This is an updated and extended version of my previous post on Progressive Impact. This current version was for The Huffington Post. May 10, 2014
This is a no-brainer, but it’s always good to see research that confirms what seems obvious — or resonates with your personal experience. This study found that stress within your marriage can make you more vulnerable to depression.
That is, people who experience chronic stress within their marriages have diminished enjoyment of positive experiences, as well as a higher incidence of depressive symptoms. I think these findings are important for two reasons: First, they add to the accumulating research showing the interconnections of all “parts” of ourselves, and how our mind/body system is affected by our “outer” life experiences and situations.
The second reason is that the findings point to a crucial question: What happens in so many marriages today that depression, unhappiness and stress often arise? This is not only important to unravel, but increasingly timely: Another recent study finds that midlife depression is linked with higher incidence of dementia.
Based on the first study, researchers are looking at what might help people become more resilient to stress and strengthen their ability to enjoy positive experiences. These are good steps, but I think it’s important to uncover the sources of stress and depression in marriages today to begin with. And, how partners could learn to relate to each other in ways that increase positive connection and vitality over the long-term. Doing so in today’s stressful world is especially challenging.
First, the findings of this new study about stress, depression and marriages: It was conducted by researchers from the University of Wisconsin and published in the journal Psychophysiology. In a summary of the research published in the University of Wisconsin’s news the paper’s lead author, Regina Lapate, explained the research question: “How is it that a stressor gets under your skin and how does that make some more vulnerable to maladaptive responses?”
It was a longitudinal study, in which researchers recruited married adult participants to complete questionnaires rating their stress. They were also evaluated for depression. Nine years later, the questionnaire and depression assessments were repeated, and subsequently the participants were asked to undergo emotional response testing to measure their resilience — how quickly one can recover from a negative experience. The experiment is described in greater detail here. But in brief, participants were exposed to a mix of negative, neutral and positive photographs, and the electrical activity of the “frowning muscle” was measured to assess the intensity and duration of their response.
The news report explained that 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. Researchers were 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.
Significantly, they found that participants who reported higher marital stress had shorter-lived responses to positive images than those reporting more satisfaction in their unions. Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, stated that the findings are important because “they could help researchers understand what makes some people more vulnerable to mental and emotional health challenges.” He added that by understanding the mechanisms that make individuals more prone to depression, researchers hope to find tools such as meditation to stop it from happening to begin with.
What Does A Depressing Marriage Reflect?
And that’s where uncovering the sources are crucial to knowing what helps. For example, many people in longer-term marriages express a sense of being trapped between “longing” for something more meaningful and engaged; and “settling” for what it, stress and all. That is, they just try to lope along and cope with it all, assuming that this is as good as it gets. I described this, it’s possible sources, and how some are dealing with it, in this recent blog.
We also see that some couples manage to not just rebound from negative experiences, but also experience more ongoing positive experiences with each other. They tend to practice emotional exposure, or “radical transparency,” in their relationships. And, paradoxically, they learn to disengage from or “leave” their partners in ways that actually enhance intimacy.
Given the number of divorces and affairs in our culture, it’s important to learn more about what generates sustaining positive emotional, sexual and spiritual connections between partners, over time in our tumultuous culture, in which it’s ever harder to “rebound” from ongoing stress.