Depression and Divorce: Chicken or the Egg?
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By D. A. Wolf, Featured DM Blogger - September 01, 2014

Depression and divorce. The two seem to go hand-in-hand. But does depression lead to divorce? Isn't depression itself the result of other problems? And what about divorce? Must it always mean a bout of depression? And if it does, how do we cope?

DM Sad Woman Bathrobe and Coffee.jpgDepression - What Causes It?

Do you understand depression? Have you experienced it before? Did you find your way back on your own or with help?

You tell yourself you're fine, you'll snap out of it, it's only "natural" that you're blue after your marriage has ended. But maybe you've been taking sick days and curling up in bed in your bathrobe until the kids get home from school. Maybe you've withdrawn from your family and friends, and it's been going on for six months, eight months, a year.

Should you be concerned?

This Harvard Medical School article addresses the multifaceted aspects of depression and its various treatments: 

"... There are millions, even billions, of chemical reactions that make up the dynamic system that is responsible for your mood, perceptions, and how you experience life... With this level of complexity, you can see how two people might have similar symptoms of depression, but the problem on the inside, and therefore what treatments will work best, may be entirely different."

It also explains what causes depression, as follows:

"... depression has many possible causes, including faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, stressful life events, medications, and medical problems. It’s believed that several of these forces interact to bring on depression."

Isn't divorce one of those life events - certainly if you didn't desire the termination of your marriage, or even if you did, as you process the personal, financial, and logistical realities?

WebMD sizes the issue, in general:

“Nearly 15 million American adults, or about 6.7% of the U.S. population age 18 and older, is affected with a major depression in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.”

Depression and Relationship Impacts

When relationships begin to disintegrate, when couples argue, when resentments build, when there are issues with children, when money stresses and medical stresses and caring for aging parents render couple time nonexistent, when pressures are unrelenting - one or the other or both partners may become depressed.

Depression can be a consequence of family problems, not the cause.

But depression becomes a cover for what ails us. It may lead to increasing emotional distance from our spouses and that distance can lead to emotional affairs and likewise, physical affairs. Depression can lead to pain - headaches, body ache, extreme fatigue - which then takes a toll on your relationship. Also note that chronic pain can cause depression, which sets off a host of other challenges including identifying and treating its medical origin. 

Depression is isolating, hard on our partners, hard on our families; harder still when we self-medicate with excess - abusing alcohol, drugs, food, sex - creating even more problems as a result.

And if a couple splits? The extent to which depression will deal a dangerous hand depends on circumstances. Surely we fare better in situations of cooperation with an ex-spouse, financial and professional security, and children who are adjusting. But in high conflict scenarios that drag us through the courts for years, contentious relationships involving exes, medical or mental health issues that are pre-existing or result from divorce stress - we may find ourselves at serious risk.

Moreover, this column from Huffington Post cites a study that concludes:  

“Those who have a history of depression are more likely to experience a depressive episode after a divorce or separation.”

Post-Divorce Depression

DM Sad Woman in Red.jpgDo not confuse what I term "situational" depression with clinical depression. My use of the label "situational" applies to circumstances that cannot help but hit us hard and leave us wounded, anxious, angry, and deeply saddened. Divorce is one of these situations, and is the second most stressful event one can face, with death of a loved one being the first.

Let's also remember that divorce can wreak havoc on other areas of our lives: our children's well-being, our parenting, our jobs, our finances, our belief systems, our friendships, our sex lives. In other words, everything we count on and care about may be turned upside down.

As we establish a new equilibrium, we begin to see the light. Depression begins to lift. This takes time, work, support, luck.

In my experience, post-divorce depression comes with its own situational and emotional flavors. By that I mean:

  • We may feel compelled to live a stressful sort of double life for a time - miserable on the inside, but putting on a brave face for our children.
  • We may be reconstructing self-esteem, especially if we've been left for someone else, and more so if this event triggers other experiences of abandonment.
  • We may feel pressure to "get out and date" though we've never felt less in the mood.
  • Divorce itself may unleash other devastating life changes: loss of a home, loss of custody, a slow bleed of savings and income.

Depression may be recurrent: Another unsuccessful legal proceeding leaves us worn and feeling powerless; another dreadful date leaves us lonely and resentful; sleepless nights worrying about a child's difficulty accepting divorce makes performance on the job a constant struggle.

These of course are worthy of "situational" depression on their own. We'd be crazy not to be depressed. So we strengthen our coping strategies, and if we're smart - reach out for help. 

Coping Strategies for Depression After Divorce

After divorce, grieving is normal. So is depression - the persistent sadness, irritation, anger, disinterest or detachment from activities and people that usually engage us. We are rebuilding, including a new identity.

There are many paths we can take to ease the distress of post-divorce depression. Some of the following come from my personal list, and others from this resource at PsychCentral. While they may not prevent depression, they can help ease us back to a place of orientation - away from the disorientation brought on by divorce. 

DM Stoic Woman.jpgThey include: 

  • Talking with friends or family
  • Exercise, eating well, sleeping well
  • Writing, music, pursuing a new interest
  • Cleaning, organizing
  • Changing up your decor or your style
  • Making new friends
  • Seeking professional help
  • Medications if deemed appropriate by your physician

And one important piece of advice: Cut yourself some slack. Be patient with your own healing.

May I add two critical "don'ts" to the list?

DON’T make any impulsive, major life decisions - and that includes attentiveness to rebound relationships. DON'T make your children your caretakers. You are the adult. If you cannot care for yourself, seek help. 

Whether depression is the chicken or the egg may not matter so much as understanding its roots, and dealing with both causes and symptoms. Talk therapy and SSRIs are commonly used to treat depression, and lifestyle changes along with the support of loved ones can speed recovery.


Note: Depression must be taken seriously. If you are depressed, consult your physician or other medical professional.


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