Suppose you’re a mother with small children who is sick of her partner.
Would you feel better if you left?
Probably not, says the scientific evidence. Rather surprisingly, the most definitive recent study on the subject reveals, that, in fact, you are most likely to feel a good deal worse.
A sample of over eight thousand mothers with small children and living with a partner were studied. Whether they were depressed, and the quality of the relationship with their partner, were measured.
Depression levels were reassessed again twelve months later by which time 215 mothers had separated or divorced.
The startlingly bad news was that over half (56.1%) of mothers who had broken up with their partners were liable to be more depressed afterwards than when first interviewed.
Worst hit after the break-up were mothers who had been in relationships where conflict was low when originally measured. This may be because the break-up came out of the blue, perhaps the result of an affair.
But curiously, if the relationship you were leaving was riddled with conflict, you were still liable to be more depressed after splitting up.
This proves that a significant number of mothers in a lousy relationship feel even lousier without it.
It is reminiscent of the joke with which Woody Allen ended his film Annie Hall, along the lines of ‘A wife goes to her psychiatrist and says ‘my husband thinks he’s a chicken’.
The shrink says ‘so why do you stay with him’ and she replies ‘I need the eggs’’ – we seem to need each other’s foibles, including the bad bits.
But there was some good news as well: 21% of the mothers who had broken-up did feel significantly less depressed afterwards. Presumably these were the ones who were with a stinking rotter or just the wrong man for them.
The key question for a mother contemplating a break-up is ‘what distinguishes the more depressed afterwards from who will be less so?’
On first sight, it might seem best not to be married, a cohabitee. Such mothers did not have any increase in depression after leaving, perhaps less disappointed by a break-up.
Whether in a relationship or not, they may have a more ‘easy come, easy go’ attitude to commitment. Cohabitees were eight times more likely to have split up over the twelve months.
But then again, the cohabitees had started off much more likely in the first place to be depressed than first-time married mothers.
When you dig deeper, the key point about ‘should I stay or should I go’ is the extent to which your partner is really the cause of your unhappiness: how sure are you that you would feel better alone, or indeed, with someone else?
Many studies show that people who break-up were already prone to depression and anxiety in their teens, long before they met their reproductive partner.
There is always a danger of blaming one’s own pathology on one’s partner.
Whilst no-one doubts that there is such a thing as vile, impossibly difficult partners and that incompatibility can occur, the evidence suggests neither are as common as you might think.
Modern marital therapy has a tendency to encourage us to see problems as ‘in’ the relationship when often they are actually ‘in’ each of the individuals, each requiring separate treatment.
Whilst marital therapy can help to fine tune a relationship, I would estimate that in the vast majority of unhappy couples the first port of call should be individual help, often for both partners.
The truth is that nearly all relationships are pretty damn tricky and yet, however weird, that most of us do ‘need the eggs’.
About the author
Oliver James trained and practised as a clinical child psychologist and, since 1988, has worked as a writer, journalist, broadcaster and television documentary producer and presenter.
His books include the best-selling Affluenza,, They F*** You Up and Britain on the Couch, which was also a successful documentary series for Channel 4. He is a trustee of the Alzheimer’s charity, SPECAL and lives in Oxfordshire with his wife and two small children.
Study of 8286 mothers: O’Connor, T, 2005, Psychological Medicine, vol 35, pp 715-24.
For more evidence about depression and divorce: Chapter 5, James, OW, 1998, Britain on the Couch, London: Arrow.
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