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How Relationships Affect Mental Health

Five ways couples can work together to support their partners’ mental health and wellbeing and improve their relationship at the same time

Relationships can affect your mental health significantly. A good relationship provides valuable social support during difficult times, whereas a bad relationship can exacerbate symptoms, particularly in cases of anxiety and depression.

With many of us experiencing the pressures of lockdown as a couple, and with November's 'Movember' drawing awareness to men's mental illness and suicide prevention across the world, we take a look at the impact of our relationships on our mental wellbeing and five actions you can take that are scientifically proven to both improve your relationship and reduce mental illness.

The pressures of the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on our relationships and also our mental health. Romantic relationships can help to buffer partners from pressures and harms that may be occurring in wider society or family networks (Gabb and Fink, 2015), but they cannot keep the outside world at bay.

Negative external contexts are likely to adversely impact on all people. Indeed, research has shown that during the pandemic there has been an escalation in conflict in romantic partnerships and a negative impact on couples’ intimate and sexual lives.

“Disruptions of daily routines for individuals and families, compounded by the anxiety of the pandemic, lack of physical activity, absence of outside social outlets, lack of access to non-essential clinical care, and reduced physical contact may all contribute to increases in conflict between romantic partners. Further, individuals and relationship partners experiencing distress may have no access, less access, or different access to counseling or therapy” (Luetke, 2020: 748).

The concern is that a partner’s inability to cope with everyday stressors could lead to relationship dissatisfaction in the long term, and this could result in the breakdown of romantic and sexual relationships.

So how can couples work together and help to support partners’ mental health and wellbeing?

How your couple relationship can improve mental wellbeing

Evidence finds a clear link between good-quality relationships and health and happiness. Common mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, have been found to be more prevalent in people who are experiencing relationship distress than those who are happier in their relationships (Whisman and Uebelacker, 2003).

In fact, it’s becoming more and more clear that finding ways to improve our relationships is integral to our wellbeing as a nation. In a recent study by Paired and the Open University, over six in ten (62%) UK adults who are currently in a relationship admit they do not speak to anyone for relationship advice. This includes their friends, family or even turning to the internet for advice; showing a worrying trend of ‘suffering in silence’ or not addressing issues when they are still small.

Couples who value and appreciate their partners, find enjoyment in activities that nurture and embrace the relationship, and invest in their future together learn how to cherish sharing the good times alongside the bad, be that ‘in sickness’ or ‘in health’

National UK (NHS) recommendations suggest ‘five ways to wellbeing’, with people being encouraged to: connect with people; give to others; be physically active; learn new skills; pay attention to the present moment (mindfulness). So use the month of ‘Movember’ to work together with your partner to strengthen your relationship and reduce mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

1. Check in with each other daily

Research on long-term relationships has shown that relationships are sustained through daily interactions and that this everyday relationship work provides invaluable support and sustenance both for the couple partnership and the mental health and wellbeing of both partners.

Making time for daily conversations in which you share thoughts and feelings is therefore vital. The Paired app offers you daily questions to answer with your partner, share your thoughts together and build intimacy and connection. But not all connections rely on spoken words – indeed silence can be golden. Checking in with each other is about showing feelings in ways that are familiar and meaningful for you and your partner. So reach out and connect in the ways that feel right for you.

2. Make thoughtful gestures

Thoughtful gestures provide emotional and practical support, making a partner feel that they loved and cared for. Research has shown that thoughtful gestures do not need to be expensive gifts but that it’s their personal meaning which is paramount. These attentive bids or gifts of gratitude can be invaluable in sustaining a relationship when going through tough times.

There is no simple list of gestures that I can give that work to sustain relationships. It can be a morning cup of tea or an evening glass of wine after work or when the kids have gone to bed; doing a household chore that you know your partner dislikes doing or taking the dog out for a walk on a cold wet rainy morning. Thoughtful gestures are appreciated because they are both an act of kindness and an investment in the relationship. They demonstrate that you’re in this together and that you know what your partner likes or needs. Their relationship value, then, lies in the emotional investment which they display.

3. Exercise outdoors

The value of exercising as a couple and connecting with nature through outdoor activities is well acknowledged in mental health research. It’s not surprising then that so many people took up a new sport or exercise regime during lockdown. Striding out across fields, outdoor gym workouts, and paddle boarding all rose in popularity over the springtime and summer months.

Getting outdoors and getting fitter can have both physical and therapeutic health benefits as well as providing opportunities for couple time and the building of positive memories together. For people who struggle with mental health issues, stepping outside the confines of the home can be uplifting, providing new stimuli, a proximity to nature, comforting human-animal connections and engagement with life beyond our immediate inner worlds and surroundings. These experiences can also generate opportunities for mindfulness and grounding.

4. Learn new things together

In long-term relationships it’s all too easy to get stuck in a rut. Familiarity can be comforting and engender fondness, but it can also be that our worlds become smaller as we stick to what we know; especially as external pressures such as work and family life mount up. So open up your horizons and learn something new.

During lockdown the take-up of new hobbies flourished, from arts and crafts to exercise, learning a new language to cooking up a storm in the kitchen. New activities and experiences can help you and your partner suspend thoughts on outside stressors and the uncontrollability of the pandemic. They can be something that you can share, with your partner, or something just for you – to enrich yourself, individually. This doesn’t mean it’s all about you, to the contrary. Research has shown that investing in yourself also invests in the partnership. The more fulfilled you feel, the more beneficial this is for the partnership.

5. Be in the moment

Mindfulness is often tainted with ideas of spiritualism or barefoot walks through fields of corn. It can be these things – and great if these work for you. But mindfulness is much more than this. It’s about being in the moment. Enjoying what you’re doing and cherishing what you have. This can involve anything from the sublime to the ridiculous. For example, research on long-term relationships showed how dancing and ‘being daft’ was used by couples in a variety of positive ways. It provided an opportunity for fun and frivolity, a moment of sensual intimacy or a space in which to hold at bay ‘the blues’.

The positive impact of dancing and movement in therapeutic contexts for those with mental health illnesses, such as depression, is well evidenced. Couple relationship research showed the value of dancing in the domestic ‘non-therapeutic’ context. Dancing and being daft can give you and your partner to push aside the sedentary image that is equated with long-term relationships. You can celebrate youthful histories, together and apart, and the continued pleasure which you share in each other’s company, plus build some moments of light-heartedness into what are otherwise testing circumstances.

So enjoy the moment, step out of those proverbial carpet slippers and dance to ‘your tunes’ together.

Download the Paired app forcouple quizzesand daily questions to enjoy with your partner, plus exclusiverelationship tipsfrom the experts on everything from sex and intimacy, to managing conflict, communication in a couple, and keeping the spark alive.

About the writer

Dr. Jacqui Gabb

Jacqui is Professor of Sociology and Intimacy at The Open University in the UK and Chief Relationships Officer at Paired.

Her 'Enduring Love?' study on long-term couple relationships has received widespread critical acclaim, with findings being reported in national and international media, including: BBC World News, CNN, the New York Post, and more.

Her research and impact activities have been recognised by three prestigious awards: the BSA Philip Abrams Memorial prize (2009, the Open University Engaging Research Award (2014), the Evelyn Gillian Research Impact Award (2016).

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