HealthHow relationships affect emotional well-being

How relationships affect emotional well-being

ith the exception of the Disney Corporation, no one ever said that relationships were easy. Women especially have discovered this faux pas, as more and more relationships involving females lead to unneeded anxiety. Not many people realize, however, the extent to which this anxiety affects the quality of relationships for women. In fact, a new study suggests that women are better off single than in relationships if emotional well-being is taken into consideration.

The researchers, led by Dr. Liana Leach of Australian National University, used data from the Personality and Total Health (PATH) Through Life study to monitor 1,910 couples and their anxiety levels through life. The results showed that men who moved into a poor-quality relationship did not show a change in mental health, while men in good quality relationships showed significant improvement in mental health. Women who moved into a poor-quality relationship had a decline in mental health, and those in good-quality relationships had the same mental health as when they were single.

What’s Good or Bad?

Dr. Leach’s team used the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (DAS-7) to measure relationship quality in participants. “This scale has questions about how much agreement there is on the important things in life, how much time spent together, and the overall degree of happiness felt about the relationship,” Dr. Leach said in an interview with This scale evaluates how healthy a relationship is by asking participants questions like:

  • In general, how often do you think that things between you and your partner are going well?
  • Do you confide in your mate?
  • How often do you or your mate leave the house after a fight?
  • Do you and your mate engage in outside interests together?

Based on the participant’s answers, the relationship was given a “good-quality” or a “poor quality” rating. Good-quality relationships are supportive relationships, with the bigger factors of unhappiness coming from mental illness. Poor quality relationships had higher levels of expressed emotion (EE), which included critical comments, hostility, and emotional over-involvement.

Based on this data, Dr. Leach’s team evaluated relationship quality over time in comparison to anxiety or depression levels of the members of the relationship.

Gender Issues

But why do men benefit more from good-quality relationships than women? Previous research suggests that marital status is more important for men’s psychological well-being than for women’s. One study found that, in older married couples, wives had poorer mental health than their husbands, though husbands had poorer mental health related to family characteristics.

Poor marital quality, too, has been shown to be more distressful for women than for men. Another study examined the effects of emotional stressors, such as parenthood and financial need, on both the male and female in the relationship. This study concluded that, “relational quality has a greater impact on the mental health of wives than husbands,” a similar conclusion to Leach’s study.

On the other hand, there are some benefits for women in relationships.”There is research showing that relationships and social support are a stronger buffer against mental health problems for women than men,” Dr. Leach said, “therefore, if women don’t have this support they can be more vulnerable.” Still, “poor quality relationships are more detrimental to women than they are to men,” Leach concluded.

How to Help

But what do you do if your spouse has anxiety? How can you keep your relationship healthy while your partner is seeking help? The Anxiety and Depression Association of America lists these ways to help your spouse with his or her anxiety:

  • Learn the symptoms and effects of the anxiety disorder
  • Encourage your spouse to get treatment
  • Measure successes on your spouse’s improvements, not on generalized standards
  • Reinforce healthy behaviors, and do not criticize rituals, avoidance, or irrational fear
  • Help your partner set realistic goals to get over their anxieties one step at a time
  • Ask how you can help
  • Acknowledge that you have not experienced their level of irrational anxiety
  • Learn when to be patient and when to push your partner, which might take some trial and error

“I think the main thing is to have good outside support, both for the person with the mental illness and for their partner,” Leach advised.

Carla Nasca, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral fellow of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in the laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at the Rockefeller University, New York. Dr. Nasca received her B.A. in Molecular Biology and her M.S. in Electrophysiology from the University of Palermo in Italy. She earned her Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Pharmacology from the University Sapienza in Rome, Italy, before moving to The Rockefeller University under the mentorship of Dr. Bruce McEwen.


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