Tough talk for depressed husbands

Attention, married men suffering from major depression: Positive comments directed at your wife may sometimes be hazardous to your emotional health.

That, at least, is the implication of a preliminary study of couples with either a depressed husband or wife. When depressed husbands discussed marital problems with their wives, the men’s approving and friendly comments often elicited nasty and critical retorts, say Sheri L. Johnson of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., and Theodore Jacob of the Veterans Affairs Health Care System in Palo Alto, Calif.

The two psychologists can’t explain why depressed husbands’ ostensibly nice remarks sparked negative replies. Some wives in these relationships may have psychological reasons for discouraging a spouse’s efforts to resolve conflicts constructively. However, the researchers have yet to examine whether the wives’ conversational style encourages their husbands to adopt increasingly negative tactics.

Wives who deal with a spouse’s recurring depression over many years may get emotionally worn down and become less responsive to positive comments, the researchers suggest. Moreover, depressed men may express positive points to their wives in ambiguous ways. When this conversational process occurs, wives’ rejection of positive overtures from their depressed partners may further undermine the men’s mood, the scientists propose.

For now, some evidence provided by other researchers suggests that nondepressed men are more willing to discuss marital problems if their wives converse in positive ways, such as finding areas of agreement and using humor to make points.

Johnson and Jacob compared videotaped discussions of family problems in 49 couples with a depressed husband, 41 couples with a depressed wife, and 50 couples with no psychiatric conditions. Couples had been married for at least 10 years.

Interaction patterns looked much the same for couples with a depressed wife and those with no mental diagnoses, report Johnson and Jacob in the February Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. In these groups, negative comments by one partner drew negative responses from the other, and positive remarks tended to yield positive replies.

An overall decline in positive communication by the husbands and children of depressed wives—observed by the same researchers in an earlier study—probably aggravates these women’s emotional problems, the psychologists propose.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.