04th January 2011

Long-term relationships

Source: Royal College of Psychiatrists January 2011

Lasting relationships are good for people’s mental health – and you don’t have to be legally married to feel the benefits.

New research published in the January issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry shows that men and women who are in relationships lasting longer than 5 years are less likely to be depressed, to consider or attempt suicide, or to be dependent on alcohol or drugs. And importantly, it does not matter if people are married or co-habiting.

Previous studies have shown that marriage is associated with improved mental health. However, there has been little research into co-habiting relationships. Researchers from the University of Otago followed a birth cohort of over 1,000 people living in Christchurch, New Zealand. At the ages of 25 and 30, the participants were asked about their relationships over the previous 12 months. They were also asked whether they suffered symptoms of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias and substance use.

The team found that longer relationships were associated with declining rates of mental disorder. For example, at the age of 30, 15.6% of people who were not in a relationship showed symptoms of depression, and 23% of people who had been in a relationship for less than 2 years. However, the rate was only 9.8% among people who had been in a relationship for 2-4 years, and 9.2% among people who had been in a relationship lasting more than 5 years.

Similarly, the rate of alcohol abuse or dependence was 12% among 30-year-olds who were not in a relationship and 13.5% for people who had been in a relationship for less than two years. In comparison, rates were 4.4% among those who had been in a relationship for 2-4 years, and 2.9% among those who had been in a relationship for more than 5 years.

The researchers found that this association remained after they controlled for other factors, such as family background and previous mental health problems.

Lead researcher Dr Sheree Gibb, said: “Our study suggests that partner relationships are protective for mental health, with the protective effect increasing as the length of the relationship increases. This could be because emotional support and financial stability tends to increase over the course of a relationship.

Dr Gibb continued: “Interestingly, we found that the legal status of the relationship did not make a difference. In other words, it was the length of the relationship that had a positive effect on people’s mental health – and it did not matter if the couple was married or co-habiting. This is a contrast to previous studies, which have reported lower rates of mental health problems among people in legal marriages than in co-habiting relationships.

“Our study suggests that people who are at high risk of developing mental health problems may benefit from efforts to improve the stability and duration of their partner relationships, such as improved access to relationship counselling services.”