UMass Amherst

When Depression Hits, Supportive Partners Keep Relationships Steady, Study Finds

Data for the UMass Amherst study was collected from couples speaking about conflicts in their relationship over three and a half years

NBC Universal, Inc.

Supportive partners can limit the effects of depression and external stress that might otherwise negatively impact relationships, new research shows.

The study out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, published last month, focused on how the relationships of 200 newlywed couples, who'd been studied for three and a half years, evolved over time.



Watch NBC10 Boston news for free, 24/7, wherever you are.


Get Boston local news, weather forecasts, lifestyle and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Boston’s newsletters.

People with signs of mild to moderate depression experienced a decline in the quality of their relationship over time. With a supportive and responsive partner, however, those effects were greatly mitigated, researchers found.

"If you were depressed and your partner was responsive, in the next wave your marital quality did not look any different from people who were not depressed," Paula Pietromonaco, a UMass professor emerita of psychological and brain sciences, said in a news release this week.

Has the pandemic made you feel touch deprived? If so, you’re not alone. And the effects are more serious than you may think. Tiffany Field, the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, has linked the absence of touch to anxiety, depression and lowered immunity. Is it possible to meet our needs for human contact and still stay safe from COVID-19?

People experiencing external stress similarly avoided significant drops in relationship quality if their partner was highly responsive, researchers found. They defined highly responsive as someone who focuses effort and energy to listen to their partner without reacting, tries to understand what’s being expressed and be supportive in a helpful way and knows what their particular partner needs.

Data was collected and coded from couples speaking annually on videotape about conflicts in their relationship.

While the findings may seem intuitive, Pietromonaco said there hadn't been much research on how behavior can prevent some of depression's effects.

"The unique thing about our study is that we looked at responsiveness in terms of people's actual behavior, as opposed to their perceptions. We used a very complex, intensive coding scheme that captures a whole range of behaviors that we can call responsive behavior," Pietromonaco said.

"Each person’s behavior and responsiveness and feelings affect the other person’s, and they do so reciprocally," she added.

Pietromonaoco led the study with Nickola Overall, professor of psychology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and Sally Powers, professor emerita of psychological and brain sciences at UMass Amherst.

DEPRESSION RESOURCES: If you're struggling with depression, you can call the The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) at any time to be referred for treatment or receive information.

Contact Us