Depression in Relationships: Are We Too Quick to Assign Cause to Effect?

John McManamy Health Guide
  • In his most recent post on HealthCentral, Jerry Kennard queried whether depression strengthens or diminishes relationships. His concluding paragraph was the one that really got my attention:


    Maybe the question in the title is wrong. Maybe depression neither strengthens nor diminishes relationships, because this suggests an outcome of either one or the other and perhaps it's more complex? One thing is certain, depression will certainly affect a relationship but perhaps in ways that are impossible to predict?


    Funny thing. I recently finished one book (The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb) that ridiculed our delusional notion of cause and effect, and I’m in the middle of another one (Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman) that lends strong support to the very same thesis.

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    Essentially, the world is far more random than we make it out to be, which makes living in it an extremely challenging exercise. Our way of coping is to try to assign causes to effects, like pairing up socks when we do laundry (the ones that don’t disappear in the dryer, that is). We do it all the time. 


    Nassim Taleb, who has achieved highly improbable success as both a Wall Street derivatives trader and philosopher, gives the real life example of a normal fluctuation in the financial markets. The markets can’t just randomly deviate, of course. There has to be a reason. Aha! said Bloomberg Business News. It was the Fed, for such and such reasons. In a later report, Bloomberg again fingered the Fed, but for exactly opposite reasons.


    Daniel Kahneman, a cognitive psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel in Economics, says that a business journalist who reports that a company that had a bad year simply because it had a bad year would be out of a job.


    I’m picking on business journalists because I used to be one. But this sort of stuff goes on wherever you find two heads that are talking, or, for that matter, one person who is ruminating.


    On a similar note, in his recent book, Outliers: The Story of Success, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell notes that people tend to rule out luck, altogether. If someone is successful, it has to do with a combination of genius and virtue. Bill Gates, he notes, had the humility to say he was lucky.


    Okay, let’s bring this back to depression. Here you are, unlucky, ruminating. Your relationship just went south. It had to be depression, right? Your depression, your loved one’s depression. No question about it - depression is that second shooter standing on the Grassy Knoll.


    Let’s flip it. Here you are lucky. Your relationship couldn’t be better. Your depression, of course, has nothing to do with it. The chemistry is right. The compatibility is there. On and on and on.


    This brings us back to Dr Kennard’s point about the complexity of relationships. No doubt about it, if depression is the third party in our relationships, it is an 800-pound gorilla. But its sheer magnitude could be blinding us to the zillion and one other things that demand our attention. If we are too quick to assign blame, to incorrectly link the wrong cause to a bewildering effect, we may lose out on the opportunity to build successful relationships.


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    This, sad to say, could be depression’s ultimate triumph.

Published On: November 30, 2013