Relationships and Mental Health
A study reveals how relationship transitions affect the mental health of those involved.
Cohabitation, marriage, separation, divorce, and remarriage - relationship transitions are increasingly common in our society. But what effect do these transitions have on the health of those involved? Researchers have found that people who are married tend to have better health, while people who are separated or divorced tend to have poorer health.
But do different types of relationships (i.e., cohabitation, marriage, remarriage) affect people's health in different ways? Do these effects vary between men and women?
A study in the January 2004 issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that while marriage was more beneficial for women's mental health, cohabitating was more beneficial for men's. Furthermore, compared with men, women were more adversely affected by multiple partnership transitions (i.e., marriages, separations, divorces, remarriages) and took longer to recover mentally from partnership splits.
About the Study
This study included 2,127 men and 2,303 women from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), a multi-purpose annual interview of more than 10,000 adults in Great Britain. To be included in this study, the participants had to have completed the first nine annual BHPS interviews (1991-2000) and be younger than 65.
Each year, the participants provided information about their partnership status (i.e., cohabiting, married, separated, divorced, remarried), including information about any changes that occurred since the last interview. During the second year of the survey, the participants provided their lifetime marital and cohabiting history.
To assess psychological distress, the participants completed a 12-item questionnaire, which focused largely on depression and anxiety.
The researchers found the following links between partnership transitions and mental health:
- Enduring first partnerships (marriages or cohabitant relationships) were associated with good mental health.
- Partnership splits were associated with poorer mental health.
- Cohabiting was more beneficial to men's mental health, while marriage was more beneficial to women's.
- Remarriage or re-cohabitation improved mental health, as opposed to remaining alone after a partnership split.
- Men who had undergone multiple partnership reformations (i.e., remarriages, new cohabitant relationships) had significantly better health than all other men, even men in enduring first partnerships
- Multiple partnership transitions (splits and reformations) adversely affected women's mental health
- Women took longer to mentally recover from partnership splits than men
- Women-but not men-who remained single all their life had good mental health
Although these results are compelling, it's important to bear in mind that the mental health questionnaire the researchers used was only a screening instrument for psychological distress. Like most screening tests, these instruments are less accurate than more reliable measures of mental health.
How Does This Affect You?
These findings provide more insight into the association between relationships and mental health. It was not surprising that enduring relations were associated with good mental health and break-ups with poorer mental health. What was intriguing, however, was how men and women differed. According to this study, men were better off cohabiting, while women were better off getting married. Women who remained married or remained single had the best mental health, while men who had multiple new relationships had the best mental health.
The reason for these discrepancies? The researchers aren't quite sure. While this study suggests that marriage may be more beneficial for women, others suggest that marriage is more beneficial to men. More studies are needed to find out why men and women are affected differently by various relationships.
This study did not address one important issue on this topic-quality of marriage. While many studies indicate that marriage benefits health, some indicate that the quality of a relationship may be far more beneficial than simply being in a relationship. People who are in bad relationships, for example, may benefit from divorce or separation.
Last Updated: 25 March 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD