Any scientist will tell you that married people are happier and healthier than singles, yet just as many married couples will say marriage is not all roses, cream puffs, and champagne. In fact, wedded bliss often causes partners-for-life a significant amount of stress. Now, University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers have found that the particular kind of chronic stress produced in marriage may actually make people more vulnerable to depression. “To paraphrase the bumper sticker: 'Stress happens,'" said Dr. Richard Davidson, UW-Madison William James and Vilas professor of psychology and psychiatry. "There is no such thing as leading a life completely buffered from the slings and arrows of everyday life."

Stress or Satisfaction?

To begin the study, Davidson and his colleagues recruited 116 married adults, 59 husbands, and asked them to complete questionnaires rating their stress levels on a six-point scale. Next, they were asked a variety of questions about their marriages: "How often do you feel let down by your partner?" and "How frequently does your spouse criticize you?" After completing the questionnaire, the researchers evaluated the participants for depression.

Nine years slipped quietly past. When the participants returned, the researchers once again asked them to answer questions about their marriages and then evaluated each participant’s general mental health. Next, the researchers waited two years before inviting the participants back to the lab, but this time each underwent emotional response testing, a means of measuring their resilience. In this context, resilience would mean how quickly they are able to recover from a negative experience.

The participants were shown 90 images, a mix of negative, neutral, and positive photographs such as a smiling mother-daughter pair. Meanwhile, they were wired in such a way that the researchers could measure the electrical activity of the corrugator supercilii, also known as the frowning muscle. As its nickname suggests, this muscle activates during a negative experience, while becoming more relaxed (even compared to the resting state) during a positive experience. This tool is often used to assess depression. By measuring how activated or relaxed the muscle becomes and how long it takes to reach the base level, researchers can reliably assess emotional response and resilience. In fact, prior studies have shown that depressed people show only a brief and fleeting response when seeing one of the positive emotional triggers.

For this study, then, Davidson was examining not just how much the frowning muscle relaxed or tensed when a participant saw an image, but also how long it took for the response to subside. After testing the participants and examining the data, he found one span of time to be most telling: the five to eight seconds following exposure to positive images most significant.

Participants with the highest levels of stress in their marriages responded more briefly to positive images than those who felt more satisfied with marriage. Oddly, though, no significant differences existed in the timing of negative responses.

By understanding the mechanisms that make individuals more prone to depression and other emotional disturbances, Davidson is hoping to find tools — such as meditation — to stop it from happening in the first place. It all begins with asking the right questions. "How we can use simple interventions to actually change this response?" Davidson suggested in a press release. "What can we do to learn to cultivate a more resilient emotional style?"

Source: Lapate RC, van Reekum CM, Schaefer SM, et al. Prolonged marital stress is associated with short-lived responses to positive stimuli. Psychophysiology. 2014.