Why Romances, Heartbreaks May Impact Our Mental Health Less Than We Think
“Tadap tadap ke iss dil se aah nikalti rahi… Lut gaye hum teri mohabbat mein…” — in the aftermath of heartbreaks, many of us have listened to these lines from a famous Bollywood album on loop. It describes being so emotionally wrecked upon being broken up, that the estranged lover feels as though his life has been destroyed. The lyrics might validate one’s emotional state immediately following a breakup, but over time, the intensity of emotions conveyed by them, can decline rather drastically.
According to a new study, major relationship events — entering into a committed relationship, getting married, or separating from one’s long-term partner — impacts our mental health less than we might think. This isn’t to invalidate the emotional turmoil — or even euphoria — that these events can trigger. What it suggests, instead, is that people often tend to overestimate just how much of a difference it’ll make to their lives.
The findings force us to rethink how positive relationship events — like marriages — are made out to be a big deal when, at the end of the day, we’re probably expecting them to bring more joy than they ever will. “Nearly everyone would intuitively agree that romantic relationships greatly affect how we feel… In the long run, they affect our wellbeing much less than one would intuitively assume,” noted first author Eva Asselmann, a professor of differential and personality psychology at the Health and Medical University in Potsdam, Germany.
Published in the journal Emotion, the study found that changes in our emotional wellbeing “are most pronounced for happiness and sadness at the time of the event, and bounce back in the long run.”
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The study’s findings are based on data from a nationally-representative household panel study from Germany — including more than 30,000 people — that had begun in 1984. As part of this, participants were quizzed annually about major relationship events, life satisfaction, and the variety of emotions they had experienced in the past year.
The researchers found that between 2007 and 2019 — close to 4,500 participants had moved in with a partner, more than 3,500 got married while 3,500 others separated from their partners, and a little over 1,000 participants got divorced. For the present study, they assessed these individuals’ levels of happiness, sadness, anxiety, and anger — five years before and five years after the major relationship events in their lives.
Summing up the findings, Asselmann states, “[W]ellbeing changes due to major romantic relationship events –like a marriage or [a] breakup — are only transient… These changes were most pronounced at the time of the event and attenuated in the long run, so th[en] people ended up with similar wellbeing levels five years after vs. five years before the event… Other factors — like how we behave and treat each other in everyday life — might be much more important for enduring happiness and satisfaction in and beyond romantic relationships.”
Interestingly, the researchers found that major relationship events themselves aren’t as responsible for changes in our emotional wellbeing as we might assume either. Basically, say in terms of getting married or moving in with one’s partner, the positive changes in people’s wellbeing began in the years leading up to it. Similarly, for those getting divorced or separated from their partners, their wellbeing began to dip in the years prior.
Unfortunately, what the researchers also found was that, in general, the intensity of negative feelings one experiences in the course of relationships, is stronger than their positive counterparts. One of the study’s main takeaways is positive, though — experiencing less pain than expected in the aftermath of a breakup certainly isn’t a bad thing. However, feeling less joy than one possibly hoped for upon getting married, can induce dejection.
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Commenting on the applications the findings could potentially have, then, Asselmann notes, “Targeted interventions could be useful to promote happiness beyond the first year of marriage or to screen for serious mental health impairments shortly after a breakup.”
As the next step, Asselmann believes it might be interesting to track how the impact of major relationship events on people’s wellbeing might differ across people who experience these events repeatedly, compared to those experiencing them for the first time — for instance, one getting broken up with for the first time, versus one who has gone through many breakups. Whether contextual factors like the number of children a couple might share has any bearing — and if so, how much — on their mental health, would also be an interesting question to explore, according to Asselmann.
This also brings up the question: do people’s cultural identities also determine the impact of major relationship events on their wellbeing? In the case of divorces, for example, the stigma in India might be far greater than, say, in the U.S. Even within India, perhaps, the stigma might vary across people’s socio-economic spectrum — influencing the intensity, or even the duration, of their suffering. Not only that, is it possible that a person who is already in the throes of depression, or one who generally struggles with emotional regulation, would experience a stronger, more prolonged impact?
While investigating the impact of contextual factors, perhaps, future research can delve into this too. If not for the sake of a better cultural understanding of human behavior, then for the sake of assessing how to target mental health interventions, at the very least.