Describe and evaluate research relating to the benefits of relationships on psychological wellbeing [25 Marks]


Risk of mental health issues (Cochrane)

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that that there is a connection between having good social relationships and the risk of mental health issues. Many studies have found that there is a link between high stress, low social support and mental ill health. For example, Schwarzer and Leppin (1992) did a meta-analysis of 70 studies, and found a -0.22 correlation between social support and depression, indicating that individuals with the most support are least likely to be depressed.

Likewise Cochrane (1988) investigated the connection between relationship status and admission to mental hospitals and results showed that being married led to a much lower rate of admission and that being divorced produced the highest rate. It seems that stress can lead to mental health problems when there is low social support. What the buffering hypothesis suggests therefore is that in people with strong social relationships (whether romantic or not) can call upon social support when it is needed in times of stress. This social support has the effect of reducing the impact (buffering) of the stress.

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Buffering Hypothesis

This highlights the point that evidence for the buffering hypothesis suggests that because of the importance placed onto marriage and romantic relationships a lot of research has compared the single/widowed/divorced with the still married. In support of this evidence Argyle and Henderson (1985) Found that those who are divorced or separated are much more likely to suffer from mental ill health or commit suicide than those still married. The effect was greater for men than women. This suggests that being in a relationship helps maintain an individual’s mental health, therefore supporting the buffering hypothesis. Argyle argues that marriage in some way provides protection against stress, and therefore to a reduced incidence of mental illness. Single people are more prone to the effects of stress partly because they are alone, or if they do live with others such as parents or friends, there is less social support provided, and more conflict than with spouses.

This highlights the point that, the main mental illness in single people is depression, which Argyle argues is caused by the lack of a close relationship or loneliness. The buffering hypothesis would suggest that the reason why Argyle and Henderson (1985) and Cochrane (1988) found such a difference in the rate of mental illness between married and unmarried/divorced/ separated/widowed couples is because the close relationship with the spouse reduces the effect of any stress. The support provided by the relationship acts as a “buffer” and reduces the risk of mental illness.

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Being married protects from stress

However, is the lack of a close relationship necessarily the cause of high levels of depression in single people?

Although, Study after study has shown that there is a strong correlation between the quality of interpersonal relationships and the incidence of mental health and stress related conditions. The buffering hypothesis does seem to give a reasonable explanation. There are also strong links between good social support and physical health (Berkman and Syme, 1979), suggesting that social support can have other beneficial effects.

 On the other hand, while it may be argued that being married protects from stress, marriage can also be a major source of stress! While stress can be attributable to a number of factors, it is plain to see from stress scales that many of these factors can be attributable to problems are concerned with relationships. For example, the Holmes and Rahe (1967) Social Readjustment Scale lists several life changing events which cause stress and are concerned with relationships such as “death of a spouse” “divorce” “marriage” “gain of new family member” etc. This suggests that while relationships undoubtedly are a source of support, the buffering hypothesis does not take into account the negative effect that relationships can have which is a weakness of this theory.

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Strength is that The Buffering Hypothesis & Weakne

Strength is that The Buffering Hypothesis does not just apply to romantic relationships. Friendships and family relationships also act as buffers to protect from stress, although it may be that family relations are the more important. However, the majority of research done into the buffering hypothesis focuses on romantic relationships, and also the fact that much of the research involves retrospective self report, meaning people may be subject to memory loss or may even make information up.

Furthermore, not all research supports the buffering hypothesis. Hobfall and London (1986) studied the effect of relationships upon stress during the war between Lebanon and Israel. Women who had more intimacy with their friends and emotional support experienced more emotional stress than those with lower intimacy and support. Hobfall and London explained this by stating that women with high levels of support spent a lot of time discussing and exaggerating rumours about the war and its consequences, creating a kind of “pressure cooker” which caused stress.

 In summary, the biggest weakness of the buffering hypothesis is that much of the evidence is correlational. Although there is a link between poor social relationships and psychological wellbeing, it is almost impossible to attribute causation. It may also be that people who suffer from or are prone to mental illness find it difficult to develop and maintain close supportive relationships or it could be a combination of both of these factors. People who are prone to mental illness do not form close relationships, and so cannot get social support when needed.

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Happiness Theory

Another theory relating to the benefits of relationships on psychological wellbeing is happiness; there is evidence to suggest that people in a relationship are happier than people who are not.

Bradburn (1969) carried out a study in the US, where he asked people who were married, divorced or single about their general level of happiness in life. The percentage that reported being “very happy” was 38% for married women and men which was the highest percentage and 7% for divorced men and women. Additionally the percentage that reported being “Not too happy” was 40% for separated men and women in contrast to 10% of those who are married (both men and women). Bradburn concluded that marriage is good for you. His results suggest that being married leads to higher happiness levels for both men and women as those who were married rated themselves as being happier than those who were not.

