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Balancing Act

New study links marital stress to depression

Heidi Stevens

Balancing Act

12:11 PM EDT, April 29, 2014

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To the surprise of no one who's lived under the cloud of marital strife, new research shows chronic stress in your marriage can make you more vulnerable to depression.

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers, led by neuroscience heavyweight Richard J. Davidson, spent more than a decade assessing the stress levels of married couples, taking into account how often they felt let down or criticized by their partners.

The most fascinating (and tragic) discovery, to me, is that a stressful marriage saps your ability to experience long-term joy.

Davidson, author of New York Times best-seller "The Emotional Life of Your Brain" (Penguin), and his researchers showed a mixture of negative, neutral and positive images to participants and measured the intensity and duration of their responses. Participants with higher levels of marital stress stopped experiencing joy more quickly than people with more satisfying marriages.

"This adds to a huge pool of studies linking our ability to deal with stress to the quality of our loving relationships," says internationally renowned marriage counselor Sue Johnson, author of "Love Sense: The Revolutionary Science of Romantic Relationships" (Little Brown). "The quality of our interactions with the person we love absolutely shapes our mental health."

Critical to the study's relevancy, Johnson says, is the fact that researchers focused on how frequently partners felt let down or criticized by each other; it doesn't necessarily take an extramarital affair or other blow-up event to implode a marriage.

"The security of your bond is diminished by these hurtful, painful, massively negative experiences of being criticized or let down," Johnson says. "So that even when one person in a distressed couple does or says something nice, the other person doesn't trust it. The brain counts it as a positive experience, but doesn't trust the cue and wipes it out."

Until you've repaired your relationship at its core — how secure you feel that your partner is your confidante and advocate and safe place — you're likely to dismiss each other's good-will gestures, small and large, Johnson says.

"You stop trusting the positive," she says. "So maybe you go on a date and that helps for a moment, but the minute your partner criticizes you or stops responding to you, all the positive stuff dissipates.

"You've got to look at the whole dance you're doing together and understand why you've lost your basic sense of safety with each other," she continues. "Then start working on that."

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter@heidistevens13