It’s not all wedded bliss: Marital stress linked to depression

Marital stress may make people more vulnerable to depression, according to a recent study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers and their colleagues.

The long-term study, published in the April 2014 Journal of Psychophysiology, shows that people who experience chronic marital stress are less able to savor positive experiences, a hallmark of depression. They are also more likely to report other depressive symptoms.

The findings are important, says study leader Richard Davidson, UW-Madison William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, because they could help researchers understand what makes some people more vulnerable to mental and emotional health challenges.

They might also help scientists develop tools to prevent them.

“This is not an obvious consequence, if you will, of marital stress, but it’s one I think is extraordinarily important because of the cascade of changes that may be associated,” says Davidson, founder of theCenter for Investigating Healthy Minds at the UW’s Waisman Center. “This is the signature of an emotional style that reveals vulnerability to depression.”

Married people are, in general, happier and healthier than single people, according to numerous studies. But marriage can also be one of the most significant sources of long-lasting social stress. It’s not all wedded bliss.

The researchers thought chronic marital stress could provide a good model for how other common daily stressors may lead to depression and similar conditions.

“How is it that a stressor gets under your skin and how does that make some more vulnerable to maladaptive responses?” says UW-Madison graduate student Regina Lapate. She is the paper’s lead author.

For the longitudinal study — part of the National Institute on Aging-funded Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study directed byCarol Ryff, director of the Institute on Agingat UW-Madison — researchers recruited married adult participants to complete questionnaires rating their stress on a six-point scale.

They were asked questions like how often they felt let down by their partner or how frequently their spouse criticized them. They were also evaluated for depression.

Roughly nine years later, the questionnaire and depression assessments were repeated.

In year 11, the participants were invited to the laboratory to undergo emotional response testing, a means of measuring their resilience. Resilience, from an emotional perspective, reflects how quickly a person can recover from a negative experience.

The participants were shown 90 images, a mix of negative, neutral and positive photographs such as a smiling mother-daughter pair. The electrical activity of the corrugator supercilii, also known as the frowning muscle, was measured to assess the intensity and duration of their response.

As the nickname suggests, the frowning muscle activates more strongly during a negative response. At rest, the muscle has a basal level of tension but during a positive emotional response, the muscle becomes more relaxed.

Measuring how activated or relaxed the muscle becomes and how long it takes to reach the basal level again is a reliable way to measure emotional response and the tool has been used before to assess depression.

“It’s a nice way to get at what people are experiencing without asking people for their emotional response: ‘How are you feeling?'” Lapate says.

Prior studies have shown that depressed individuals have a fleeting response following positive emotional triggers. Davidson was interested in not just how much a muscle relaxes or tenses when a person looks at an image but also in how long it takes the response to subside.

“If you measure at just one time point, you are losing valuable information,” says Lapate.

Davidson and colleagues found the five to eight seconds following exposure to positive images most significant.

Study participants who reported higher marital stress had shorter-lived responses to positive images than those reporting more satisfaction in their unions. There was no significant difference in the timing of negative responses.

Now, Davidson is interested in how to help people change this weakened ability to enjoy positive experiences, to enable them become more resilient to stress.

“To paraphrase the bumper sticker: ‘Stress happens,'” says Davidson. “There is no such thing as leading a life completely buffered from the slings and arrows of everyday life.”

By understanding the mechanisms that make individuals more prone to depression and other emotional disturbances, Davidson is hoping to find tools — such as meditation — to stop it from happening in the first place.

“How we can use simple interventions to actually change this response?” he asks. “What can we do to learn to cultivate a more resilient emotional style?”

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Have a question? Let us know.


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12 thoughts on “It’s not all wedded bliss: Marital stress linked to depression”

  1. This article was very interesting never have I even thought about the idea that marriage will lead to dipression. I Can understand why, when you are married to your partner there are several things that you learn about eachother while staying together, and in this process there can acure some heated fights that may lead to one person criticizing the other, which can finally lead to dipression. Commiting to a person for life is a big step in one’s personal life, and a big step like this can lead to one feeling no control, because now you have to think for two. There are allot of pressure in marriages like having children, financial states ect. All of this can cause a person feeling low in life.

