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UA researchers study connection between romantic relationships and mental health

Published: Oct. 21, 2021 at 4:19 PM MST|Updated: Oct. 21, 2021 at 4:20 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - How does your romantic relationship affect your mental health and vice versa?

The National Institute of Mental Health has given a team of experts at the University of Arizona nearly three million dollars to study how difficulties in romantic relationships affect mental health and well-being.

Psychologists at the University of Arizona are looking for 200 couples to participate in the study.

The researchers said they applied for the grant before the pandemic, so they were not even thinking about how lockdowns could impact relationships.

Now, they said it will be interesting to see how the twist of the pandemic plays a role in romantic relationships and mental health.

Brielle Farmer and Harrison Schmitt let us follow them through a portion of the study.

“We’ve been together ten years,” Farmer said.

While they have dated for a decade, they have actually known each other since they were about eight.

“I had a different boyfriend in elementary school,” Farmer said.

“She had a crush on me though for a while before we started dating,” Schmitt said.

“Oh yeah for years, years,” Farmer said.

They started dating in high school and in December of 2018, Schmitt popped the question.

“I’m actually pretty proud of the whole thing,” Schmitt said.

“It was amazing,” Farmer said.

“I got her whole family and a lot of her friends together in her grandma’s backyard,” Schmitt said.

Then, they had to postpone their wedding due to the pandemic.

Schmitt began working from home alongside Farmer and their newly adopted senior dog, Benji.

“I worked from home before the pandemic, so once he started working from home, I was like, ‘Oh, this whole house is my office.’ That was an adjustment,” Farmer said.

But ultimately, they say their relationship continued to strengthen during the lockdown.

“We are already best friends, so it was just more time together,” Schmitt said.

“It was nice to have someone during all of this craziness,” Farmer said.

However, psychologists Dr. Jessica Andrews-Hanna and Dr. Dave Sbarra know this isn’t the case for everyone, and they are digging deeper into what makes one relationship more successful than another.

“Dr. Andrews-Hanna studies the neuroscience of thought and emotion. I study close relationships and health. We started talking about the interest in studying the intersection of relationships, relationship satisfaction and the neuroscience of how all of that goes together,” said Sbarra.

The National Institute of Mental Health’s 2.9 million dollar grant will support the neuroimaging of about 200 couples to see how they process social information and the ways neural responses may impact mental health.

“One of our goals is to really understand what might be happening in the relationships that lead to risk for poor mental health outcome? And going the other way, what is it about mental health that underlines relationships?” Sbarra said.

These experts say the big advancement in this study is the neuroscientific element. As part of the study, each partner in the couple will get a functional MRI.

“That lets us peer into the brain of both partners when they are thinking and feeling certain emotions. We want to see to some degree how empathy is unfolding in the brain and how in sync couples are in terms of patterns of brain activity,” Andrews-Hanna said.

Couples will visit the lab a couple of times and then provide some additional information through apps they can download on their phones.

It’s research Farmer and Schmitt fully support.

“Having a good relationship with someone is so important for how we function as humans and how we flourish or not. So, I think if we can support the science that is learning how to do that better, I think that’s really important,” Schmitt said.

The research team is recruiting volunteers between the ages of 18 to 55 who are in a monogamous relationship. It doesn’t matter whether they are married, but they are looking for couples who have lived together for at least six months.

Participants will be paid for their time.

Email couplesresearch@email.arizona.edu for more information.

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