HEALTH: How being in a relationship can affect your health
When you’re officially off the market and settled into a comfortable relationship, you may be more apt to let yourself go— to wear sweatpants and eat ice cream on the couch with your significant other.
You’ve found someone who loves you unconditionally, so why bother, right? Although your suspicion that a happy relationship could be bad for your waistline is partially correct, there is actually more evidence that suggests a healthy partnership is good for your health.
While numerous studies have linked stress from a bad relationship to a higher risk of heart disease— and even death— healthy relationships can reduce those risks, while boosting life satisfaction and, according to some experts, your net worth.
We’re not talking strictly about heterosexual married couples, either, says Timothy J. Loving, an associate professor in human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin and co-founder of Science of Relationships.
“It’s not the marriage certificate” that bestows the benefits, he says. “We’ve seen very similar benefits in same-sex couples after accounting for things like discrimination and different societal support. And we’ve seen it in people in nonmarried cohabiting relationships as well.”
The complex link between relationships and health
“We do know that individuals in positive relationships appear to live longer, [and] are less likely to suffer from coronary heart disease and some of those things,” Loving says. “What we know less about are the biological mechanisms underlying that.”
While no one can say for certain exactly how a good relationship positively influences health, there are a few notable possibilities. One lies in a common pet peeve in romantic partnerships.
“When we live with someone or are around that person for the majority of the time, they’ll nag us when we aren’t doing something in the right way, like getting that lump looked at or seeing the doctor,” Loving says. “For example, we know that men especially are more likely to take advantage of the health care system when they have a partner pushing them to do those types of things.”
Having someone you love and trust in your life can lessen your stress and give you a healthy coping mechanism when life throws curveballs. This is true for both men and women, but it’s this specific perk that Loving says lends the greatest benefits of healthy relationships to men, as they’re more likely to value independence and emotional detachment in traditional Western culture.
“When guys are able to get into a long-term partnership with someone, it kind of creates a safe outlet for those things,” Loving says. “In this way, men seem to get more of a boon than women, who tend to maintain better support networks as a whole and who may be better at dealing with their emotional responses.”
These stress-busting effects, for both genders, are not only good for mental health, but also play a role in reducing the risks of chronic disease. A study in the journal of the American Medical Association links the effects of stress to immune and inflammatory responses, depression, and autoimmune, infectious and coronary artery diseases.
Financial perks of partnerships
And as for finances, like mental and physical stress, the potential benefits are reserved for the most well-adjusted relationships.
Being married increases the likelihood that you’ll have health insurance and access to care, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The agency also says that while married and unmarried adults have about the same rates of falling ill, those who are married are likely to have shorter hospital stays and lower health care costs overall. Pair this with double the earning power, and the financial benefits of being together seem obvious.
But arguments about money are a notoriously touchy spot— and the largest predictors of divorce, according to researchers at Kansas State University. There, a study led by Sonya Britt found that the stakes were high in money arguments, regardless of income level or net worth. Good communication, which can help prevent such arguments, is crucial for both financial and romantic health, the study suggests.
Essentially, not just any romantic relationship will do. The potential for whole-health benefits is there, but primarily for the most well-adjusted partnerships.
“The mere fact of just checking off the box that says ‘I’m in a relationship’ doesn’t really tell us much without knowing how the relationship is working,” Loving says. Good relationships, like those replete with trust and sensitivity, are the kind that will offer the biggest health perks, even if they include a bit of nagging.