Couple sitting of the couch having problems in their relationship

Married people are generally happier and healthier than single people, but chronic marital stress may make people more vulnerable to depression, say UW-Madison researchers.

People who experience chronic marital stress are less able to savor positive experiences, a hallmark of depression. They are also more likely to say they have other depressive symptoms, UW-Madison News reports of the findings of a long-term study published in the April, 2014, issue of the journal Psychophysiology.

The study has been getting a lot of notice in some far-flung popular media, with a variety of spins on the story that may or may not reflect experiences of the writers.

“Anyone who has gone through divorce knows, a bad marriage can take a huge toll on your well being,” begins a report in the Huffington Post.

"Being married is depressing, “ says a headline on the blog. "Tissues at the ready people, apparently marital bliss isn't really a thing,” the post begins.

“Constant nagging triggers deep-rooted stress,” blares a headline in the Daily Mail, a British Tabloid.

The headline to a report in the Jagran Post in India is more to the point: “Marital stress may lead to depression: Study.”

Researchers didn’t quite ask about nagging, it seems. But the married adult participants were asked questions like how often they felt let down by their partner or how frequently their spouse criticized them. They were also evaluated for depression. The questions and evaluations were repeated nine years later.

In year 11, the participants were invited to the laboratory to undergo a test of how quickly they recovered from a negative experience.

The test involved having participants view 90 negative, neutral and positive photographs while electrical activity in what is known as the “frowning muscle” was measured to assess the intensity and duration of their responses. The test is accepted as a measure of resilience, or how quickly a person can recover from a negative experience.

The findings are important, says UW-Madison professor Richard Davidson, leader of the study, because they could help researchers understand what makes some people more vulnerable to mental and emotional health challenges.

"This is not an obvious consequence, if you will, of marital stress, but it's one I think is extraordinarily important because of the cascade of changes that may be associated," says Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the UW's Waisman Center. "This is the signature of an emotional style that reveals vulnerability to depression."

The researchers thought chronic marital stress could provide a good model for how other common daily stressors may lead to depression and similar conditions.

"How is it that a stressor gets under your skin and how does that make some more vulnerable to maladaptive responses?" says UW-Madison graduate student Regina Lapate, lead author of the paper reporting the study results.