Marital Stress Increases Susceptibility to Depression

June 4, 2014
Rachel Lutz

Although previous studies have suggested married people are generally happier and healthier, new research has discovered marital stress increases their vulnerability to depression.

Although previous studies have suggested married people are generally happier and healthier, research published in the April 2014 issue of the Journal of Psychophysiology has discovered marital stress increases their vulnerability to depression.

Investigators from the University of Wisconsin (UW) in Madison, WI, studied a sample of 116 married adults aged 39-84 years. The scientists tracked marital stress to predict the participants’ reactivity to and recovery from emotional provocation, since they hypothesized it would compromise emotion-responding processes. They were also curious to learn how a muscle relaxes or tenses as a patient views the triggers, as well as find out how long it takes for the response to subside.

The study participants were shown 90 positive, neutral, and negative pictures for about 5-8 seconds while the researchers collected response data from the corrugator supercilii, or “frowning muscle.” The results indicated marital stress was associated with shorter responses to positive stimuli, which was followed by a reduced response to negative pictures.

During the study, the participants were surveyed based on their opinions of their spouse and then evaluated for depression. About 9 years later, the survey was repeated, and then another 2 years later, the participants underwent additional testing for resilience, or how quickly a person can bounce back from a negative experience.

Among various psychiatric disorders, major depression was associated with marital stress, which the researchers believed was due to the shorter amount of time the participants spent savoring positive events.

“This is not an obvious consequence, if you will, of marital stress, but it's one I think is extraordinarily important because of the cascade of changes that may be associated,” Richard Davidson, lead study author and founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the UW's Waisman Center, said in a press release. “This is the signature of an emotional style that reveals vulnerability to depression.”

The researchers said they hope their findings will speed the development of preventative measures for depression, as well as shed more light on what makes people more or less vulnerable to depression. They want to develop tools to assist people in learning how to enjoy positive experiences and, over time, become more resilient to stress.

“To paraphrase the bumper sticker: ‘Stress happens,’” Davidson said. “There is no such thing as leading a life completely buffered from the slings and arrows of everyday life.”