Relationships can be good (or bad) for health


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( Young adults who are in high-quality relationships are in better physical and mental health, a new study shows.

Relationships can be good (or bad) for health

"Health benefits begin to accrue relatively quickly with high-quality relationships and supportive contexts,” says Ashley Barr, assistant professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo. “And then we see detrimental effects from low-quality relationships—particularly, those low-quality relationships that last a long time.”

Younger people today are waiting longer to get married than those in previous generations, and are waiting longer to finish school. And during this longer period, they’re moving in and out of relationships.

“Much of the research literature focuses on relationships and health in the context of marriage,” says Barr. “The majority of our respondents were not married, but these relationships are still impactful to health, for better or for worse.”

An earlier study with a group of African Americans suggested patterns of instability in relationships mattered when it came to depressive symptoms, alcohol problems, and self-reporting of overall health.

Given those findings, she and colleagues wanted to see if the same patterns held true in a very different group of people. And they did.

For the new study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, researchers used the Iowa Youth and Families Project, a group of all-white youth from two-parent, married families in rural Iowa. About one-third of the group reported relatively large changes in their relationships over a two-year period.

“We took into account satisfaction, partner hostility, questions about criticism, support, kindness, affection, and commitment,” says Barr. “We also asked about how partners behave outside of the relationship. Do they engage in deviant behaviors? Is there general anti-sociality?”

The longer people are in high-quality relationships, or the faster they get out of low-quality relationships, the better their health.

“It’s not being in a relationship that matters; it’s being in a long-term, high-quality relationship that’s beneficial,” Barr says. “Low-quality relationships are detrimental to health. The findings suggest that it’s better for health to be single than to be in a low-quality relationship.”

Attention to changes in these relationships is important, particularly in the context of the extended transition to adulthood.

“It’s rare today for young adults to enter a romantic relationship and stay in that relationship without ever changing partners or relationship characteristics,” she says. “We now have two studies that found similar patterns and similar implications for those changes.”

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