Stress in Marriage Linked to Depression
Conducted through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the long-term investigation looked at the impact of marital stress on a couple’s ability to enjoy positive experiences. The findings were published in the April 2014 issue of the journal Psychophysiology.
In his study, lead author Richard Davidson, PhD, and his team asked married, adult participants to fill out questionnaires that rated marital stress on a scale of one to six. Questions such as how often participants felt criticized by their partner or felt disappointed in their partner were used to measure marital stress. Other questions were designed to assess depression.
The initial results were noted. After nine years participants were asked to complete the questionnaire once again. Investigators again drew conclusions regarding stress and depression based on the responses.
Then, at the 11-year mark, participants took part in another kind of testing. This time couples were tested on emotional resiliency or their ability to bounce back from negative experiences.
Measuring Marital Stress and Emotional Resilience
To find each person’s level of resiliency, individuals were asked to view 90 images. Some images were positive, some were negative, and some neutral. Researchers used these images and the participants’ responses to them to discover how emotionally resilient each person was. To make this assessment, investigators monitored each person’s frowning muscle to determine how strongly they reacted to images and for how long.
The frowning muscle tightens when a person reacts negatively, and relaxes when they react positively. The key to the test is that when people are depressed, they may still react positively to something, but that the response is briefer than it is for non-depressed people. The pleasure is quite transitory. Thus, measuring positive versus negative reactions along with how long it took the person to return to a normal state presumably gives reliable insight into a person’s emotional state.
This measurement has been successfully used by others to evaluate depression. The facial muscles (corrugator supercilii) are more predictive than even direct questions about how a person feels at any given moment. Interestingly, couples who reported higher levels of stress in their marriage also revealed the briefest positive reaction times. And couples who revealed less marital stress demonstrated longer-lasting positive recovery times. Negative responses and recovery were no different between the two groups.
Managing Stress in Marriage
The study suggests that people who don’t know how to manage stress in marriage are more vulnerable to developing depression as measured by a reduced ability to enjoy common pleasures or positive experiences. Since there’s no way to take stress out of marriage - the fact that other people will always disappoint and hurt is part of all relationships - what’s needed are better tools for coping with those stresses. Learning how to recover from them quickly can also be key to holding onto the ability to enjoy life.