A brief article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science discusses how relationships that become conflicted, unsatisfying or distressing can trigger a biological or psychological predisposition for mental illness.
In this work, Purdue University psychology professor Susan C. South builds a case for why malfunctional romantic relationships can be important social-environmental triggers for psychopathology.
Approximately 90% of the United States population marries at some point in their lifetime. And as much as 59% of younger generations (ages 18-44) have cohabited. Well-functioning relationships predict overall well-being. However, those who are unhappily partnered tend to experience unfavorable mental health consequences, and are more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for disorders such as PTSD, depression, alcohol use, and generalized anxiety.
Longitudinal studies support a direction for this effect, such that, distressed relationships lead to a greater likelihood of mental health issues, as opposed to the reverse (i.e., mental health issues leading to dissatisfying relationships).
In prior work, South and colleagues assessed for the generality and specificity of the links between relationship distress and psychopathology by studying long-term heterosexual married couples. The author writes, “the take-home message from this work is that when one is looking for reasons why marital distress and relationship satisfaction are linked, in order to find a tractable hold on possible mechanisms, it might be necessary to examine the higher order domains of psychopathology rather than the specific form.”
Twin studies on psychopathology and romantic-relationship distress suggest the same genetic factors that contribute to relationship distress likewise give rise to symptoms of psychopathology. Studies that have closely examined the nonshared environment of siblings or twins provide evidence that environmental influences also play a role in the link between relationship distress and mental illness.
The diathesis, or predisposition, to psychopathology is not necessarily purely genetic. Factors such as emotional or cognitive risks that vary across individuals, the degree of support or use of emotion regulation strategies in a conflicted relationship, could also be mediators between relationship distress and mental health.
While marriage is common across the world, so too is relationship conflict. One may become so distressed within their romantic relationship that they cross a threshold after which the relationship can trigger psychopathologies they are vulnerable to. Indeed, some may lack the risk factors that would negatively interact with relationship conflict, or may have protective factors that prevent this fate.
To conclude, South writes, “a fruitful avenue for research might be focusing less on broad personality traits that characterize overall ways of behaving and thinking and more on the goals and values and needs that each person brings to the relationship and how those are met (or not) by one’s partner.”
The paper, “A Romantic-Partner Model of Mental Health” was authored by Susan C. South.