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?