  2. According to this blog, marital stress can make one VULNERABLE to depression. While reading the blog, nowhere did it say that marital stress is directly linked to depression, in fact it stated the contrary saying, “This is not an obvious consequence, if you will, of marital stress, but it’s one I think is extraordinarily important because of the cascade of changes that may be associated.”

    I mean no offense when I say this but I think the comments on this blog focused too much on marriage and depression and lost sight of the actual point of the blog.

    It is a known fact that stress contributes to depression. Stress and Depression are commonly linked with emotions. The experiments and surveys above were carried out on married couples (and compared to single people) because there is a lot of different emotions that come with marriage.

    As the blog suggested, marital stress is due to the drastic changes it causes in ones life. These changes were brilliantly outlined by 14100755, such as having to share personal space, sacrificing your time and compromising. It’s these changes that cause stress and it’s an individual’s inability to cope with stress that leads to depression. If you are used to a certain lifestyle and are then suddenly thrown into a new one, you need to be able to adjust, if you can then that makes for a stable and less stressful marriage, if you can’t then that is when a problem would arise. This is true for any situation, not just marriage.

    The point of the blog was to highlight the fact that people experiencing high levels of stress show symptoms of depression and are less likely to respond positively (and stay positive) to the positive things in life. They are ultimately unhappy and find little fulfillment. Married people are not the only stressed out people, this is important to note. “How can we intervene and change this response?” was the question raised in this blog. To change this response, one would have to find a cure for stress and depression. Whereas medication may reduce the symptoms, stress is not something that can be cured because its part of human nature and everyday life. In some ways, it drives a person. If we didn’t stress about things we wouldn’t get things done. But it is also important to manage and control the stress levels so as not to fall into depression. That’s what needs to be focused on: how to control stress, not how to stop it. With depression, it’s usually a good idea to try to remove that which is causing it or to fix the problem. It’s also better to not keep your emotions bottled up. Vent. It doesn’t necessarily have to be with the aid of a professional. Confront the sources of your depression. Communicate. Don’t dwell on negative thoughts. Try to see the silver lining while remaining realistic.

  3. When two people get into marriage, bliss and joy are what the couple expect through their long journey. When stress kicks in, it is no surprise that depression may result. The couple have devoted a lot and have put in a lot in the marriage. When it all seems to not be going well, it is expected for depression to occur. Yet I believe that if the strain in the marriage was picked up at an early stage, the road to depression would have been somehow prevented . The sad part is also that this does not only affect the couple but their family as well. Communication should always be essential regardless of how difficult it may be to point out some issues to life partner, this can be one the factors reducing marital stress and preventing the couple to go through the road of depression

  4. This article is certainly one of the most interesting ones ive read yet but it doesnt surprise me that marital stress could lead to depression. In my opinion i feel that there are an equal amount of individuals out there that are happily married and the rest tend to be on the verge of falling apart. Life is full of uncertainties and it must be difficult for individuals who have prepared themselves to embark on a lengthy journey with their partner only to find out that they are not meant for eachother. This then leads to unwanted tension, stress and eventually depression.
    Being in a marriage which drains you of energy certainly isnt healthy and i would strongly urge individuals to steer away from it. Hence it is very important to choose the right person for you.
    I find the research experiment quite intriguing as i didnt think that showing individuals emotional images would trigger a reaction which will later be able to determine their stress levels and come to significant conclusions.
    To the students that think that marriage does not lead to depression, you should realize that married couples experience personal problems and differences among themselves which causes excessive stress that may be too much to handle and CAN (not WILL) LEAD to depression.

