Romantic Relationship Predictors of Adolescent and Adult Mental Health

Kansky, Jessica, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Allen, Joseph, AS-Psychology, University of Virginia

In adulthood, romantic relationship quality is an important predictor of long-term mental health including lower rates of depression, anxiety, and externalizing problems. However, less is known about the function of earlier romantic experiences for long-term mental health despite evidence suggesting concurrent impacts of teen dating on well-being. Utilizing a 20-year multi-method, multi-reporter, community-based longitudinal study, the current study examined the role of specific romantic relationship qualities (hostile conflict, support, attachment, and intimacy) in predicting concurrent and future mental health symptoms (internalizing and externalizing). This study also considered whether certain contextual factors (gender, close friendship quality, relationship intensity, and relationship duration) moderate the relation between romantic quality and mental health. Participants provided self-report mental health data annually from ages 17 to 28. Participants and their romantic partners provided observational and self-report data about their relationship at age 19 (N=97), 22 (N=131), 25 (N=107), and 28 (N=109). Participants and their close friends provided self-report data about their friendship annually from ages 17 to 28.

Results suggest romantic relationship quality and mental health are strongly concurrently related. Secure attachment was associated with fewer internalizing and externalizing symptoms; dyadic conflict was related to greater internalizing and externalizing symptoms, and observed conflict was associated with greater externalizing symptoms. Several of the associations became stronger with age, and certain qualities had age-specific relations to mental health. Specifically, dyadic support and intimacy were not associated with fewer externalizing symptoms until adulthood, while observed support was only associated with greater internalizing symptoms in adolescence.

Only observed support emerged as a romantic quality with the potential to predict relative changes (e.g., decreases) in internalizing symptoms over time; this effect was not mediated by later observed support. Importantly, post-hoc analyses reveal greater evidence for the reverse direction, namely that there is the potential of mental health to predict relative changes in romantic quality over time.

There was some evidence suggesting the association between romantic quality and mental health in young adulthood was stronger for males (e.g., attachment and intimacy each related to fewer externalizing symptoms for males) and for those with discontinuity in close friendship and romantic relationship quality. During the transition to adulthood, those who experience high quality friendships in the context of low quality romantic relationships (e.g., observed conflict), and vice versa (low quality friendships in the context of greater intimacy and dyadic support), may report greater externalizing symptoms. There was no evidence of relationship intensity or duration moderation.

Given that dyadic reported versus observed methods of assessing hostile conflict and support were related to different outcomes, results highlight the importance of utilizing multiple methods when assessing romantic quality. Future work may also seek to include observations of couples when giving support in addition to when in disagreements. Results have important implications for understanding the links between romantic experiences and mental health, and in particular the roles of gender, friendship quality, and observed support in the relation between romantic quality and mental health.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
romantic relationships, mental health, interpersonal relationships, dyadic relationships, adolescence, young adulthood, transition to adulthood, developmental processes
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