“I think my spouse is depressed. How do I support them?”
“I’m single and depressed. Will I ever find love?”
“My relationship is unhealthy and it’s taking a toll. What should I do?”
These are just a few of the questions we hear regularly at First Things First about mental health concerns and intimate relationships. Which leads us to ask an even bigger question– how and why do intimate relationships affect mental health?
In 2021, the research journal Social Science and Medicine | Population Health published a study to examine the association between relationship status and mental well-being at four different life stages. Researchers tracked and followed up with the same cohort of men and women over 30 years.
In summary, compared to marriage, being single or divorced/widowed was associated with depressive symptoms at every age in men. For women, being single – but not divorced/widowed – was associated with depressive symptoms.
Among men, being single or divorced/widowed was also associated with lower self-esteem at ages 32, 42, and 52. In women, an association was found between lower self-esteem and being single at age 32 only.
Several sound theories about the positive effects of intimate relationships on mental health can be made from this and correlated studies with similar results and findings. Here are a few researcher’s suggestions:
- Many studies have focused specifically on marriage, which is associated with better mental well-being compared to other relationship statuses. (Bulloch et al., 2017; LaPierre, 2009; Wadsworth, 2016.)
- Cohabitation and committed relationships can also produce better mental well-being, so long as both individuals feel the relationship is secure. (Musick & Bumpass, 2012; Rapp and Stauder, 2020; Zella, 2017.)
- People in marriages or secure intimate relationships experience better mental health because these relationships likely provide more social support, financial support, and life purpose. (Soulsby and Bennett, 2015; Umberson et al., 2013.)
Simultaneously, several studies have revealed the negative effects unhealthy or insecure intimate relationships can have on individuals’ mental health. Here are a few findings from cumulative studies:
- Individuals in happy relationships tend to have better well-being or are less likely to have depression than individuals in unhappy relationships. (Leach et al., 2013.)
- Other studies reveal that being in an unhappy or dysfunctional relationship is worse for mental well-being and overall health than being single or divorced. (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2008; Lawrence et al., 2019.)
- Women, in particular, are more affected by poor relationship quality than men. (Chapman & Guven, 2016; Leach et al., 2013.)
Frequently, research backs up what we already know from common sense. As human beings, we have a deep desire for connection and secure, intimate relationships. We are more likely to thrive when this need is met. When this need is unmet or is met inadequately, we suffer in all areas of our lives. Our mental health is a large part of the equation. It can’t be ignored.
May this be a catalyst to focus on positive mental health practices and healthy relationship practices for yourself and the one you care about the most.