New research on marital breakdown reveals a disturbing pattern. While women invest time and effort in marriage, men are all too ready to jettison a relationship under pressure. Do the sexes really have such wildly different values? Emma Cook reports
It's not an unusual scenario. Two years ago Eva's husband Tony walked out of their marriage after ten years, leaving her alone with two small children and no steady income. "When the marriage started to break down, I thought my whole world was falling apart. I suffered from severe anxiety, my self-esteem plummeted and I felt somehow that I was to blame for the situation. I would have done anything to preserve that relationship but obviously it was less important to him," she says.

In the months before Tony left, Eva, 38 and a full-time mother, went on a course of anti-depressants. "I felt like a nervous wreck. I was terrified of everything slipping away. The partnership was terribly important to me. I relied on him - he was a good husband. When he left, my whole life changed. I had to sell the house, find a job and pay my children's school fees."

Although Eva went to her doctor suffering from anxiety and depression, it was her husband's depression that triggered the marital discord. She recalls, "First his mother died and then his business started to do badly. He couldn't cope. Neither of us really talked enough. For the first time in our married life he was very vulnerable and I think I found that difficult to face up to. His way of dealing with it was to just shut off from me and opt out completely." Which, in turn, caused Eva extreme unhappiness.

Much has been made of the detrimental effects of divorce on men as opposed to women, especially in terms of male health. Yet it's usually after the relationship has ended that men discover that they miss the emotional support marriage can provide and that on their own they have very little opportunity to express deep feelings to friends around them. But, according to the latest survey, it is the stage before divorce, during marital stress, that women are far more likely to get depressed than men. That is the point when marriage is probably worse for female mental stability than divorce itself.

The research, carried out by Professor Frank Fincham at the University of Wales, Cardiff, was based on interviews with more than 100 couples and compared levels of marital discord and depressive symptoms in men and women. The findings, which Fincham describes as unusually cut and dried, will be published in Psychological Science this September.

Fincham explains, "Our research suggests something pretty clear and robust and raises all sorts of interesting questions. It is widely believed that marriage protects men from mental health problems but if you look at women you find the opposite." He discovered that male depression predicted marital stress, which in turn predicts depressive symptoms in women - and not the other way round. "What's true for men is the mirror image for women," explains Fincham. "It seems women value relationships more than men. When something important to you isn't working it can be pretty depressing."

He believes that part of the problem is the different expectations men and women take into marriage. "Women are perceived as being more relationship- oriented than men and so may feel responsibility for making relationships work." He adds, "Women may be particularly likely to blame themselves for marital problems which places them at greater risk of depression."

Karen, 33 and a teacher, certainly felt that the marriage was more important to her than it was to her spouse. Ironically, since her divorce she has coped much better than her husband Peter, partly because there were no children to add to the trauma. But when the marriage first began to fall apart, it was a different story. "My depression came out of the struggle of trying to keep a marriage going that really wasn't working," she says. "The stress of trying to solve the relationship and deal with my husband's depression was much worse than ending the whole thing. Which was what happened anyway."

In the final stages of the marriage, Karen developed agoraphobia and spent the whole period in a state of acute anxiety. Like Eva, it was Peter's depression that led to the first cracks in the relationship. "I met him when he was still a student. I was working and had to support him financially until he found a job." After a series of temporary jobs he couldn't find any more work, which led to his depression. "That put a massive amount of tension on the relationship," she says. "He wouldn't express himself - I got paranoid and felt it was my fault. My self-esteem was on the floor. It tore my personality apart."

Both Eva and Karen felt very strongly that their husbands undervalued something they felt to be so central to their lives: their marriage. They also felt their husbands withdrew emotionally, leaving them to pick up the pieces. As Karen says, "I recognised when I became really miserable and went to my GP. There was no way my partner would have made that step."

From a male perspective, Charles, 33 and a doctor, happily admits his wife Chrissie tried far harder to solve their marital difficulties than he ever did. "When we knew it was really over, she spent so much time analysing where we were both going wrong - almost trying find out who's fault it was. By then I knew it was finished and wasn't really prepared to work at it." When Chrissie suggested counselling, Charles refused. "Looking back, I wasn't prepared to take responsibility for it. I made up my mind it was over and that was that." In fact, the break up barely seemed to affect him at all. "I know some of my friends and family thought I was a bit tactless, because I moved onto another relationship so soon after our separation."

Robert, 37 and a TV producer, feels his wife was harder hit by their marital problems six years ago because of her age. Robert, who now prefers to date younger women, says, "She was 33 years old and felt that if the marriage went wrong she had so little time to meet someone new and then start a family. She felt I was stealing her youth; her blooming years. As far as age and time went, that wasn't such a concern for me."

These experiences, along with Fincham's findings, paint a pretty grim picture; one where women make more emotional investment than men, have less time on their side and lose more when that investment fails. Yet, that isn't the whole story, according to Relate counsellor Denise Knowles. She argues that men value relationships just as much as women, regardless of social conditioning. The only difference is that men are not as good at owning up to those feelings. "It just highlights the different ways men and women communicate." While women want to analyse their feelings, men tend to deny them or seek practical solutions. Mick Cooper, a lecturer in counselling at Brighton University, agrees: "Men will store up an enormous amount of resentment. But it won't be talked about. They won't take responsibility for those emotions."

Which is partly why male, not female, depression can be a far greater threat to any marriage. "Traditionally, depression is seen as a women's illness. There is still an expectation that men have to be the strong providers and when they can't do that, women can find it difficult to handle," says Knowles. "Whereas, when the woman gets depressed, men view it as an emotional thing that she can cope with and talk about with friends."

Perhaps that's why women are more likely to cope better than men after the marriage has broken down. As Eva says, "Two years after the divorce, I think I'm actually in a much better state than my partner. In the end I felt liberated - I don't think he did. I never realised how much better it would be outside the relationship. I don't like regretting anything but I just wish I hadn't clung on for quite so long."