Physical and emotional benefits of relationships
Gillian Flower, ND
For most, relationships form the foundation of their existence, and the link between good soclal relationships and the health benefits they bestow is undeniable.
For most people, personal relationships form the foundation of their existence and satisfy an essential human need for love and belonging.
Key relationships in our lives may include those with a spouse, with family members, with friends, and even with pets. Each type of connection has the potential for profound impact, enriching our existence through support and encouragement, yet having devastating consequences when loss and disappointment occur.
While the mental and emotional benefits of social support may be abundantly clear, our understanding of the physical effects of companionship continues to evolve.
Love and marriage
Researchers have long been aware of the positive health benefits of marriage, and several recent studies highlight the importance of a harmonious union.
In a healthy person, changes in blood pressure occur throughout the day, and a decrease of as much as 20 percent can be expected during sleep. Individuals with unchanging nighttime readings are at higher risk for cardiovascular mortality.
The heart-helping effect of married life was illustrated in a 2008 study of 204 married and 99 single participants. The results showed that couples were more likely than singles to exhibit these normal drops in blood pressure.
Other studies show that the impact of numerous health conditions, including heart failure, emotional distress, and ulcerative colitis, is reduced in committed partnerships. Marriage appears to support good health.
However, before you rush to the altar for the sake of your well-being, consider that marriage quality is far more significant than the simple fact of being wed. Compared to singles, miserably married folk in several studies reported higher blood pressure, stress levels, incidence of depression, and lower levels of life satisfaction. An unhappy marriage is clearly worse than no marriage at all.
Sadly, even individuals reporting high levels of social support outside of unfulfilling marriages exhibited these negative health effects, highlighting the uniquely influential role of spousal relationships.
Love ’em or lament ’em, our family relationships are among the most unique and powerful ties encountered in our lifetime. These relationships shape our emotional health from our earliest days forward. Even as adults, family demands can significantly influence the day-to-day choices that we make for ourselves.
Positive family relationships have expected mental and emotional benefits, reducing the likelihood of depression and suicidal thoughts in adolescents, and providing support through times of illness. Modern medicine has tried to harness the healing power of the family, consciously integrating family members into patient care. Studies show tangible benefit of so-called family-oriented treatments for people with serious chronic illnesses.
Supporting our seniors
The importance of a healthy family is extremely apparent among the elderly in our society. Older adults reporting good family relationships are less likely to be institutionalized, suggesting that families can delay admission by meeting the daily needs of these individuals.
Given the health-promoting effect of the family in other studies, these seniors may simply be staying in better health for longer periods. This possibility is eloquently illustrated in a 2009 study in which researchers at the University of Montreal investigated the role of older adults in the family.
Individuals who felt they continued to play an important role in the lives of their children and extended family had a lower risk of death. On the other hand, seniors reporting conflict with at least one child had a 30 percent higher risk of mortality. The physical and emotional impact of our family relations cannot be underestimated.
You’ve got a friend
The importance of friendship rivals that of familial and spousal relationships. Camaraderie inspires chick flicks and war films alike, drives sales of greeting cards and self-help books, and forms the plot of classic novels and video games.
The rabid success of Facebook and other social media outlets points quite plainly to our need for social interaction and friendship. The emotional value of friendship is undeniable, but does it confer any health benefits? Patterns of friendship among adolescents and seniors have been studied extensively, and experts conclude that these relationships do have significant potential to impact health.
In a 2010 study researchers in Finland found that adolescents with poor perceived social support were at higher risk for developing depression and antisocial behaviour.
Malnutrition, an all-too-common condition in seniors, may be combatted through participation in church socials and other community gatherings. In another recent study, seniors involved in activities with friends and neighbours were more likely to be alive five years later than their more reclusive counterparts (Social Science & Medicine, 2010).
Finally, seniors that reported having a confidant had 25 percent less risk of mortality. These studies show that friendship has a protective role, perhaps especially for the more vulnerable members of society.
Moving to a new community, entering a new stage of life, or experiencing the loss of a relationship can heighten our need for new friends. How and where to make friends depends a great deal upon individual interests and circumstance, but simply following one’s passions will result in new social connections (see below).
Striking up conversations with those around you can be intimidating at first, especially in a new environment, but this uncomfortable step becomes easier with practice, opening the door to new social opportunities.
Pets provide essential companionship, evidenced by the intense bereavement endured when a pet is lost. Animal-assisted therapy programs capitalize on the benefits of animal company, contributing to improved socialization among psychiatric patients, decreased medication use in long-term care patients, and assisting individuals with a mental illness in recovery.
Interestingly, the benefits that one would therefore expect from owning a pet don’t translate into better overall health. Some studies have gone so far as to conclude that pet owners have poorer health than others, but it is unclear whether illnesses started before pets joined the family.
On a positive note, the presence of a companion animal during times of stress has been shown to decrease blood pressure, while dog ownership is associated with increased physical activity. Dog walkers benefit further through additional opportunities for human interactions and community integration during walks.
From partners to pets, our relationships have profound effects on our health and well-being. Fostering those relationships may be the key to living a healthy, vigorous life.
Keeping the love alive
While Hollywood and Harlequin may disagree, successful long-term relationships require effort, nurturing, and intention. Joyful unions don’t happen by accident—keep yours happy and healthy with some of the following strategies.
5 quick tips for relationship sizzle
20 ways to make new friends
Explore your interests and meet new people
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