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The relationships you choose don’t just impact your mental health. The stress or happiness they cultivate also affects your long-term and short-term physical health.
Researchers are finding that the quality of our relationships with our partners, family members and friends can be as important, or in some cases, more important, to human health than habits like smoking, diet, exercising and drinking alcohol.
Humans are social beings meant to work together toward a common goal, and, as a result, our well-being is closely tied to these ever-important interactions.
According to Rosie Shrout, an assistant professor in human development and family science at Purdue University, a healthy relationship may vary in how it looks from person to person.
However, generally, relationships thrive when couples have open communication, are able to deal with stress well together and are responsive to the thoughts and feelings of their partners.
“Good couples may even become stronger when times get tough,” says Shrout.
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A wide breadth of research has shown that the quality of our relationships impacts several health outcomes, says Hui Liu, a professor of sociology and director of the Family and Population Health Laboratory at Michigan State University.
A March 2023 study published in the journal for Social Psychological and Personality Science followed 4,005 participants who provided check-ins every three days on their blood pressure, heart rate, stress and coping while also providing assessments of their relationships.
“People with more positive experiences and fewer negative experiences [in their relationships] reported lower stress, better coping and lower systolic blood pressure reactivity, leading to better physiological functioning in daily life,” write the study authors.
Additionally, in the United States, marriage is tied to other important health outcomes that have nothing to do with biological stress. For example, our access to health insurance, benefits, tax write-offs, housing and other important outcomes are good for our health.
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The other side of the coin is that bad-quality relationships have the opposite effect. “Negative relationships cause stress and strain on the body and may increase the risk of cardiovascular events, chronic disease and may cause early mortality,” says Liu.
Shrout’s research has shown that couples who are more negative and hostile in their daily interactions have heightened cardiovascular reactivity, immune response, higher inflammation as well as higher cortisol levels. Now researchers are trying to find out how this directly impacts health outcomes.
“We know relationships have a strong impact on longevity, and now we’re trying to tease apart the biological markers that can foster and exacerbate health and health problems,” says Shrout.
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While Shrout’s research has been chiefly focused on couple relationships, she says that the quality of our social network, for example, family members and friends, can also impact health.
A September 2021 meta-analysis published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology explored the public health impact of loneliness on the individual and on society. According to the study, loneliness causes the activation of physiological and endocrine responses that “compromise the normal functioning of the organs involved and increase the risk of disease and mortality.”
Read More: How Human Connection Affects Our Hearts and Hormones
How do you know whether your relationship is so toxic that it’s time to get out? Shrout says that the research shows that happily married people live longer and happier lives than single, widowed or divorced people. And that not all bad relationships are lost causes.
Couples counseling is a powerful tool for improving relations and opening up the lines of communication between couples. It helps to strengthen relationships and, as a result, improve physical health down the line.
But just as a positive relationship is good for your health, a continuously hostile one is the opposite. Staying in a toxic relationship to avoid being alone is not what the doctor ordered either. If the relationship is hostile and negative most of the time, it’s likely impacting the body in a hostile and negative way.
In the end, “the quality of the relationship is the most important part, not just marital status,” says Shrout.
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