Do Happier Relationships Make for Better Health?

I’m a psychologist and researcher who studies interpersonal dynamics, which means that, for me, every day is Valentine’s Day.

That’s hardly an exaggeration: That foundational bond between couples that we celebrate each February 14th is the focus of much of my research.  More specifically, I explore how the quality and connectedness of relationships between romantic partners influences health.  

At first blush, it may seem like this is a relatively straight forward line of research. Isn’t it obvious that people in happier relationships live longer, more satisfying, and healthier lives? Sadly, that is not necessarily the case.

The Double-Edged Sword of Close Relationships

As Stephanie Wilson and I argued in an article in last year’s Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, aptly titled “Lovesick,” there are surprising potential health risks associated with close relationships. It hardly takes a doctor to understand why: When two people are very close, and one is sick, the other one is likely to be impacted more intensely.   In 2013, a study of osteoarthritis patients and their spouses found that the greater the knee pain a patient felt during the day, the poorer his or her partner’s sleep was likely to be during the night, with the effects being strongest among couples in closer relationships. Put bluntly, if you care about your significant other very much, and you spend your days seeing them suffer, you’re likely to feel their pain in an immediate and intense manner.

So, are we better served by having emotionally distant relationships? Thankfully, that, too, isn’t quite the case. As the recently completed English Longitudinal Study of Ageing shows us, older adults in the United Kingdom were more likely to stop smoking, become more physically active, and lose five percent or more of their weight if their partner made the same positive change. Conversely, we know other studies show that your risk of obesity doubles if your spouse becomes obese, a case of science confirming what anyone in a relationship who has ever tried going on a diet alone already knew all too well.  

Lessons learned from Valentine’s Day and Beyond

What, then, are we to take away from these seemingly contradictory findings? A good place to start is simply to acknowledge that our spouses have an immense influence on a whole slew of factors that impact our health, happiness, and general well-being.   With that in mind, we would do well to rethink our entire approach to Valentine’s Day. I have nothing against red roses and sweet sentiments on greeting cards, but imagine how much more meaningful the day might be if instead of going out to an overpriced romantic dinner couples took the time to acknowledge and discuss the ways in which they impact each other’s wellbeing. 

In case you think this is just empty talk, there’s research that demonstrates this principle in action.  Given how crucial sleep is to our health, researchers measured what impact relationship stability had on sleep patterns and found that when couples open up and share their feelings with each other, they are more likely to enjoy better and less interrupted sleep.

Every day, then, should be like Valentine’s Day, dedicated to emotional candor and to cultivating closeness. But, at the very least, let’s take one day to acknowledge the ways in which we impact one another so deeply, and let’s resolve to do whatever we can to be healthier together. Nothing can be more romantic.

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Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser directs the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at The Ohio State University’s Neurological Institute.

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