Does Depression Lead to Marital Discord, or Vice Versa?

Researchers wanted to determine if marital conflict led to depressive symptoms in committed couples, or if the presence of depressive symptoms increased marital conflict. “Poor relationship quality is a significant risk factor for both diagnostic and sub-clinical levels of depressive symptoms, and depressive symptoms increase the risk of relationship disruptions,” said a team of researchers who conducted a longitudinal study on the issue. Tina D. Du Rocher Schudlich of Western Washington University, Lauren M. Papp of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and E. Mark Cummings and the University of Notre Dame, enrolled 279 heterosexual couples who had been together for a minimum of two years for the study. Each couple had at least one child between the ages of 8 and 16, and the partners were screened for the presence of depressive symptoms at the start of the three year long study.

The couples participated in a laboratory clinic once each year for three years. They were evaluated based on their conflict styles, what they disagreed about the most, and how they resolved conflict. The researchers were able to assess various types of marital interaction, both destructive and constructive. The couples were also instructed to discuss a major area of disagreement, and then take a break and resume conversation, but this time, about a less intense area of disagreement.

The researchers discovered that depressive symptoms increased in both partners when wives reported higher marital dissatisfaction. This led to angrier emotional expressions and increased depressive symptoms in men. Emotional distress was especially evident in the women. “It is possible that unhappiness in the marriage carries over into increased emotional distress in marital interactions, which over time increases wives’ vulnerability to experiencing depression symptoms in multiple contexts,” said the team. They added, “The need to target communication in both partners is especially highlighted by our cross-spouse findings, with partners’ constructive conflict being especially pertinent to spouses’ depressive symptoms.”

Du Rocher Schudlich, T. D., Papp, L. M., & Cummings, E. M. (2011, June 13). Relations Between Spouses’ Depressive Symptoms and Marital Conflict: A Longitudinal Investigation of the Role of Conflict Resolution Styles. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024216

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Celine


    August 12th, 2011 at 1:49 PM

    Both the ways could work.But I would say depression is more prevalent than marriage discord so it is more important to look out for depression for most of us and that will hopefully take care of the marriage too.

  • Karen


    August 12th, 2011 at 7:03 PM

    If my relationship with my partner is going fine then even a depressive thought would be forced out of my mind.But if there were problems inthe relationship,everything else would be affected.But that’s just me.

  • alisonlawrence


    August 12th, 2011 at 11:47 PM

    Being in an unhappy marriage is very depressing. Before I was in mine I was very joyful and positive person. A decade of being married to a control freak and master manipulator soon put paid to that side of me. He ground me down day by day. I suffered badly from depression in the latter years of it and until then had been fine all my life, not even experiencing the usual teenage bouts of depression. I would definitely say it’s the marital discord that leads to depression.

    I was told later by an old friend that my ex almost extinguished the light in me that drew everyone to me. Sad but true.

  • ben


    August 13th, 2011 at 2:33 AM

    depression->marital discord->further depression


    marital discord->depression->further problems in marriage

    it can works both ways…really.talking to your partner while you’re depressed or if there are marital problems will prevent both these things.communication is the key…

  • BethanyH


    August 13th, 2011 at 6:56 AM

    A strong marriage will be able to survive anything that is thrown its way, even depression. A good and caring spouse will step in and help the other through it. That’s the way it is.

  • Harry S.

    Harry S.

    August 13th, 2011 at 7:22 PM

    It may be the marital discord that causes the depression, but it’s the depression that fuels its continuation once the depression’s established. My wife and I struggled to remain together when we got into financial difficulties. We fought a lot and she became very depressed while I just got angrier and angrier at her withdrawal from me and the situation.

    It was a terrible downward spiral and one I hope never to repeat in my life with my current wife. In hindsight I know my reaction was the least helpful in the world that it could have been. I did nothing to comfort or support her.

    In my defense, I was very stressed and agitated about it all too and could only see before me what I considered to be her abandonment of me in a time of crisis. That’s how I viewed her depression.

