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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Can Your Spouse’s Behavior Make You Depressed?

The way husbands treat their wives affects their emotional well-being. Undoubtedly no one will be surprised to hear that! But recent research by University of Missouri researcher Christine Proulx, an assistant professor of human development and family studies, confirms that symptoms of depression may increase for women when their husbands act in self-centered, angry and critical ways.

Proulx told this Web site that she thinks spouses sometimes may not “realize the extent to which their behavior impacts” the other person. She stressed that her research “is based on ‘ordinary’ couples” and is not restricted to “seriously troubled marriages.” Furthermore, she said her “findings do not apply only to violent or severely troubled marriages.”

The study focused on what were termed “hostile” and “anti-social” behaviors on the part of husbands – behaviors that increased symptoms of depression in wives over time. But it was noted that warm, positive behavior by husbands lessened the effects of hostile behaviors.

Proulx told me that some examples of behaviors the researchers had in mind “include showing disgust or disdain; being irritable, tense, curt or exasperated toward a spouse; mocking, insulting or putting down one’s spouse; being condescending, dismissive, flippant or self-centered.”

To a significant degree, this study concerns the impact of hostility itself on symptoms of depression in spouses. Proulx said that in this regard, the study found that hostile behavior on the part of husbands predicted changes in wives depressive symptoms. Does that mean that a wife’s hostile behavior will not influence symptoms of depression in her husband? Not quite, Proulx indicated – not when the behavior occurs together with other difficult life developments.

The researchers studied several variables that might further explain whether one spouse’s behavior contributes to the other’s symptoms of depression. Proulx said it was “here we found some evidence for the conditions under which wives’ hostility impacts husbands’ depressive symptoms.” In families experiencing relatively recent and difficult life events (e.g., getting a new job, the death of a family member, moving to a new home), hostile behavior by wives appeared to influence their husbands’ depressive symptoms.

It is “critical that professionals ask people experiencing depression about their close relationships and recognize that their spouse’s behavior influences how they feel about life and themselves, especially among women,” Proulx said. She believes it is important to make “spouses aware that how they act toward each other has a long-term effect on their emotional and physical well-being.”

Her findings suggest, she said, that husbands’ treatment of their wives significantly impacts their psychological well-being and that hostile behavior has a lasting effect on couples.

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.