Teaching: Are Romantic Relationships Actually Good for Mental Health?

Aimed at integrating cutting-edge psychological science into the classroom, Teaching Current Directions in Psychological Science offers advice and how-to guidance about teaching a particular area of research or topic in psychological science that has been the focus of an article in the APS journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

More teaching resources in this Observer: Applying a Growth Mindset to Mental Disorders

South, S. (2023). A romantic partner model of mental health. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 32(3), 258–263.

When confronting the ongoing mental health crisis, which factors do many psychologists ignore? Psychological scientists have examined various novel risk factors for mental illness over the past decade, including excessive social media use, economic inequality, and gender identity. According to Susan South (2023), few psychologists realize that a potent risk factor for psychological disorders has been hiding in plain sight: people’s dissatisfaction with their current romantic relationship.  

In fact, South (2023, p. 3) boldly states that “a distressed and unsatisfying romantic relationship may be one of the most important social-environmental triggers for the expression of psychopathology.” If South is correct (and I think she is), then we should encourage students to ask three questions:  

(1) Why should we explore romantic relationships as they relate to psychological disorders?  

(2) What percentage of romantic relationships could increase people’s risk for psychological disorders? 

(3) How does having an unsatisfying romantic relationship compare with other known risk factors for psychological disorders?  

Instructors can complete one or more of the following brief activities, encouraging students to apply critical thinking to each question. Each activity demonstrates the benefits of approaching psychology as a science rather than relying on intuition.

Student Activities

Thankfully, psychological science has uncovered a risk factor for depression and other psychological disorders that people can work to improve. By improving your romantic relationship, you can decrease your risk for depression and other psychological disorders.  

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Peters, A. T., Shankman, S. A., Deckersbach, T., & West, A. E. (2015). Predictors of first episode unipolar major depression in individuals with and without sub-threshold depressive symptoms: A prospective, population-based study. Psychiatry Research, 230, 150-156. 

South, S. C. (2021). Pathology in Relationships. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 17, 577-601. 

Whisman, M. A. (2007). Marital distress and DSM-IV psychiatric disorders in a population-based national survey. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 116, 638-643. 

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