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Life Support

Physical and emotional benefits of relationships

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Life Support

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.

Family ties

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.

Friend finding

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.

Animal love

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.

  • Make time: Busy lives can mean little opportunity for spontaneous quality time with your spouse. Planning date nights, regular meals together, and weekend getaways requires intention and coordination, but provides vital chances to reconnect and remember why you are together. Take time to have fun together, perhaps through a regular activity you both enjoy.
  • Fulfill yourself: While you and your sweetie may take on the world as an indivisible team, don’t lose sight of your needs as an individual. Identifying and achieving your personal goals, ambitions, and desires will foster growth in your relationship, making you stronger as a couple. Ensure that you each cultivate a life outside of your union, having friends, activities, and interests that you enjoy alone.
  • Talk, talk, talk: Intimate connection requires patience, risk-taking, and a willingness to talk about those things you’d rather leave buried and forgotten. Building listening skills together can take a mountain of self-help books and a lifetime of practice, but will become your touchstone through life’s trials. Couples therapy may mean the difference between success and failure through difficult times: don’t hesitate to call
    upon outside help if needed.
  • Fight nicely: Express your anger, talking about your own feelings, rather than playing the blame game. When possible, avoid starting conflict-laden conversations at less-than-ideal times: before meals, before bed, or during other activities. Give your conflicts the attention they deserve, striving to remain respectful, loving, and focused on one issue through even the most heated debates. Choosing to return to a discussion at a later time and accepting differences may make for the most productive problem-solving.

5 quick tips for relationship sizzle

  1. Break routine: Dress up for a weeknight dinner at home, slow dance in the living room, or sneak away for a decadent night in a local hotel. Boredom is a great romance killer.

  2. Remember that little things do mean a lot: Don’t wait for your anniversary to celebrate and show some love. Leave love notes in pockets or gym bags; shower your sweetie with treats and tokens of affection; make that daily phone call to say, “I love you.” Why wait?

  3. Practise the magic of touch: Keep holding hands, cuddling on the couch, and stealing kisses as you pass in the hall, no matter how long you’ve been together. Share physical affection outside of the bedroom.

  4. Connect with fantasy: If sex has become routine and a little uninspired, explore your own fantasies and learn how to talk about them. Keep your intimacy alive and growing through new experiences.

  5. Make time to make love: If weeks go by with no action, schedule it! You plan for other important and enjoyable pursuits such as time with friends and vacations; why not prioritize intimacy?

20 ways to make new friends

For parents

  • Kids’ activities: Be intentional in your efforts to meet other parents, rather than just dropping your kids off or watching their activities from the sidelines.
  • School activities: Involve yourself in your child’s school community to meet other families with children in your neighbourhood.
  • Parent/child activities: Read local community newspapers or search online for nearby events involving both parents and children (daytime movies, baby sign language).

Community options

  • Community centres: Enrol in crafts or sports activities and enjoy programming for all ages.
  • Libraries: Visit your local library, often a hub of social connection, especially in smaller communities.
  • Seniors’ centres: Discover a rich source of friends and activities.

Explore your interests and meet new people

  • Knitting circles: Join a circle, often offered or advertised through yarn or craft stores.
  • Book clubs: Attend free discussions of books at your local library, or challenge yourself to meet a few neighbours and form your own.
  • Running groups: Look for running and cycling groups through local sports stores if early mornings and endorphin highs are your thing.
  • Sports teams: Investigate local organized leagues for diverse sports, some catering to specific individuals: gay positive, over 40s, women only. Recreational leagues encourage beginner participation.
  • Group meditation: Search online or inquire at your local Buddhist centre for options in your area.
  • General interest courses: Check out your local school board for affordable courses in art, computers, language, dance, and many others.
  • Other classes: Hit the gym for Pilates, yoga, and dance classes. Make the effort to meet others before and afterward.

In your neighbourhood

  • Have a garage sale: Meet your neighbours, clean out your scary closets, and make some spending money.
  • Organize a street festival: Get a few parents together, plan some food, some music, possibly a bouncy castle, and voila! Instant community.
  • Grill it up: Deliver invitations to a few families on your street for a barbecue or potluck and make new friends.

Volunteering

  • Food banks and community shelters: Give back to your community and meet other kind souls.
  • Skill-sharing: Share skills with your neighbours through informal gatherings, whether it’s bike maintenance or cake decorating.
  • Animal shelters: Spend time as a dog-walker at your local shelter. Enjoy animal companionship without needing to take them all home!
  • Peer counselling: Apply for a volunteer position at a crisis line for adolescents, adults, or victims of abuse. It can be intensely rewarding, and training is normally provided. 
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