It is no surprise that researchers have discovered that depression erodes intimate relationships.
Depression breeds feelings of loneliness and withdrawal. So when your partner in a relationship is feeling depressed, it can be as though he or she is not even there.
Israeli researchers determined depression impairs the ability of a partner to accurately perceive the others’ thoughts and feelings.
Depression impairs what psychologists call “empathic accuracy.” Depression can also exacerbate alienation, depression, and the cycle by which they feed each other.
The investigators studied these dynamics in relationships, particularly the role of gender.
Their study will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
The study revealed a surprising dynamic: “It’s called the partner effect,” said Reuma Gadassi, lead author and a psychology graduate student at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“Women’s depression affects their own accuracy. But it also affected their partner’s accuracy negatively.”
Fifty heterosexual couples — some married, some cohabiting, and together an average of about five years — participated in the study. First, a questionnaire assessed their levels of depression. Then, their interpersonal perceptions were tested both in the lab and in daily life.
In the lab, the couples were videotaped during a 12-minute conversation in which one sought help from the other. Halfway through, they switched roles: the help-requester became the helper.
Afterwards, the individuals watched the tapes and wrote about their own thoughts and feelings and their partners’. The reports were assessed for similarities and differences between each person perceptions and the other’s self-descriptions.
In the second portion, the participants made once-a-day diary entries for 21 days, rating a list of negative and positive moods and feelings about the relationship, both their own and their partner’s, on a five-point scale. These entries were also assessed for “empathic accuracy.”
From both tests, the researchers found that the more depressed the woman was, the less accurately she inferred her partner’s feelings. In the daily-life portion, the specificity of depression’s effect to negative (vs. positive) feelings was revealed.
Men’s own depression did not affect their empathic accuracy — though that is not to suggest that his blues would have no impact on the relationship, just “a different one,” says Gadassi.
It was in the daily diaries that the most surprising finding emerged: When women were depressed and their sensitivities dulled, their partners also became less empathic. When women are depressed, the relationship suffers more. After all, mutual understanding is the bedrock of intimacy.
The study has important implications, says Gadassi. It tells us “you can’t understand depression without taking account of gender.”
The findings should inform treatment. “Bringing only the depressed woman into therapy is not enough,” she says. “You really have to have both partners in the room.”