Relationship quality affects depressive symptoms in African American couples

Republished by Extension
Written by Marianne Stein, ACES Communications

URBANA, Ill. – For individuals in a committed relationship, there is a well-established two-way association between relationship quality and each partner’s mental health. But what exactly about relationships shapes mental health? And which direction is stronger – from mental health to relationship quality or relationship quality to mental health?

A new study from the University of Illinois and the University of Georgia sought to answer those questions by investigating associations between relationship factors and depressive symptoms among African American couples.

“This study aims to really understand what is it about relationship quality that seems to influence individuals’ depressive symptoms, concurrently and over time. Relationship quality is a very broad term, and we wanted to look at more specific processes,” says Allen Barton, assistant professor and Extension specialist in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at U of I and lead author on the paper, published in the Journal of Family Psychology.

The authors found between individuals, higher relationship satisfaction and lower levels of ineffective arguing were associated with fewer depressive symptoms, consistent with prior research. However, when looking at patterns of change over time within individuals, only partner support emerged as a significant factor.

“When an individual experienced higher than typical levels of partner support, relative to their personal average, they reported decreases in depressive symptoms over the next eight months. And conversely when an individual reported higher than average levels of depressive symptoms, they reported decreased partner support over time,” Barton explains.

While the association between relationship factors and mental health goes both ways, the researchers found one direction to be more influential than the other.  

“Our results also indicated partner support had a stronger effect on changes in depressive symptoms over time than depressive symptoms had on changes in partner support. The causal direction is stronger from relationships to mental health than the other way around,” Barton says.

Read the full report on the ACES website.