Mental health disorders like depression and anxiety are very common. In fact, one in five Australians experience a mental health condition each year and one in two will do so during their lifetime. Unsurprisingly, depression is often a factor in relationship breakdowns.
Depression and relationships
Depression is best described as an intense and often ongoing feeling of sadness. Although it is normal to get sad or upset from time to time, most people generally ‘move on’ or get over whatever it was that upset them.
A person living with depression may not feel the same way. That’s because depression can last for days, weeks or even years.
Depression is probably more common than you thought. In fact, did you know that it is the most commonly diagnosed mental disorder (37.9 per cent of diagnoses) across northern, western and central Melbourne?
Just about all healthy relationships have their ups and downs. Like moods, it is normal to sometimes get sad, frustrated or angry. However, in a stable and happy relationship, those negative feelings tend to pass, often after a short time has passed.
If prolonged or intense periods of feeling down and negative are straining your relationship, it could be a sign that something isn’t right.
Here are some common signs that may indicate depression could be a factor in your relationship.
Withdrawal or detachment
You or your partner feels withdrawn, disconnected, detached or distant. This is beyond just wanting down time or ‘me’ time alone.
You may know or suspect that something is not right, but you can’t quite pinpoint it. To compound the issue, the depressed person may be unable (or unwilling) to talk about it directly. They may be able to identify that something is troubling them, but might not feel comfortable opening up; or they may sense that something isn’t right, but can’t put it into words.
For example, they might respond with “I’m fine” when asked “what’s wrong?” or “is everything alright?” despite one or both of you sensing that things are not entirely ok.
Criticism is a regular thing
The ability to openly and confidently voice disagreements is a normal and healthy aspect of a relationship. While this may result in arguing, even in happy relationships, in most cases both people tend to make up and move on.
There are, of course, many reasons why someone may be unhappy in a relationship. However, if constant or harsh criticism is a regular part of it then that may be a strong sign that one of you is unhappy.
It is important to note that being unhappy with something in a relationship is not automatically a sign of depression. However, one of the features of depression is that it can affect your outlook. Consequently, a depressed person may, for instance, focus heavily on the negatives in their relationship, such as through verbal criticism, rather than seeing the whole.
Alcohol, drugs, gambling, junk food, TV…
People experiencing depression are more likely turn to alcohol, drugs and other unhealthy coping mechanisms. This is usually an attempt to deal with the emotional pain or stressors in their life. Unfortunately, most of these ways of ‘coping’ do not make the problem go away. Instead, they provide what feels like short-term relief but can actually make underlying stresses or worries seem worse over time.
Alcohol is a drug that is commonly misused to try and cope with life’s difficulties. Alcohol is widely accepted in Australian culture, whether it’s social beers after work or a wine over dinner. It also remains the most commonly consumed drug in Australia, after caffeine. For this reason, it can sometimes be difficult to tell when alcohol consumption stops being a fun social activity and shifts toward a way of dealing with difficulties.
There are many things beside alcohol that people resort to in an effort to deal with their stresses. Some unhealthy or maladaptive coping mechanisms, to use the clinical term, are more harmful than others. They include legal and illicit drugs, tobacco, junk food, gambling, and even binge watching TV and excessive video gaming. They can affect emotional wellbeing and may also affect physical health.
There’s a lack of physical or social energy
People experiencing depression often report a lack of energy or drive. Depression can have a major effect on motivation, and that can strain a relationship.
For instance, a depressed person may not feel like going out, being social, or doing the things they used to enjoy. As a consequence, a partner or spouse may feel resentful. They might grow tired of making excuses for their partner’s social absence or accuse them of “never wanting to go out anymore”.
A lack of social interaction can have the unfortunate effect of adding to a depressed person’s feeling of loneliness or isolation.
There’s a lack of sex and intimacy
Intimacy is the connectedness between two people. It covers a wide range of things: trust, love, honesty, commitment, understanding, and physical contact. Between couples, intimacy also includes physical affection like holding hands, kissing and sex.
Depression can dramatically affect how someone feels about intimacy and sex, contributing to feelings of disconnection and detachment. In fact, one study suggested that up to 75 per cent of people experiencing depression also report less sex drive.
Intimacy and physical and emotional connectedness is a universal need for just about every adult on the planet. When depression affects these drives, it can inflame feelings of rejection and resentment, further straining a relationship.
Recognising and dealing with depression in relationships
If you think that depression is a factor in your relationship, then talking honestly and openly about how you both feel is one of the most important things you can do. This is particularly important if someone is from an environment where ideas like mental health were not traditionally discussed. Some people may even believe that talking about it is shameful or embarrassing, or that acknowledging stresses and worries can somehow lead to separation or divorce.
Unfortunately, ignoring the stresses and worries that affect a relationship will rarely improve the situation. In fact, not addressing underlying concerns can, in the long term, make the problem worse. For this reason, it is far better to deal with it now than to wait for a problem to become much harder later on.
Concerned? Talk to a professional counsellor on 1300 096 269. It’s free to people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Want to know where else you can get help? Find out how to access additional community support.
The CAREinMIND blog is delivered by On the Line. The views in each post do not necessarily reflect those of North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network.