  5. 14059500 I do agree that in a marriage no one has to loose their identity however embrace it . I mean these two individuals wouldn’t have gotten married if one didn’t like the personality of the other or vise versa . But I believe marriage has its inputs on depression . Because when we really understand the true meaning full concept behind depression we than can evaluate and site causes easily. But I don’t understand why you would say this is an illness categorized on its own? Because this is a mental state caused by events in one’s life.

    So I do 100% agree with 14100755.Because there are a lot of emotionally draining events ,such as heated fights with your spouse, family tragedy, financial issues etc that can have a huge impact on someone causing them to develop this thing called depression .However if you are married to someone who is committed and who would go through thick and thin with you then you might be able to handle these ” triggers of depression ” . As they also say in the article above there are ways to as the say be “prone to depression and other emotional disturbances ” you just need to find that specific guidance in order to live a happier and healthier life style.

  6. I agree with 14100755 that marriage will not always lead to the development of depression but can cause depression in some cases. Whether marital stress can be linked to depression depends on the personalities of the individuals involved, susceptibility to stress along with various other factors.

    Depression can be viewed as a state of low mood and aversion to activity that can affect a person’s thoughts, behaviour and feelings. Committing to marriage is a major step in an individual’s life, where decisions cannot be made on a whim or manipulated to suit one’s own fancy. As mentioned in the previous comments, most marriage scenarios basically deal with an individual’s life being centered around their partner. In line with this, most spouses feel like they are the ones always having to make sacrifices and receive no sort of appreciation or compensation. When spouses cannot vent their anger or feelings out in some way, they tend to bottle it up and this is turn can lead to feelings of depression.

    Marriage is the oldest and most solid institution which is supposed to give a sense of security, support and belonging. Like everything in life, marriage also has its fair share of setbacks, squabbles and problems that,at most times, seem unsolvable. It is the manner in which individuals perceive stress, and are able to deal with and overcome it that determines whether it will lead to depression.

  7. I am in agreement with 14011451 with regards to depression being an illness caused by chemical imbalances and heightened by stress-factors. Contributing further to this, I believe that depression can be viewed as the result of negativity and pessimism overpowering positivity and optimism within the context of the battlefield of the mind. This view can be supported by studies conducted in the above article, proving that those experiencing marital stress have shorter-lived responses to positive images than those that are not subjected to such stresses.

    Marital stress and relationship-strain in general can negatively impact individuals, altering natural states of mind. Those constantly subjected to conflict and feelings of unhappiness and discord in marriage are bound to experience adverse and destructive effects on their psychological and emotional well-being, as opposed to those content with their spouses. This principle of environmental influence, however, also applies to other spheres of life, with any kind of intense, negative experience or emotion acting as contributory factors, triggering depression and general feelings of hopelessness.

  8. It is hard enough being unmarried having to deal with finances, career choices, exam stress and choice of wardrobe, to mention but a few. Just the mention of them makes one feel anxious. From my experience there will always be a different opinion or allusion to something taboo thrown in the mix. A remedy to one’s insecurities rests in marriage : finding the right person who compliments your likes and dislikes. A supportive personality in whom you can rest assured that whatever you look like or don’t measure up to, accepts you for who you are and whose criticism is followed up by a bouquet of flowers or a box of chocolates.

    Until the contrary to your expectations deals you a blow in the abdomen!

    Marriage is a wonderful institution so long as their is mutual respect. Love in my opinion is secondary to RESPECT. When the sanctity of marriage wavers on disrespect for each other’s points of view and opinions, this catapults into chaos. The key is COMPROMISE without which half the battle is already LOST.

    In not seeking professional marriage counselling and I emphasize professional because the bartender at the local pub and the hairdresser around the corner does not constitute “professional” to advise on marriage difficulties. Each marital problem is unique to the circumstances in which it manifests’ itself and I agree that depression can be stimulated through factors arising in the marriage by either one or both parties.

