How Relationships Affect Mental Health

Studies show partners who support each other's mental health will improve their relationship

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

Let's take a look at the impact of our relationships on our mental wellbeing, and five actions you can take that are scientifically proven to improve both your relationship and mental health.

How the pandemic affected relationships

The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on our relationships and also our mental health. In my research, I found that romantic relationships can help to buffer partners from pressures and harms that may be occurring in wider society or family networks, but they can’t keep the outside world at bay.

Negative external contexts are likely to impact all people for the worse. Research has shown that during the pandemic there’s 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,” says Maya Luetke, co-author of a study that looked at the prevalence of depression and loneliness during the COVID-19 response and their link with frequency of social and sexual connections.

“Further, individuals and relationship partners experiencing distress may have no access, less access, or different access to counseling or therapy.”

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?

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How your relationship can improve mental wellbeing

Evidence finds a clear link between good quality relationships and health and happiness. Common mental health problems — like anxiety and depression — are more common in people who are experiencing relationship distress than those who are happier in their relationships.

It’s becoming more and more clear that finding ways to improve our relationships is integral to our well-being 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 don’t 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.

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 the good times alongside the bad, be that in sickness or in health.

National UK (NHS) recommendations suggest these “five ways to well-being”: 

  1. Connect with people

  2. Give to others

  3. Be physically active

  4. Learn new skills

  5. Pay attention to the present moment 

Let’s take a look at how you can apply these tips to your relationship. 

Check-in with each other daily

Research on long-term relationships has shown that relationships are sustained through daily interactions, which provide invaluable support and sustenance both for the couple's partnership and the mental health and wellbeing of both partners.

Making time for daily conversations where you share thoughts and feelings is vital. The Paired app offers you daily questions to answer with your partner, share your thoughts and build intimacy and connection. But not all connections rely on spoken words — 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.

Make thoughtful gestures

Thoughtful gestures provide emotional and practical support, making a partner feel that they’re loved and cared for. Research shows that these gestures don’t need to be expensive gifts, but that it’s the thought that counts. These attentive bids or gifts of gratitude can be key to sustaining a relationship when going through tough times.

There’s 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’re both an act of kindness and an investment in the relationship. They show 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 they display.

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 warmer months.

Being outdoors and getting fitter can have both physical and therapeutic health benefits, as well as providing opportunities for couple time and creating memories together. 

For people who struggle with mental health issues, stepping outside the confines of the home can be uplifting and provide new stimuli, 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.

Learn new things together

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

New activities and experiences can help distract you and your partner from outside stressors. 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, though. On 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.

Be in the moment

Practicing mindfulness can be incredibly helpful to your relationship. After all, mindfulness is 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 silly were 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.

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

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About the writer
Dr. Jacqui Gabb
Jacqui is Professor of Sociology and Intimacy at The Open University in the UK and was formerly 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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