You probably don’t need a scientific study to tell you that having a demanding, critical spouse or family member is not good for your mental health. Nonetheless, there have been studies just like that; they show that the short-term implications of negative relationships are bad. What is new about a just-published study is that it documented effects that were still evident a decade later.
In the research, a nationally representative sample of adults, ages 25 through 75, were interviewed in 1995 or 1996, then again a decade later. Data from more than 4,600 of them were analyzed for this study.
During the first interview, participants indicated their marital status. They were also asked about their relationships with friends, family, and their spouse or partner if they had one. To get a sense of whether the participants might qualify as isolated by certain objective measures, they were also asked whether they lived alone, and how often they were in contact with family members, friends, and neighbors.
Negative aspects of relationships were assessed with questions about how often the person in question makes too many demands, criticizes you, lets you down, or gets on your nerves. Positive aspects were measured with questions about how much the person in question really cares about you, understands how you feel, can be relied on, and is someone you can open up to.
At the 10-year mark, participants were asked standard interview questions designed to determine whether they had experienced a major depressive episode during the previous year.
The question motivating the research was: Which of the relationship experiences, if any, is linked to a major depressive episode a decade later? Did marital status matter? What about objective measures of social isolation? How about having a spouse or family members or friends who interact with you in negative ways or fail to provide positive support?
The implications of marital status were biased to favor marriage because those who were married or partnered were compared to all unmarried people, regardless of whether they were divorced or widowed or had always been single. The implications of getting married are more accurately determined by comparing all those who ever married to those who stayed single. This is especially important because if there is a difference in mental health among people of different marital statuses (and there isn’t always), it is the people who got married and later divorced or became widowed – and not those who stayed single – who are most likely to report negative health or well-being.
Nonetheless, even with this pro-marriage bias built into the design, the group of unmarried people was no more likely to experience a major depressive episode a decade later than was the group of people who were married.
Guess what else didn’t matter? Living alone. Also: not having a lot of contact with family, friends, or neighbors.
The people from the mid 1990s who were especially likely to experience major depression a decade later were those with demanding, critical, and unsupportive spouses, romantic partners, or family members.
Having a negative and unsupportive friend did not predict depression. The authors did not speculate about that but perhaps if your friends prove to be annoying, you spend less time with them or they cease to be your friends. Family relationships are more obligatory.
Of course, spouses who are chronically critical and uncaring often end up as ex-spouses. Guess what researchers – including the authors of this paper – do with those ex’s? They pretend they never got married. The negative effects of having had an undermining spouse are removed from the married group and assigned to the unmarried group. I know I mention this all the time, but all this cheating never ceases to amaze me. And yet, despite the rigging of the analyses to advantage the married group, they are still no less likely to be depressed than the previously-married and the always-single combined.
Teo, A. R., Choi, H., & Valenstein, M. (2013). Social relationships and depression: Ten-year follow-up from a nationally representative study. PLOS One, 8, e62396.
Depressed woman photo available from Shutterstock