Given long-term romantic relationships take up significant space in one’s life, there is great potential for such unions to impact one’s mental health. Likewise, one’s mental health can impact the quality of their romantic relationships. In a brief paper published in Current Opinion in Psychology, researchers Scott Braithwaite and Julianne Holt-Lunstad ask which direction the causal arrow points: “from marriage to mental health, or vice versa?”
The selection hypothesis posits that mental health increases the chances of an individual finding themselves in a romantic relationship. While cross-sectional research shows that married couples have better mental-health than non-married individuals, it does not indicate whether marriage is a cause or consequence of this association. Longitudinal studies have shown that mental health does indeed predict marriage, and that on average, married people tend to be happier than before their marriage.
An alternative hypothesis is that the experience of marriage is associated with better mental health. Numerous studies show that “relationship quality moderates the impact of relationship status: those in healthy, satisfying relationships experience better mental health and improving relationship quality precedes improvements in mental health.”
In conducting their review, the researchers learned that the causal arrow has a stronger flow from relationships to mental health (than vice versa). Such that, individuals in committed relationships are more likely to have better mental health. Established, committed relationships (like marriages), yield greater benefits compared to less committed relationships (like cohabitation).
Accordingly, the type of relationship plays an important role in the association between mental health and relationship quality. The authors add, “Moreover, improving relationships improves mental health, but improving mental health does not reliably improve relationships.”
Negative constructs such as depression and depressive symptoms have a greater impact on romantic relationships compared to positive constructions (e.g., self-esteem, health, happiness, satisfaction), a phenomenon that is in line with other research findings that suggest humans have a tendency to ascribe greater importance to negative information.
The authors conclude that the literature suggests “relationships are a keystone component of human functioning that have the potential to influence a broad array of mental health outcomes.” The effect of improving relationships on mental health is comparable to the effects of interventions targeting individual mental health.
In this way, healthy romantic relationships serve as a protective factor against poor mental health. Importantly, preventing bad relationships seems to be more important than enhancing “good enough” relationships. Thus, implementing interventions that prevent relationship dysfunction can prove effective.
The paper, “Romantic relationships and mental health”, was authored by Scott Braithwaite and Julianne Holt-Lunstad.