Depression is commonly linked to career disappointments, financial setbacks, and disruption of normal routines — especially sleep pattern — as well as social pressures and conflict in personal relationships. It is this last factor that has captured my attention in relation to depression. Personal relationships, in particular, the most personal, love partnerships, have a profound impact on our mood. In fact, researchers report that unhappy marital relationships are associated with a risk of depression that is as much as ten times higher than those in marriages that work.
Treatment of depression may involve psychotherapy, medication, physical activity if possible, and sometimes hospitalization along with more serious measures. All of these forms of treatment deserve merit. However, there is an under-appreciated addition to the armory of medical and psychological weapons against depression, interpersonal intimacy. New love, where openness and validation abound is probably the most natural mood boost we will experience. What if the interactions of young love can be resuscitated in an ongoing relationship, one that is no longer “young” but contains the elements that fueled the early mood boost?
A shared intimacy that is characterized by real openness, acceptance, and validation is a valuable addition to the antidepressant armament. There is no better opportunity than our love relationship for us to be truly ourselves. What happens that corrupts that early process and so commonly drags a thriving relationship into an abyss is not complicated and not out-of-reach. It does not have to be sacrificed to our busy lives. Rekindling emotional intimacy is not as much about busy lives as it is about fear of being judged or rejected by the person sharing our life. And it is not an empty fear; most of us were judged by parents and friends and bring the tendency to judge into our primary relationship.
Each of us longs to be loved and accepted for the person we truly are. Love relationships, at their best, provide an opportunity to discover and nurture our authentic selves. Ironically, our need for validation and desire for approval is often so strong that in an effort to avoid judgment we become guarded from the most important person in our life: our love partner. Early openness evolves into a quiet caution.
We become guarded from our mate because he or she is central to our lives, and the need for approval is strongest with the person with whom our life is shared. We want to play it safe to avoid being judged. After all, spilling our secrets and revealing ourselves to a stranger is much less difficult and feels safer. Getting emotionally naked with your mate is different; you have to face each other the next day and the next.
Would bringing back the early openness address mood? Try it! Here are instructions: Talk personally, the way you did early in your relationship. You and your partner should feel heard; both should feel validated and if done regularly both should experience a strengthened emotional connection with each other even if neither of you did not think you needed a stronger connection, or that it was not within your reach.
The point would be to safely address real issues with one’s partner and to become less defensive with each other, accepting yourself and each other more fully. Most important of all, as the relationship strengthens and becomes more intimate — shifting from the business of the day to more intimate exchanges — a degree of protection from depression is more likely.
The moral: Depression involves withdrawal, withdrawal from oneself and others. Feeling safe enough in a relationship to reveal our inner-most feelings safely is connective and should be considered a valued part of the anti-depressant lifestyle. Continued relationship satisfaction is based on respectful openness and validation, the kind of communication that built love in the early days. To do otherwise is to risk a relationship with no real relating, and to miss out on a factor that may not only be part of the treatment for depression, but a powerful deterrent.
Joel Block is a psychologist and author of The 15-Minute Relationship Fix: A Clinically-Proven Strategy That Will Repair and Strengthen you Love Life. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Dr. Block.
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