Can family or couples therapy help in treating depression?

by Hana Kone


My partner is depressed!

Most of us feel low from time to time. Failing an exam, arguing with a friend, breaking up with a partner, being fired from a job and many other life events can cause us to experience sadness for a few days or even weeks. 

So how is that different from experiencing depression? Depression is a mood disorder that involves severe alteration in mood for longer periods of time. Mood disturbances are intense enough to cause problems in our relationships,work performance and almost any other area of life.

Depression is one of the most common psychiatric illnesses (Bijl; 1998; ESEMeD2004a, ESEMeD20046; Kessler 1994). Symptoms of depression include, among others, dysphoria, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, impaired concentration and memory difficulties, feelings of worthlessness, often associated with suicidal ideation. A depressed person will usually experience some of the physical symptoms such as sleep disturbance, weight change, fatigue and anxiety. 

For decades depression has commonly been treated by antidepressants, individual psychotherapy or combination of both. 

Why consider more than that? 

Interpersonal problems are very commonly experienced as a consequence of depression.

In that way depression causes suffering not only to the individual who is diagnosed but it also  affects the whole family unit. In most therapies, the system in which an individual lives, is not considered. However, there is convincing empirical evidence for the relationship between the characteristics of the family set up and continuation of depressive disorders. Additional family and marital stresses imposed on the patient with depression can add to its severity. Family or couple dysfunction during the acute phase of a depressive episode is common and often leads to difficulties in multiple family domains such as communication, problem solving or role functioning. Poor couple and family functioning has a negative impact on both partners as well as the children. 

How can family therapy help? 

Family therapy focuses on altering interactions between family members and seeks to improve the functioning of the family or couple as a unit. The goal is to disengage from destructive forms of communication and reduce the symptoms of depression. The therapist attempts to restructure maladaptive patterns of interactions, re-establishing hierarchy and adjusting rigid boundaries. The focus lies in facilitating different, more constructive connections within the system. 

The research shows that for the families who were able to improve their communication and functioning, depression may last for a shorter period of time.

Hana Kone is a fully accredited member of Family Therapy Association of Ireland. You can reach her at