Relationships Are Good for Your Health… No, Wait… They’re Bad for It

Ah, love. It’s just the best, isn’t it? Except for those times when it’s just the worst.

One of the things I’ve noticed while writing these articles about scientific research on health-related topics is that for every study that indicates that something is good for us, there seems to be another study that indicates that the very same something is bad for us. For example, a glass of red wine at dinner is good for our hearts, but drinking alcohol is also directly linked to breast cancer. So when I started to research the potential health effects of being in a committed romantic relationship, as determined by scientific studies, I wasn’t surprised to find the same flip-flops. Are relationships good for our health? Well…yes. And no.

• General health – In general, scientific studies have shown that being married or in a committed relationship is better for your health – married people have far lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, lung disease, and other chronic ailments than unmarried people. But in contrast, a study presented in 2009 to the American Psychosomatic Society found that women who had a lot of disagreements and conflicts in their relationships had a higher risk of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high blood triglyceride levels and low “good cholesterol” levels, and obesity. These researchers stated that in many ways the health risks for women in a conflict-prone relationship were on a par with other risk factors such as smoking and physical inactivity.

• Longer life – Several studies have shown that – in general – unmarried adults have a higher probability of early death than married adults. At the same time, a number of other studies have indicated that stressful marriages or relationships, especially those that result in divorce or a breakup, significantly increase the risk of heart disease in both parties. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that women who experienced marital strain that they considered moderate to severe were 2.9 times more likely to have heart attacks or need heart surgery.

• Mental health – When we say, “My partner is driving me crazy!” we’re rarely serious about it. And sure enough, a number of studies (including one done at Florida State University in 2010) have found that people in committed relationships have significantly fewer mental health problems than single people. On the other hand, a 2003 study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that those in difficult and strained relationships were far more prone to exhibit mental problems than single people. In another 2004 study, women who had gone through several relationship breakups were significantly more likely to have mental health problems than women who had remained single all their lives.

• Pain – The late Roy Orbison crooned about how “Love Hurts,” but does it? Again, yes and no. A study in the journal PLoS ONE examined the interconnection of pain relief and relationships and found that feelings of romantic love activated endorphins in the brain that reduced the amount of pain that subjects felt. Even being shown a photograph of the loved one reduced their pain levels, while a photo of an equally-attractive stranger did not. At the same time, a 2005 study showed that those in contentious relationships had higher levels of certain hormones that actually increased their perceptions of pain.

• Picking up habits – Again, in the research, this one’s a toss-up. While a number of studies have found that couples develop what they call “habit synchronicity” and pick up each others’ habits, the benefits or detriments to health depend on which habits we pick up. A study presented at the American Sociological Association in 2011 indicated that although their research indicated that men in committed relationships tended to mimic their female partners’ habits and become more conscientious about their health and seeing doctors regularly, it also indicated that women were more likely to pick up their male partners’ bad habits, such as drinking too much alcohol, spending less time at the gym, and eating more junk food.

• Stress – Are relationships stress-relieving or stress-inducing? Well, several studies have shown that those in fairly drama-free relationships are less prone to psychological stress than single people. In contrast, a 2003 study in the journal Physiology and Behavior found that unhappily married people are actually far more stressed than single people.

So at the end of all my research on studies about marriage and relationships, I find what I suspected before I undertook it. Whether your relationship is good for your health or bad for it seems to depend on the actual nature of the relationship; if the relationship itself is relatively stress-free, so are the people in the relationship.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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