Not surprisingly, people who suffer from depression often have difficult romantic relationships — when they have them at all. They tend to take out their depression more on their partner than they would a stranger or friend.
In a relationship where one person is depressed, depressed individuals have a “higher tendency than non-depressed individuals to repeatedly ask for reassurance, demand support in a hostile manner, and display negative behaviors, such as a reduced tendency to smile. Consequently, depressed individuals often burden or alienate their partners.”
People in romantic relationships can typically infer and understand their partners’ thoughts and feelings with a fair amount of accuracy. Even in complex social interactions, couples often know what each other is thinking about the situation. A new study suggests that depression can alter this empathic accuracy in women, but not in men.
Researchers tested their hypothesis in a laboratory experiment that depression might impact our ability to accurately infer our partner’s thoughts and feelings by examining 51 couples who had been living together for a minimum of 6 months.
The experiment consisted of three parts. In the first part, the couple participated in a videotaped discussion with one another. “Discussions focused on eliciting support, with one partner playing the role of help seeker and the other playing the role of help giver. The couples were given an alarm that beeped after 6 min, at which point they switched roles and continued the conversation for an additional 6 min.”
In the second part, each individual reviewed their recordings separately and after watching the discussion in 30-second segments, paused the recording and wrote down the thoughts and feelings they experienced at that time during the interaction. They were also asked to infer and write down their partners’ thoughts and feelings.
In the third part of the study, five coders independently judged “the degree of similarity between perceivers’ and targets’ statements by examining the taped discussions in conjunction with the writings participants generated during the thoughts-and-feelings protocol. A 3-point scale was used: 0 (essentially different content), 1 (somewhat similar, but not the same content), and 2 (essentially the same content).”
Individuals were also asked to keep a daily diary of their mood and relationship feelings over the course of 3 weeks.
What did they find?
Our results largely support our hypothesis that depressive symptoms are associated with lower levels of empathic accuracy among women, but not among men.
In the lab task, women’s depressive symptoms were associated with lower levels of accuracy in inferring partners’ thoughts and feelings, whereas men showed no such actor effects.
The diary task revealed similar results: Women’s depressive symptoms were associated with lower levels of empathic accuracy in inferring partners’ negative moods and relationship feelings. No such association was found for accuracy regarding positive moods or relationship feelings.
There were no significant effects found for men’s depressive symptoms.
The researchers also found that higher levels of depressive symptoms in women predicted partners’ lower empathic accuracy regarding the women’s negative moods and relationship feelings.
As the researchers note, the data suggest that a woman’s depression affects not just herself, but also her partner. Depressed women’s relationships are likely to suffer doubly as well — not only is her empathy accuracy lowered by her depression, but her partner’s empathic accuracy is also lowered. She can’t read her partner as well, and he is unable to accurately read her mood or relationship feelings either.
Although the study suffers from a small sample size, it is one of the first studies to look at how depression impacts empathy and empathy accuracy in relationships. The findings shed light on why interpersonal and romantic relationships might be especially difficult to maintain when one individual is depressed — especially if that individual is a woman.
Gadassi R, Mor N, Rafaeli E. (2011). Depression and Empathic Accuracy in Couples: An Interpersonal Model of Gender Differences in Depression. Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0956797611414728