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We all know that our social relationships affect how we feel. And there’s plenty of evidence that it’s not a purely mental effect: a relative lack of social ties increases the risk of premature death by up to 50 percent — equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day! But our intimate relationships — what we normally mean when we say "relationships" are even more important.
And while the ways that your relationship can affect your health are pretty complicated, it’s possible to have a simple overview, which is this:
If your relationship is close and supportive, it will tend to improve your health, sometimes radically.
If it’s bad, it will make your health worse.
Relationships And Weight
Weight is slightly complex when it comes to relationships. It’s a common belief that people "let themselves go" when they enter long-term relationships, and the data bears out that idea; people tend to gain weight at the beginning of a relationship and lose it at the end of one. But so strongly is the idea of losing weight linked to being healthier in our society that we can skim over those figures and not stop to wonder if they’re hiding their real message.
Speaking of which, sometimes people in long-term relationships find it easier to help each other lose weight. Couples can get good results by going to the gym together. By contrast, dissatisfaction in relationships can lead to dysfunctional eating habits.
Intimacy And Health
In a piece of news that will surprise no-one, people who regularly had sex reported to a study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine that they were more satisfied with their relationships overall and had a higher sense of wellbeing. While regular sex does reduce stress, other aspects of a long-term relationship are likely to increase it. When you share everything, everything is up for discussion, and it’s arguments over money that drive most couples apart.
In particular, oxytocin, the "snuggle hormone" associated with reduced stress and increased wellbeing, is also found in more abundantly in people who are in long-term relationships. Just a few seconds’ physical contact is enough to stimulate and increase oxytocin production.
A Wake-Up Call?
Sleeping is an area of relationships where the research isn’t clear. Sometimes, sleeping next to someone you love and trust can help you to relax and feel less stressed, but sometimes your partner’s nighttime behaviours can actually stop you sleeping or make sleep more interrupted and more stressful Typically married couples who sleep in the same bed sleep fewer hours per night than single people, which in our sleep-deprived society doesn’t sound like such a good thing. You can also "catch" insomnia from your partner — you don’t have to be fully awake to be influenced by your partner’s behaviour in bed and people whose partners were insomniac reported more daytime tiredness, fatigue and trouble sleeping in a 2005 poll. It gets worse, though — relationship conflict or insecurity can trigger sleep problem, but guess what helps cause relationship insecurity? Sleep problems. This can be a vicious cycle that we tend to believe has to be broken at the emotional level, but actually a few night’s decent sleep might be able to help.