower confidence in the relationship and additional depression. 


Okay, so that communication thing seems important. How do we respond to conflict in depression? 

Communication Deficits and Trouble with Conflict Resolution 

Remember that vulnerability to emotional issues and trouble recovering from slights thing I mentioned earlier? This tendency of the depressed population to be more sensitive can lead them to have higher rates of flooding, a reliable indicator of relationship failure according to Gottman in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work4.

Flooding is basically a shut down mechanism, where ignoring the other or stonewalling are common. People don’t stop responding to be jerks (well, not always). Often they stop listening because their level of arousal is so high that the brain essentially shuts down to avoid additional strain on the heart or other physical systems. 

It makes sense that women who are dissatisfied with their relationships tend to avoid self disclosure8; they may also be avoiding conflict8 and thus the potential for flooding4. But holding back can lead to less closeness and lead to deepening depression as well. 

And that lack of closeness is not isolated to the emotional: depressed individuals are usually part of a couple with a lack of intimacy7 (read: they do the nasty less often). A loss of pleasure in sex can also be related to the anhedonia element discussed above as well as other physical and hormonal factors involved in depressive states. (Find out more here in Is Depression a Physical Illness? The Link Between Depressive Symptoms and Brain Changes.) 

So it would seem that those who are more sensitive have more flooding and have less motivation to open themselves up to their partners, leading to more negative relationship factors that may involve communication shortcomings in a viscous cycle that gets worse over time and eventually leads to separation. Other research supports this, noting that those who handle conflict constructively have less depression overall, even if they have some relationship dissatisfaction8. This study also found that for women, only the husband’s ability to argue well mattered; ie women were less bothered by their own conflict style than they were by that of their husband, and husband’s ability to respond constructively tended to lead to less depression in the ladies. 

Which makes sense I suppose. We all tend to be less bothered by things we do because we fully understand all the internal dialogue that went into making those decisions. I’m way less bothered when I don’t do the dishes (because I have reasons, dammit) then I am when IT’S HIS DAY, DEAR, GOD WHY CAN’T HE JUST DO THEM NOW??

Ahem. Anger. Obviously anger is an issue too. 

Relationships and Anger Issues

In women, but not in men, anger dysregulation (think impulsively throwing a frying pan at his fucking head) is predictive of depressive symptoms9. So, if you are having anger issues, you are more likely to be depressed. This may be partially due to the sensitivity issue, partially due to trouble decreasing those negative emotions and partially to do with the fact that there is an inherent lack of closeness based on a history of less than ideal communication, flooding, loss of pleasure, and pessimism all of which can make anger seem more useful. And as Kramer notes, anger is one of the lowest forms of emotion and can take the place of depression or anxiety1. For some, anger is simply more recognizable depending on what they saw growing up. There is an inherent comfort in the familiar even if it is not healthy. And anger itself can even be a primary symptom of depression (more here in Who Are You Calling Depressed, Asshole?). 

Anger in relationships can also be a valve, a way to let off some of the hurt so that healing can eventually take place. Similar to the way those afflicted with PTSD have flashbacks in order to deal with smaller pieces of information at a time, expelling the depression or anxiety through anger and yelling can help one cope with small pieces of the issue or decrease that arousal in the short term. They don’t call it “FIGHT or flight” for nothing. 

But if you keep pissing off a woman with a frying pan, things can get ugly. I’ve seen it. Don’t do it. 

Now obviously this issue is complicated, because sometimes, it’s not just pessimism or anhedonia. Sometimes, he’s actually avoiding you. Sometimes he’s purposefully fucking with you. And sometimes he’s just being a dickhead because he’s having his own monthly hormonal issues. (It’s a real thing, ladies. Trust me). 

Barring domestic violence situations, narcissistic partners, codependency or otherwise dysfunctional situations, most of our partners don’t really want to piss us off. Partners usually want to be happy, just as their level of happiness (or irritation) affects us. If you husband has ever come home from work all pissy about a project, you know how true that is. Before leaving the relationship or getting arrested for throwing a frying pan, it might make sense to do a little soul searching to see what part of the conflict might be attributed to other issues. Worst case scenario, you end up leaving the relationship anyway, but find that you have learned something about yourself through self reflection so you avoid bringing any of those issues into your next relationship. 

Thinking before acting is a valuable skill. I know this because I am, at this moment, glancing over at the shoes my husband left in the middle of the floor. After he just got through complaining that the kids never pick up their things. 

Is his hypocrisy personal? Probably not. He likely forgot to grab his shoes when he went up to watch the game. Is this knowledge stopping me from thinking, “He’s just trying to piss me off!” Nope. But I recognize it for what it is. 

Plus, I have the inherent knowledge that if I pick them up, I am hiding those fuckers. Joke’s on him. And that will let me keep the frying pan in the cupboard…at least a little longer. 

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Topic-Relevant Resources

Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female Orgasm (Paperback) - Common
Sex and increasing the capacity for orgasm. You know you want to read it.

The Anatomy of Love
An in depth look at a history of human mating. Sex, anthropology and more sex. What more could you want?

What Do Women Want?
An exploration of female sexuality through interviews with prominent researchers in the field, including not yet published research (at this time)

The Mindfulness Solution
Meditative and cognitive techniques for everyday use

Against Depression
Detailed explanations of the systems involved in depression along with personal stories of success from psychiatrist Peter Kramer.

Should You Leave?: A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy--and the Nature of Advice
Psychiatrist Peter Kramer on the nature of relationships and the journey towards self discovery