- Halpern-Meekin and Turney show that the mental health consequences of on-again/off-again relationships are just as bad as those associated with relationship dissolution. Tweet This
- The mental health consequences of relationship instability pertain even without partner change. Tweet This
- Relationship churners experience the same temporal instability as those who ride the marriage-go-round, but they do not experience the instability that comes from partner turnover because they end up w/ the same partner. Tweet This
I had heard of relationship churning before reading Sarah Halpern-Meekin and Kristin Turney’s analysis of its mental health effects, recently published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. However, I had conceptually lumped relationship churning with The Marriage-Go-Round and the Cohabitation Carousel—images in which individuals exit the ride (leave one relationship) but frequently hop back on with a different partner. But relationship churning is different because it refers to an on-again/off-again relationships with the same partner.
Given that relationship transitions have mental health consequences, Halpern-Meekin and Turney investigated how the effects of churning compare. Relationship churners experience the same temporal instability as those who ride the marriage-go-round (periods spent partnered, single, and then partnered again), but they do not experience the instability that comes from partner turnover because they end up with the same partner again. Theoretically, churners might experience fewer mental health consequences as they might coparent more easily than those with multiple exes, plus they might suffer less from feelings of rejection. But this is putting a rosy lens on an arduous process: transitions themselves absorb a great deal of mental energy, and hope is unlikely to outweigh stress in a relationship that has already been abandoned (perhaps more than once). Churning can create constant strain, whereas the strain from other dissolutions might not persist over time as well.
Halpern-Meekin and Turney show that, in fact, the mental health consequences of on-again/off-again relationships are just as bad as those associated with relationship dissolution (with or without repartnering). Getting back with the same partner looks nothing like continuing with the same partner. Mothers who have experienced relationship churning have relatively low-quality relationships even during the periods in which they are partnered. Their relationships may be at their worst right after separation, but even after reconciliation, churning likely undermines confidence in the relationship and the degree of personal investment in relationship maintenance. Further, ambiguity itself can be uniquely taxing for individuals and families.
If the researchers had shown only that mothers who dissolve a partnership have poorer mental health (regardless of whether they repartnered and with whom), it would be unimpressive for two basic reasons. First, consider that poverty can stress individuals as well as relationships: in that case, the relationship between mental health and relationship instability could be spurious, i.e., a common cause linking the two rather than relationship instability being the cause of poor mental health. Similarly, mental health issues can strain relationships, sometimes to the breaking point: in that case, it would be mental health causing relationship instability rather than relationship instability compromising mental health.
Halpern-Meekin and Turney’s new findings about churning are insulated against these criticisms by their use of five waves of data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study. In these data, the mental health status of individuals is known before relationship transitions, as well as several points downstream. Preexisting mental health and many other personal characteristics could be factored in when comparing the mental health trajectories of those in stable partnerships and others. The innovation in Halpern-Meekin and Turney’s recent article is to distinguish churning from other forms of relationship instability.
The mothers in the Fragile Families data are certainly not representative of all U.S. mothers, but this weakness comes hand-in-hand with some important advantages. An urban sample of low-income mothers, unmarried at childbirth, cannot generalize to more advantaged groups, but the health effects of churning are the most important in the groups more likely to experience it. Further, given evidence that the consequences of relationship instability might be muted in groups where it is socially normative, it is unlikely higher status churners would be less affected. In other words, part of the negative effects of churning might be socially constructed—resulting from being set apart socially by the experience—and thus mothers from groups where the behavior is less unusual might suffer only the “essential” effects of instability, rather than being additionally burdened by social stigma. Mental health consequences associated with churning could be buffered by economic resources, but the wealthier would also have fewer social resources to help cope.
At the end of the day, Halpern-Meekin and Turney’s focus on churning clarifies that the mental health consequences of relationship instability pertain even without partner change. Relationships do not add to mental strength simply by having the same person over the long haul; the best outcomes were among those who were continuously in a relationship with the same person, rather than in an on-again/off-again relationship with the same partner.
The authors urge that “future research should explore ecological factors that are protective against relationship instability and against negative mental health outcomes.” Translated, they mean we should explore the contexts that help promote stable partnerships, and the factors that buffer consequences when instability does occur. I fully agree, and I would also add that we need to know more about the mental health effects of churning on children. We can be sure that instability is worse than stability, but we need an investigation of how parental on-again/off-again relationships compare to the partnership-go-round from the child’s perspective.
Laurie DeRose is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Catholic University of America, and Director of Research for the World Family Map Project.