  • Billie Addison

    Billie Addison

    August 13th, 2011 at 8:43 PM

    I certainly think that depression does cause marital discord. You’re not in the mood for any rubbish when you’re depressed and that’s going to cause heads to butt against each other somewhere down the road. It’s just how things work, isn’t it? Your nearest and dearest unfortunately tend to get the brunt of it.

  • H.Lyons


    August 13th, 2011 at 9:15 PM

    Marriage is a waste of time, energy, and money! There, I said it! If we forgot all about marriage altogether, then we would have far less relationship problems because we’d not feel so bad about breaking them up.

    Don’t like your husband? Leave. Is your wife a huge nag? Walk out the door. You don’t need the approval of some priest or penpusher to live with somebody.

  • vic


    August 14th, 2011 at 4:39 AM

    i could not live with someone who is depressed all of the time
    that would truly bring me down
    andd marriage is supposed to be about giving and being uplifted
    what good is that when someone is depressed all the time

  • ben r. davidson

    ben r. davidson

    August 14th, 2011 at 3:36 PM

    @H. Lyons: Your flippant attitude is distressing to me. You’re forgetting that marriage means a great deal to those of us who are religious and believe in the sanctity of marriage.

    The divorce rate unfortunately reflects that we are a dying breed. Marriage should be forever and can be if both spouses are willing to work at it.

  • P.O.


    August 14th, 2011 at 6:11 PM

    @Alison – Your story is why I would never marry anyone unless I lived with them for a few years prior. There are so many out there who ruin the whole idea of marriage and are uncompromising, inconsiderate or abusive. So much for a match made in heaven!

  • joeyrussell


    August 14th, 2011 at 8:13 PM

    It goes both ways. If you’re depressed and angry, you’ll become more prone to inciting conflict. If your partner is acting out, then you’ll become depressed and angry. They both cause each other in the end.

    It don’t think that any single one can be pointed to as the culprit. It’s more a merging of both.

  • Addie


    August 15th, 2011 at 4:39 AM

    We all have our good times and our bad. And when we get married don’t we confirm that we will be there for better or for worse? So who cares which comes first in this case. It is your obligation and duty as a faithful and true spouse to stick with that eprson no matter what demons he is battling. Think about all of the wonderful ways that you may could help him through those things, and the hardships that he could potentially face if you were not there to help him through it.

  • CT


    August 15th, 2011 at 10:17 AM

    Depression happens in single people too. So depression I think results in marital discord more often than marriage bringing depression! Just my two cents.

  • Lee Shaw

    Lee Shaw

    August 15th, 2011 at 8:58 PM

    @Bethany In a fairytale world that’s the way it is. It doesn’t work that way in the real world where around 40% of marriages end in divorce for whatever reason, 60% and 70% for your second and third marriages.

    I don’t know why it happens but it does. You would think with subsequent marriages the wives or husbands would be older and wiser, having learned from the mistakes of the first one.

    Or perhaps spouses simply don’t tolerate issues that arise in a new marriage for quite as long or as readily as they did first time around and get out faster.

  • James b

    James b

    August 16th, 2011 at 7:55 AM

    This is something that is beyond prediction. There is no easy way to tell early on if this is going to be something that you may experience in your marriage.

    But if you love your partner then it will not matter. You will be there for them and help them to get the treatment that they need to get better.

    Why is that something that is so difficult to ask?

  • Mary a.

    Mary a.

    September 25th, 2011 at 4:29 PM

    Researchers failed at this experiment and here’s why:

    The hypothesis they formed was something along the lines of “depression causes marital issues and marital issues cause depression”, okay fair enough.

    Now here is where the crucial mistake lies, they test to see if marital problems cause depression but don’t test the opposite. Therefore never fully testing their hypothesis.

    And then, they have the audacity to form a conclusion! They haven’t even tested the hypothesis, and yet they form a conclusion. As a science major who has done countless experiments this horrifies me. Don’t trust anything from this experiment. If they can’t get the scientific method right, what else have they screwed up?

  • K.P.V.


    January 7th, 2015 at 11:45 PM

    There appears to be a mutuality between depression and marital discord.Marriage compatibility is also important.

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