It’s time for a reality check.
You walk down the aisle expecting eternal bliss, even though you know better. You eventually settle into more realistic expectations, learning as you go that happiness evolves and deepens in meaning with life’s challenges. But sometimes there is a harsh reality check: You’re unhappy with marriage and depressed.
You may not know which came first or if one is causing the other. When and how did I become unhappy? Is my spouse unhappy, too? Is this depression a result of my unhappy marriage, or is it somehow fueling the unhappiness in my marriage?
Despite the futility you may feel, your questions have merit. And doing the uncomfortable work of answering them could be the difference between saving your marriage and health...and not.
The interconnectedness of being unhappy with marriage and depressed has research to back it up. Each component – marital dissatisfaction and depression (and anxiety) – can affect the other. And the task incumbent upon the suffering spouse(s) is to figure out if one factor is giving rise to or exacerbating the other.
When you’re unhappy in a relationship, you may be so aware of your emotional unrest that you don’t realize the physical and mental unrest happening behind the scenes. Understanding how an unhappy marriage can affect you will clarify the relationship between marital dissatisfaction and depression.
For example, being in an unhappy marriage can lead to physical problems like a weakened immune system, increased blood pressure and cholesterol, and poor sleep. Mentally it can disrupt cognition, memory, and decision-making. It can even increase your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. And, on an emotional level, it can increase your risk of depression and anxiety and make you vulnerable to negative emotions like anger.
Research on the effects of marital conflict on depression and functional impairment corroborates these mental and emotional effects, as well as risks to physical health.
Turn the tables and ask if being depressed can lead to unhappiness in your marriage, and the answer is another yes.
Research has shown that a spouse’s level of anxiety and depression predicts his/her marital satisfaction. But the “aha” lies in the fact that they also predict the partner’s level of satisfaction. Despite anxiety having an influence, it is nowhere near as detrimental as depression.
In other words, not only is it difficult to live with depression, it’s difficult to live with someone who suffers from it. A double-edged sword that would challenge the happiness of even the best relationships.
It would be easy to get lost in a pasture of chickens and eggs. Which came first? Which do I focus on to fix the problem? What if I can’t fix my depression? What if I can’t fix my marriage? Is it too late to be happy?
Unless one or both spouses enter the marriage with a history of diagnosable depression, it’s more likely that marital discord leads to the depression. And one of the most frequent causes of being unhappy with marriage and depressed is a dominant-submissive dynamic in the marriage.
When one person assumes a controlling role in the marriage, the spouse in the one-down position is more vulnerable to depression. Even with successful antidepressant intervention, it’s the resolution of marital problems that prevents a relapse of the depressive mood.
When marital problems and fighting continue, depression continues. When marital problems and fighting subside, depression decreases.
But problems don’t go away on their own. And hiding behind alcohol, avoidance, and acquiescence only breeds its own issues and resentments.
When dominant-submissive inequality is at the root of marital unhappiness and depression, learning collaborative engagement skills is foundational to healing. And reaching out to the experts for some Problem-Solving 101 may be just the jump-start needed to turn a failing marriage around.
But let’s not disregard the damning influence of an undiagnosed mood disorder like depression. Depression, by its very nature, causes its victim to experience life through a cloud of gloom, however varied the intensity.
The person may not even know why the “darkness” is there because it’s “wired in.” If there are marital problems like the dominant-submissive dynamic described above, depression will likely intensify for the subjugated spouse.
But, if there is nothing unresolvable causing the depression, there may be an undiagnosed underlying disorder. And that brings us back to the effects of depression on both spouses.
If you’re evaluating your marriage through an underlying, hard-wired depression, you may be unaware of the problem. And that can spell unnecessary demise for an otherwise salvageable marriage.
You may wonder how to know if you need to stay in your miserable marriage or divorce. Assuming no issues like abuse, addiction, and chronic infidelity, the person who is both unhappy with marriage and depressed should consider a mental health evaluation.
It’s important to imprint the message that depression and other mood disorders are not judgment or value statements. Whether or not you (or your spouse) receive a diagnosis that points to a genetic or chemically-based depression isn’t a statement of blame or absolution.
Marriage is still the responsibility of both parties. And that means learning to communicate and problem-solve in ways conducive to mutual well-being and happiness. It also means learning to navigate unforeseen obstacles like health (including mental and emotional) issues.
The big question is whether, upon the acknowledgment of your marital unhappiness and depression, you want to save your marriage. You don’t need to have all the answers to answer that one important question.
If the answer is yes for both you and your spouse, you will be able to find your way to health and happiness.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a life and divorce coach who helps people, just like you, who are unhappily married. For immediate help, you can download your FREE copy of "Contemplating Divorce? Here's What You Need To Know". And if you’re interested in working with me personally, you can book an introductory 30-minute private coaching session with me.