How Depression Spreads

Separated man and woman watching sunset

Depression spreads through the closest relationships almost like a communicable disease. I learned the hard way that the illness didn’t happen to me alone. It happened to my children, my friends, and most of all to my wife.

The pull of depression took me away from her and everyone else. I often felt I was choosing to be alone in order to feel better or to escape situations that seemed too painful to bear. Most of the time, though, I was driven by depression and had little choice.

I may have felt some comfort by being alone, but it didn’t help me get better in the long run. Isolation only deepened depression and imposed a cost on my family. They were exposed to the risk of “catching” it through the changes it brought about in our relationships.

Brain and Human Connection

The psychological and emotional damage became clear to me in time, but I had no idea that the brain itself was being changed by the loss of human contact.
Like every other aspect of depression, its effect on relationships is also reflected in distortions of neuron circuits that are essential to the way we function.

Researchers say we’re hard-wired to be social beings. Much of the complexity of the brain developed through the need to bond with other humans for survival. The brain loses nourishment just as feelings do when depression undermines the connections between people.

It’s hard to think of a feeling that isn’t a response to interactions with others, whether in the moment or in the vividness of highly charged memory. You grow up learning to be a person through your family, friends, teachers. If you were left alone as a small child, you’d wither into sickness.

Changing within Relationships

Feelings are the stuff relationships are made of. Without the sharing of deep feelings, all you have are the dry habits of being together, going through the motions without deeper contact.

When two people bond, there’s an exchange below the level of awareness that can reshape their emotional lives from within. They can become different people emotionally because of the influence they have on each other. That was a basic part of our relationship as well.

We had become interdependent and needed each other, to some extent, to maintain a feeling of wholeness. Depression disrupted all that.

Losing Trust

My wife was forced into her own isolation by my withdrawal. She lost the chance to express her feelings when she needed so deeply to connect with me. I was cutting myself off from the emotional flow from her that had changed my life, and she too lost the ongoing influence of my presence.

Even worse, she had no control over the ebb and flow of my feelings. I was completely unpredictable. Depression came and went. I shifted from total withdrawal to spontaneous closeness for no apparent reason.

It was hard for her to trust the relationship, and she became by turns frustrated, hurt, angry.

But how could this experience turn into depression?

Learning to be Helpless

A partner in that position feels more and more helpless. Neither the most loving or angriest behavior makes a difference. All the forms of intimacy and ways of talking that have brought two people closer over time now come to nothing.

The hoped-for return of intimacy is unpredictable and has nothing to do with anything the undepressed partner might try.

It’s the situation Martin Seligman describes in Learned Optimism. When there’s no connection between your effort to do something and the outcome, you may wind up retreating from the situation and giving up.

My wife was left in this position. No matter what she did, I was the one to open the door or close it, and I was reacting to the coming and going of depression. The break between cause and effect often left her feeling helpless – and without hope. More than once, she would say in despair – I give up.

Seligman calls this learned helplessness and sees it as a powerful factor in bringing on depression.

At the same time this psychological damage is taking place, the enforced isolation starts affecting the neurochemistry of the brain, just as it does in the depressed partner. So as depression worsens and continues over time, the combined impacts on the brain, the sense of self and relationship mirror the varied causes of the illness.

Not everyone with a depressed partner develops the illness, since there are so many other influences that come into play.

But the danger of “catching” the illness is increased. In fact, living in a family with a depressed partner is now considered a risk factor for developing depression. I think it’s the impact of isolation that brings on the greatest risk.

After all, if two people reshape each others lives through their closeness, then isolating from each other chokes off hope and the healing interdependence of love.

What have you found in your own experience of living with depression, either your own or that of your partner or other family member you’ve been close to? Do you feel that depression can spread through these relationships?

12 Responses to “How Depression Spreads”

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  1. Sho says:

    I can’t believe how articulate you are, & how similar my story is to your wife’s.
    We’re in in of those dark periods now where i’ve asked him to move out for a while & focus on himself because i felt I had ” caught” depression & simply couldn’t cope, & that was having a negative impact on him too cos he was blaming himself. Even needing space for myself to get back on track made me feel guilty though because I know, and I’m terrified, that isolation is the worst thing for depression. It’s been a breather for me not to be around him everyday but j had hoped to be able to love him again & that’s not happening because the brain needs intimacy & he is still not able to provide it.
    Thank you for your post, it really helped me. I have been feeling like I’m doing everything wrong & no one can help, this has normalized what’s going on & given me a little boost to keep trying.

  2. Jessi says:

    My husband was diagnosed with anxiety and depression a couple years back. I had to have him committed after he told me he was fantasizing about killing me and then himself. He got some needs which worked wonders and after 2 weeks, he said something to me that he had never said in 7 years of marriage “I had a great day”. I sobbed I was so happy. He had since stopped taking his meds but still finds release and happiness in yoga, playing music with his band and taking photos. Unfortunately this leaves me always on egg shells and with no emotional support of my own.I can’t burden him with my feelings nor does he seem to recognize that myself and or kids have emotional needs which are of our own which only leads to me taking care of everyone and without a partner.the worst part is I can say nothing about it because it will send him into a tailspin.
    I am trying to get through this as my vow to support him in sickness and in health is important. I love him deeply but lately I have found myself not wanting to be around anyone,I talk to no one and I hope every second of every day that I an wake that

  3. it also dragged my fiance down. he became hopeless and frustrated esp as he’s a positive person. when everyday i just wanted to die he didn’t know what to do. he became angry
    we were fortunate, he came to see my psychologist too who taught him about depressio and to identify that the depressed me isn’t really me. slowly he was able to distance himself from being affected even though he took care of me
    Noch Noch

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Noch Noch –

      Hopeless and frustrated are the right words for so many partners who see their loved ones disappear into severe depression. The film Helen, that I’ve mentioned here a couple of times, gives a very realistic portrait of the husband of a suicidally depressed woman. Depression puts every relationship to the test, and it’s a great thing when two people can come through it together. You two are indeed fortunate.

