Long relationships - not necessarily marriage - key to good health
Men and women who are in relationships for longer than five years are less likely to be depressed, to consider or attempt suicide, or to be dependent on alcohol or drugs, it was found.
It is well known that people who are married lead healthier lives and live longer but it was not known if the effect was the same for those cohabiting.
The study in the British Journal of Psychiatry examined 1,000 people living in New Zealand by a team at University of Otago.
It was found that longer relationships were associated with lower rates of mental health problems.
At the age of 30, 16 per cent of people who were not in a relationship showed symptoms of depression along with 23 per cent of people who had been in a relationship for less than two years.
However, the rate was only less than ten per cent among people who had been in a relationship for between two and four years and was just nine per cent among people who had been in a relationship lasting more than five years.
The researchers relied on the participants reporting their own mental health and relationship status.
The study also found that the rate of alcohol abuse or dependence was 12 per cent among 30-year-olds who were not in a relationship and 13.5 per cent for people who had been in a relationship for less than two years.
In comparison, only four per cent of those who had been in a relationship for between two and four years had alcohol problems along with less than three per cent of those who had been in a relationship for more than five years.
The researchers found that this association remained after they controlled for other factors, such as family background and previous mental health problems.
Lead researcher Dr Sheree Gibb, said: “Our study suggests that partner relationships are protective for mental health, with the protective effect increasing as the length of the relationship increases. This could be because emotional support and financial stability tends to increase over the course of a relationship.
“Interestingly, we found that the legal status of the relationship did not make a difference. In other words, it was the length of the relationship that had a positive effect on people’s mental health – and it did not matter if the couple was married or cohabiting. This is a contrast to previous studies, which have reported lower rates of mental health problems among people in legal marriages than in cohabiting relationships.
“Our study suggests that people who are at high risk of developing mental health problems may benefit from efforts to improve the stability and duration of their partner relationships, such as improved access to relationship counselling services.”