However, these results also suggest that while being married results in higher levels of happiness, it can also lead to lower levels in the case of divorce. People who had been divorced were less happy than those who had never been married. This result suggests that divorce leads to lower levels of happiness.

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Bradburn’s study A02

There are a number of limitations of this study however. This study was carried out in the US in 1969, at a time where marriage was still the norm and couples that lived together outside of marriage were still regarded as slightly outrageous. The demand characteristics of being asked by a stranger about one’s happiness at home may have affected married people’s responses as well as those of single people, who in 1969 were expected to aspire to being married.

Bradburn’s study may suggest that people in a marriage are happier than those who are not, but it does not give a reason why this would be the case. Research carried out by Argyle and Furnham (1983) may shed some light onto why marriage appears to have such a profound effect. They asked participants to rate 9 different relationships in terms of their degree of satisfaction with them on 15 satisfaction scales. Analysis of the results produced three independent factors of satisfaction, 1) Material and instrumental help 2) Social and emotional support 3) Common interests.

The highest scoring relationship for all three factors was a spouse. This suggests that we gain the most satisfaction from the relationship, which is most important to us, and that unimportant relationships (such as neighbours or work associates) do not satisfy us in the same way. These results can also explain why married people tend to be relatively happy: they have a spouse that can satisfy each of the factors. Unmarried people would have to achieve satisfaction through other relationships such as friends and family, which according to this research do not provide the same levels of satisfaction as a spouse. 

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While the research above suggests that marriage has an effect on happiness, this happiness and satisfaction is not stable, and has been shown to alter over the years. Glenn & McLaughlan (1982) suggest that there is a “U” shaped relationship between marital satisfaction and the length of the marriage. Marital satisfaction declines sharply with the birth of the first child and only rises when the last-born child leaves home.

An issue with Glenn & McLaughlan, (1982) is that it involved retrospective self report, asking participants to recall their marital satisfaction at various points in the marriage, as a result of this participants could lie, as well as be prone to forgetting data.

A longitudinal study by Valiant and Valiant (1993) recorded marital satisfaction over a 40 year period. They found that the husband’s satisfaction stayed relatively stable through the marriage, the satisfaction of the wife showed a decline. This study has the advantage over Glenn & McLaughlan as they did not rely on participants recalling events from the distant past. However, the sample consisted of Harvard graduates and their wives and so may not have been representative. Overall, Argyle and Furnham (1983) found that we got the most satisfaction from our relationship with our spouse. However, they also found that the spouse was the greatest source of conflict. 

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Society has changed ...

Against this theory, many of the studies indicating that marriage is related to happiness were carried out many years ago. It is possible that marriage has fewer beneficial effects now than it used to have. In previous decades, marriage was the only acceptable route to instigating a sexual relationship, starting a family, and cohabiting. As society has changed, marriage has become less necessary. Therefore, the research into marital happiness may not be relevant to today’s very different society. A related issue to this is that divorce has become more socially acceptable. The high level of marital satisfaction reported by Bradburn may be due to the negative perception of divorce, possibly leading people to rate their happiness as higher than it is. This could also account for the low levels of happiness recorded by the divorced individuals.

It is difficult to ascertain how honest people are being when asked about happiness. For example, most married couples report being happy in their marriage, and yet nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Either people overestimate their happiness, lie, or maybe happiness is not a good predictor of marriage breakdown. 

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Increased Self-esteem theory

Another theory is the increased self-esteem; one source of self-esteem is the social support provided by relationships Krause (1987) reviewed retired participants and found that increased social support led to decrease in depression due to emotional support and the effects t had on feelings and self-worth e.g. advice about coping strategies given. 

However the methodological issues with this research is that Krause used an elderly sample and in such individuals their ability to accurately recall events was poor, as recall declines with age and the reason this is a problem is because the seconds interview required remembering stressful events.

However, in contradiction to this there is little loss of memory for highly salient events (Brown and Harris, 1982) and these are the most important on psychological well-being; so it unlikely that forgetting threatened the validity of the study.  But, another issue of Krause’s study is that it is possible older adults with high-self esteem are more likely to seek for help, than those with lower self-esteem- This means that the reason high self-esteem was associated with social support, was not because social support increased self-esteem, but the other way round, demonstrating this is a threat to the validity f the study. 

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Druely and Townsend & Conclusion

However Druely and Townsend found that social support only improved self-esteem in healthy people suggesting that the effect on self-esteem is only important when people are stressed. Additionally, Sysmister and Friend also found, unhealthy patients in a study of 86 patients with kidney failure, patient’s social support was found to increase self-esteem, which, in turn, increased optimism and reduced depression. This is however challenged by negative effects, Revenson et al. found that patients that received problematic support were more depressed; and careers who have problems within their social networks are also more depressed (Pagel et al.)

CONCLUSION... All of this evidence seems to suggest that there is a strong relationship between happiness/life satisfaction and marriage. However, this relationship is not stable, and levels of happiness/satisfaction alter over time.

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