      John

  4. Liz says:

    You have a gift John. Thank you for sharing what you have been through. For me your life experience is invaluable to learning the ebb & flow of depression when it comes to my partner. Right now, he is on a road to what we hope is long lasting recovery. However, I’m always on guard for signs. I’m not sure if that is healthy or not but it’s our reality. I’ve thought about “catching” depression especially when we were going thru troubled times. Looking back, I definitely was despondent but I don’t attribute it to his depression but to my reaction to the circumstances at the time. Maybe it’s all the same thing. Maybe I was depressed…I know it was the darkest time of my life. But now it’s all good, beautiful and healthy.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Liz –

      I’m glad to hear that things are still going so well. The doubts are natural for you and your husband. Recovery never goes in a straight line. There are always problems along the way, but you both seem to have learned how to get through the worst times. There are a lot of ways depression can spread. Living day after day with an unresponsive, withdrawn partner almost proved too much for my wife in more than one period of our marriage. She definitely had her depressed and hopeless spells as part of her reaction to my condition. It’s hard for either partner since each feels powerless to change things for the better.

      All my best to you both.

      John

  5. Wendy Love says:

    Oh my goodness you do have a way of writing about what you experience! I understand and have probably experienced much of what you said.

    I am so glad you emphasized how damaging isolation is. I try to fight it, try to ‘come out of myself’ for awhile but oh some days are harder than others. But I never thought of it affecting my husband in the way you suggested. I just feel guilty that I don’t have the desire to get out and about and do things and have people over more often. My husband is quite shy and so unless I initiate social contacts, they don’t happen for him.

    But even when I am in the mood to socialize, my husband has mixed feelings because he knows about the ‘fallout’ I go through after being with people…usually total exhaustion for about three days. It is bittersweet.

    But the things you have said have encourged me to try and get out a little more…. thanks for that.

  6. Judy says:

    John, you’ve done such a great job at describing this – at least, it pretty much tells my own experience, too. While my family probably probably has some genetic tendency toward depression, both of my sons have been dealing with it most of their lives and eventually, my husband “caught” it, although it may not have been 100% from me. The isolation is really the most damaging, I think – inability or refusal to communicate. Speaking from the depressed person’s point of view, sometimes the partner can make it very difficult to talk about the depression because of preconceived ideas about it or simply fear of what it might mean. The depression can produce an angry response in the partner, which can then generate it in the depressed person, and on and on we go. And, of course, the more angry we get and can’t express it, the more depressed we become. I think what saved us was years of couples therapy. I also got help for my sonsp; the older of the two is on his second divorce, partly due to his depression for which he, for some reason, does not get adequate treatment. I feel badly about that, but it’s ultimately out of my control at this point – I can just say so much, the rest is up to him. I’m hoping it doesn’t spread to my grandson.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Judy –

      One difference between now and the time I was growing up is that depression is a well-known problem that people talk about and can get help for. The world – and my family – were so silent and uninformed about such things a few decades ago. But there’s still the tendency to blame and isolate the depressed person in a family. I think that has the paradoxical effect of making others in the household more vulnerable to depression, even as they shun the whole idea and stigmatize one person. Blaming strikes me as the soul’s quarantine, drawing a fake boundary for self-protection. Refusing to talk about it seems so damaging all around. I know the decision to get help can be imposed on anyone, but if they don’t take care of themselves, that increases the damage for everyone else.

      John

  7. Maria says:

    I love the phrase “the dry habits of being together”. We have a lot going on in my family and I suspect that unacknowledged depression is one of the problems. I remember experiencing a pull that I could not understand when I was growing up. I felt smothered and abandoned at the same time. I knew I had to raise myself because no one was there. I also found that all of my efforts did not gain any traction and made no difference. Because the situation was fairly extreme I knew it wasn’t right but I had no validation from anyone – and I sought help – I fought to retain some optimism, sometimes successfully sometimes not. I was very confused, but kept persisting not knowing why I was. It felt like a matter of life-or-death, which sounds very dramatic, but the I how I perceived it, and still do.

    I think you make a good observation about social interaction and brain development. Our differences and things we do not understand activate our brains and help us to develop. I was very restricted but books became my social companions and helped through that difficult time.

    Thank you for this wonderful article, which I am pleased to pass on.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Maria –

      In some ways your childhood sounds like mine. I can especially relate to the feeling that your efforts “did not gain any traction and made no difference.” I kept expecting responses but didn’t get them – or rather I didn’t get any that focused on me. I had the sense that my parents were talking to some other kid who was different from me. So I worked at getting their attention more and more by acting the way I thought they expected me to act. Nothing made much difference, though. Persisting but not knowing why, as you describe it, seems the only choice kids have.

      Thanks for your comments – – they’re very helpful.

      John

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