Women and Depression

In its September issue the German periodical “Psychologie Heute” features a very interesting excerpt of the latest book by Ursula Nuber. It's called: “The relationship syndrome – why women become depressive and men are not really at fault.” The fact that worldwide twice as many women than men suffer from depression has been known for a long time. Experts have speculated about the possible causes for this unequal distribution among the genders for almost as long. Subject of discussions is women’s greater disposition of discussing psychological problems (and thus they are more likely to be diagnosed as being depressive), hormonal irregularities (catch-word PMS or Menopause) and also women’s more frequent inclination of questioning themselves and then getting caught up in unproductive brooding-loops. All of it correct and plausible but I believe that the explanation presented by Ursula Nuber’s approach in her book is actually a lot more exciting: namely women’s stronger relationship orientation as a stress- (and in the long-term depression) trigger.
Most of my regular readers are already well aware of the fact that women are generally known to be a lot more relationship oriented than men. As Deborah Tannen already analyzed in her classic „You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation“ among others this e. g. influences their communication behavior: Male conversations usually deal with the exchange of factual information and status clarification. Conversely, female conversations primarily serve the creation and affirmation of relationships. That is the reason we would really prefer spending the evening schmoozing with our darling over a glass of red wine (while he would rather watch the football game because there is really nothing important or new to discuss). That is the reason we love to have those endless Latte-Macchiato debates with our girl friends that cause the fellow at the neighboring table to shake his head in wonderment because their information content tends to equal zero. And all the while, that is not the issue. What that is all about is experiencing communality, mutual support, to share feelings, having the sense of belonging, being part of a relationship. After all, that is our ultimate experience.

Great when everything works well. Not so wonderful when problems rear their ugly heads in our relationship. In her article Nuber relates a stress-study by the psychologist David Almeida who states: “Although in professional life men and women experience comparable stress, men feel a lot less encumbered by problems relating to their friends and relatives.” On the other hand, we as women are quickly caught up in a weird double burden making our life miserable. While our partner disappears in the morning en route to the office without a thought about his mother sick with Alzheimers, the best friend who just lost his job, the cousin diagnosed with breast cancer or the marital row last night, these (relation) stress factors continue dogging us around the clock. The study concludes that we suffer more than men from disturbances in our social relationships and tend to turn the problems of others, those close to us, into our own. Ursula Nuber writes: “In unhappy marriages women are three times as likely as men to become depressive and almost half of all unhappily married women are depressive.” Why are (successful) relationships clearly more important to us than they are to men? Why are we unable to live our life more autonomously (and with that less encumbered)?

Nuber further explains that the difference in the relationship orientation between men and women already manifests itself at a very early age. She quotes a variety of studies attesting to the fact that girls already begin reacting more emphatically with an early age, more strongly emphasize with others, care for those in need of help and are more mindful of others. While boys just as early develop strategies how to dominate others (for instance by interrupting them when they are talking, threaten them or issuing straightforward instructions) and are able to assert their interests even against their will. The development of a drastic disparity in the matter of relationship orientation between the genders already becomes apparent at an early age: Girls display stronger relationship mindfulness. For them (successful) relationships have a high relative importance and that also affects their self-esteem. On the other hand, for boys boundaries and self-assertion come first and if the relationship suffers they see it as a necessary side effect – tant pis! -, without feeling threatened by it.

Ursula Nuber recognizes the different experiences of boys and girls as a part of the mother-child-relationship as a possible explanation for this relationship orientation discrepancy: “Boys are challenged to free themselves of the close relationship with the mother and identify with the father (or a father figure). Girls, on the other hand don’t need to separate from the mother in order to find their gender identity. (..) While sons must relinquish the proximity and close bond to the mother, girls are not asked to take this difficult step, at least not as early and as radically. Girls’ gender identity development does not depend on the successful separation from the mother; they find their identity within the mother-child attachment. While girls develop a “Relationship Self”, for boys independence and autonomy are vital for the development of an “Autonomous Self”. This is how the two genders grow up next to each other while all the while developing entirely different “templates” and life concepts in matters of commitment and relationship: On the one hand women for whom an intimate commitment and relationship is easily established and existentially essential. And on the other hand men who can handle an intimate commitment and relationship often only with difficulty and sometimes such a relationship even represents a threat to their self-esteem.

Ursula Nuber believes that both ways of dealing with relationships have their advantages – and both have their price. In every day life in a society valuing elbow mentality and self autonomy while promising success and appreciation, men with their “relationship deficit syndrome” generally have a much easier time than women. According to the US psychologists Betcher and Pollack they are “specialists for independence”: emotionally more independent, less vulnerable in their self-esteem and more strong-willed than women. However, that also makes it more difficult for them to deal (with their own and someone else’s) feelings, asking for help when they need it and be totally open to a truly intimate relationship. Some psychologists see a connection between the increase in boys’ scholastic and behavioral problems and this “relation deficit syndrome” and later instances of drug-, violence- and alcoholic excesses as attempts at compensation and self-medication due to the absence of other strategies dealing with depressions.
On the other hand, women have no problems at showing empathy, permitting closeness and discussing their own problems with others. In one respect good for them but then these qualities rarely help them in a society that favors the autonomous and assertive individual. Quite the contrary: They frequently have the experience that their relational self tends to be rejected or in some way stands in their path and that in turn leads to their denigrating their very own relationship orientation and start perceiving it as a weakness, a deficiency rather than a quality and special strength.

When in a heterosexual relationship a “specialist for relationships” (Betcher/Pollack) and a “specialist for autonomy” meet, their problems and mutual disappointments are naturally virtually pre-programmed. The woman feels that her partner does not understand her, she feels unappreciated and left alone; the man feels overwhelmed and badgered by his partner’s yearning for engagement and her need for closeness. However, while he is still able to deal with this relationship disorder thanks to his greater autonomy relatively well, while faced with his permanently frustrating relationship orientation for her the risks of getting depressed are naturally huge.

What then is the escape from this dilemma suggested by Ursula Nuber? Exactly the same we try to invoke time and again on iPersonic, be it in our Relationship Profiles or in the countless blog articles about love: To recognize the gender differences, to accept and therefore also appreciate the different relationship needs of men and women. According to Ursula Nuber: “The psychologists Betcher and Pollack believe: ,a reconciliation of the need for a relationship with the need for autonomy is only possible when men and women understand that they experience their relationships in a totally different way that is rooted in their respective development‘“. And when one as a woman has finally begun to appreciate that, then the neat Spanish proverb “No le pidas peras al olmo!” – “Don’t expect pears from an elm tree!” also makes sense. Then one can stop blaming the partner for not giving that which one needs and stop believing that he fails to do so because he is mean. And instead, look around in one’s own environment – excluding the partner – what else is available in terms of energy-, support- and caring sources capable of satisfying the needs of the feminine relationship self. Then that not only benefits us, but our partnership as well. Because that elm tree that is continuously being berated and looked at askance for not bearing pears in the long run won’t be comfortable, regardless how autonomous it may be . . .