Young adults in high-quality relationships tend to be in better physical and mental health, according to a new study study led by the University at Buffalo.
In fact, the longer people are in high-quality relationships, or the faster they get out of low-quality relationships, the better their health.
“It’s not being in a relationship that matters; it’s being in a long-term, high-quality relationship that’s beneficial. Low-quality relationships are detrimental to health. The findings suggest that it’s better for health to be single than to be in a low-quality relationship,” said Dr. Ashley Barr, assistant professor in University at Buffalo’s Department of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Over the last few decades, our idea of youth and the transition into adulthood has been extended, according to Barr. Compared to previous generations, young people today are waiting longer to finish school and are postponing marriage as well. During this period, they’re moving in and out of relationships.
“Much of the research literature focuses on relationships and health in the context of marriage,” says Barr. “The majority of our respondents were not married, but these relationships are still impactful to health, for better or for worse.”
This is Barr’s second study to analyze how relationship quality during the transition into adulthood affects health. Her first study, conducted with an all-African-American sample, suggested that patterns of instability in relationships mattered when it came to depressive symptoms, alcohol problems, and how people reported their general health.
For the new study, the researchers wanted to see if the same patterns held true in a very different sample.
This time Barr pulled data from the Iowa Youth and Families Project, a sample of all-white youth coming from two-parent, married families in rural Iowa. She says that about one-third of the sample experienced relatively large changes in their relationships over a two-year period.
“We took into account satisfaction, partner hostility, questions about criticism, support, kindness, affection, and commitment,” says Barr. “We also asked about how partners behave outside of the relationship. Do they engage in deviant behaviors? Is there general anti-sociality?”
The findings show that the longer people are in positive relationships, or the sooner they leave negative relationships, the better their health.
“Health benefits begin to accrue relatively quickly with high-quality relationships and supportive contexts. And then we see detrimental effects from low-quality relationships — particularly, those low-quality relationships that last a long time,” Barr said.
Barr says the attention to changes in these relationships is important, particularly in the context of the extended transition to adulthood.
“It’s rare today for young adults to enter a romantic relationship and stay in that relationship without ever changing partners or relationship characteristics,” she said. “We now have two studies that found similar patterns and similar implications for those changes.”
The findings are published in the Journal of Family Psychology.