With high rates of divorce continuing throughout the nation, research at the University of Wisconsin has found that marital stress often directly correlates with classic signs of depression among couples.
After compiling research over four years at UW, the study found that individuals who experience high levels of marital stress are often unable to experience and savor positive experiences for extended lengths of time.
Richard Davidson, the study’s lead researcher and founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, said if someone has a great conversation first thing in the morning that brings him or her some feeling of happiness, the positive feeling will not endure far past the moment of interaction if the individual is under marital stress.
This correlation is not an obvious consequence but is important to understanding the dynamics of marriage and depression, he said.
However, research has also found that on average, married couples are happier, healthier and ultimately live longer than single people, Felix Elwert, sociology professor and expert on the American family, said.
“Marriage is good for survival. Marriage is an [antidote] for death, and this has been known for a long time,” Elwert said. “Unmarried people don’t live as long as married people. If I had to make a wager, I would think that being unmarried puts people at a disadvantage.”
The study, which is part of a larger national study on mental health conducted by the National Institutes of Heath, asked married couples about the dependability of their spouses and the amount they felt their spouses criticized them.
Participants volunteering in the study were shown a mix of 90 images – some positive, some neutral, some negative, to measure the individual’s “emotional reliance” or ability to recover from a certain emotional experience, according to a UW statement.
The electrical response of the participants’ frowning muscle was monitored to examine the intensity and lastingness of the emotional response during the viewing, according to the statement.
Individuals who reported high marital stress were found to have a shortened response to the positive images.
Davidson said the research his team has done is important as it opens the doors to understanding the effects of other daily stressors, unrelated to marriage, and how they might effect individual’s mental health, particularly their ability to experience prolonged happiness. He said it allows for researchers to start searching for ways to help people retain happiness.
Elwert said while this research is interesting, it contributes to the general misconception that the institution of marriage is falling apart in the United States.
Although most people across the nation believe divorce rates are quickly climbing, the numbers show quite the opposite, Elwert said. Though gender roles and other factors within the lives of married couples have shifted dramatically since 100 years ago, divorce rates have actually been in decline for the past 30 years, Elwert said.
“We are doing our research on an evolving beast,” Elwert said. “The old scripts go out the window, and this is hugely liberating for couples because they get to write their own destiny.”