The Surprising Health Benefits of Being in LoveHow Positive Relationships Boost Wellness
-- By Ellen G. Goldman, Health and Wellness Coach
When I was newly home from graduate school and working my first full-time job, finding a husband and starting a family seemed to be the next expected step in the progression toward adulthood. I was looking forward to having someone to share my life with—someone to be a steady roommate, a sharer of responsibilities, and a traveling buddy for my then-infrequent vacations. Certainly prime on my mind was finding a suitable father for the kids I hoped to have in the future. Getting married would also eliminate the constant nagging of my mom and other relatives, who constantly pointed out that I wasn't getting any younger. (Ironically, I was married at 24, a mere child compared to the average marrying age today!)
Luckily for me, I did find the right guy, and all the advantages I'd anticipated did come along with the marriage package. However, I never considered that being married would be good for my health, too. When scientific research began to appear touting the health benefits of being married, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that being married is also just one more way I'm improving my health.
We humans are hard-wired for social connection, and we all possess a basic need to belong and to be loved. For many people in today's world, the need to marry young has been trumped by climbing the career ladder, and being in a committed relationship doesn’t necessarily mean tying the knot. But despite that, most (but not all) still harbor a strong desire to be in a romantic relationship.
And it's no wonder why we seek out romance: When we find that special connection, positivity flows, and your nervous system is flooded with feel-good hormones. Dopamine, one of the hormones triggered when individuals are in love, evokes feelings of pleasure, optimism, energy and a sense of well-being. Physical touch, such as hugging, hand-holding and having sex, releases oxytocin, which lowers stress hormones. Research shows that those who experience these positive emotions associated with love have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, greater resistance to the common cold, faster recovery after illness and injury, and decreased anxiety and depression.
In 2007, the Department of Health and Human Services put out a report of their findings after reviewing the research on the health effects of matrimony. It stated that married people are happier, live longer, drink less and even visit the doctor less often than unmarried folks. Married couples tend to have health insurance, which encourages preventative care and healthy behaviors. Additionally, married couples are more financially stable, which reduces stress. A 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also found that mortality rates were lowest in married couples. (Note: Although much of this research has looked at the effects of love on married couples, there is no reason to think that those in a positive and committed--yet unmarried--relationship wouldn’t enjoy these same benefits.)
However, simply being in a relationship isn't enough to reap these benefits; the quality of the relationship matters, too. Love is a complicated emotion, and it can have both good and bad side effects depending on how partners treat each other.
According to psychology professor and researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad, positive relationships prove as beneficial to survival and longevity as quitting smoking—and the benefits of love might even exceed those of exercise. On the flip side, negative relationships can wreak havoc on your health. For example, it has been found that married people have lower blood pressure than unmarried people, but unhappily married people have higher blood pressure than both happily married and unmarried groups. Additionally, a 2009 study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that divorced or widowed people have 20 percent more chronic health conditions (such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer) than married people.
So, how do you ensure your marriage (or relationship) will be happy enough so you and your significant other can start reaping the benefits of love? Here are a few basic tips to follow for a healthy relationship:
Get out of relationships that no longer serve you. Studies show that unrequited love can lead to increased drinking, recreational drug use and depression. If the relationship isn't working, move on--for the sake of both you and your partner.
Practice open communication. When both of you are open and honest about your feelings, it is much easier to provide each other with what you want and need.
Make time for each other. In today's fast-paced world, our relationships often get pushed to the back burner. Make time for your partner, even if you have to schedule it in; it is worth it!
Learn to compromise. When you enter a relationship, it goes without saying that you will probably have to make some sacrifices. Anticipating and working amicably through those compromises is key for a healthy partnership.
Have activities outside of your relationship. It's important to keep your own separate identities and to not become too dependent on each other, no matter how in love you are. Be sure to strike a good balance by maintaining your own friends, hobbies and interests.
Don't sweat the small stuff. Chances are, your partner is probably going to have certain habits that drive you crazy—but it's also likely that there are things about you that drive your partner crazy, too! Learn to embrace those little flaws (everybody's got 'em!) and save the stress for the more important things.
Try something unexpected together. As humans, we thrive on novelty. It can be easy to fall into the rut of routine with your partner, causing boredom and relationship dissatisfaction. A couple times a month, go somewhere other than your ''usual'' place for dinner, or book a small weekend trip together. Trying new experiences with your partner is great for bonding, and it will help you create memories to last a lifetime.
Keep making each other laugh. Laughter is good for the soul, and if you and your partner can keep cracking each other up, you're probably on the right track! It will only make you both even more resilient to obstacles in your way.
Set and reach goals together. Finding and working toward mutual goals, like getting in shape or saving for a new car, can be a fantastic way to bond with your partner.
- Above all, love yourself first! When you love and respect yourself, it's much easier to find a mate who will love and respect you, too—and then you can start reaping all the benefits love has to offer!
Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, J. Bradley Layton. ''Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review,'' accessed September 2012. www.plosmedicine.org
The Washington Post. ''Health benefits of falling and staying in love,'' accessed September 2012. www.washingtonpost.com.