    It’s symptoms is evident in low self-esteem, continuous arguments, excessive compulsive behavior like gambling, drinking, extra marital affairs and the like. But why then stay in a marriage that is so destructive? Perhaps it is to uphold the family name or to hold on proudly to an ideal irrespective of its consequences in the long run, or merely to hold on to the hope of a miraculous reconciliation. It is very hard to offer judgement if not in the same situation although divorce is recourse to uneventful circumstances.

    How then to treat the depression if all psychotic medication fails to alleviate the pressures or bring about a favorable outcome? My opinion is to treat the cause not the symptoms, through counselling establish the underlying reasons and professionally diagnose is remedy. This is all very well, provided the parties are co-operative.

    A selfish partner will learn your weaknesses and triggers and capitalise in pushing the right buttons in manipulating an adverse response emotionally from their partner. In time it will be unsalvageable but true to nature and in any event “what goes around comes around”.

  9. I agree with 14059500 that depression is an illness caused by an imbalance of certain chemical substances like Dopamine, Sertonin and nor-adrenalin. In my opinion depression is triggered or worsened bycertain factors such as stress, financial difficulties and an unhappy and stressful marriage.

    Anxiety is a main factor involve in trigging depression. Stress caused by an unhappy marriage can therefore enhance a persons tendency towards developing depression or deepening an existing depression. Unlike popular belief depression is not always a personal choice.

    I therefore agree that maritial stress can contribute to enhancing depression in people with a tendency towards this illness.

  10. Depression is a chemical imbalance of a certain part of your brain. There are different types of depression which can be treated with various medication. I have not heard of a person taking his/her marital problems to a Doctor and being diagnosed with depression.

    In response to 14100755 I do not agree that being in a marriage wherein one party is the submissive one and the other more dominant can trigger depression… it will in fact end in DIVORCE !! Marriage is the joining of two people, however neither has to lose their identity for the sake of the other. If it does’nt work…… try and fix it……. if it is broken then there is no hope.

    I do not believe that marriage can cause DEPRESSION…. This is an illness, categorized on its own……. if this was the case than so would financial difficulties, loss of employment etc be the cause of depression.

    Next experts will say that being married causes Cancer.

  11. Marital stress and it’s link to stress is one that is completely understandable to me. When people decide on the decision to get married they decide this with the thought in mind that they have finally found their soul mate, someone who will love them (in the words of Katy Perry) unconditionally. So when things turn out not to be the fairytale each had imagined it isn’t as easy for one of them to deal with the let down as it may be for the other.

    Yes i agree 14100755 that hardships don’t always lead to depression but if it can happen in normal situations how much more in a time when you thought life would finally be eternally blissful? If studies done at different times and over a range of people support this concept it must be something relatively prevalent even if not completely true for all married couples.

  12. I believe that getting married will not always lead to the development of depression. However, it can be a factor in some cases. It all depends on the individual factors that happens inside the marriage that can lead to unpleasant circumstances, which could possibly lead to a trigger of depression.

    Depression can be caused by certain life events. When you marry you commit yourself to one person for your whole life. You now have someone else in your life, and you are not the center of your universe anymore.

    Marriage is a big change and it comes with the territory. Marriage isn’t always happy go lucky, hardships are a reality. It all depends on how you handle this. These hardships can be too much for some, and can create a constant low in your mood and eventually lead to depression. For example

    Interactions in which one partner takes a dominant and the other a one-down or submissive role are likely to trigger depression in the partner who feels the lessor power or victim role (Heitler, 1990)

    Marriage is just something that brings in more triggers for depression, because its a new life, with someone else. Where being not married, there is still triggers for depression, you just don’t have the extras brought on by being married.

    This doesn’t mean that you should not get married when you meet the ONE, because you are scared of hardships in the marriage being a trigger. Depression in marriage is avoidable. When couples learn to engage together in effective collaborative problem-solving when they have differences instead of getting into tiffs, depressive reactions disappear.

    So in conclusion, it all depends on how you handle and react to the triggers of depression. Being married can even help to eliminate the triggers because you have a partner who will help and support you.


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