Why are people so drawn to saying I do? All romance aside, there may be practical reasons why humans commit to relationships. Hundreds of studies have been conducted on the benefits — and the detriments — of marriage. Recent studies concur that while happy marriages have a big impact on overall wellbeing and longevity, toxic relationships can take a big toll on your health.
The most recent of these reports comes from Harvard University where the latest findings in a longevity study revealed that good, close relationships predicted both happiness and healthiness. The study spanned 75 years and collected data from more than 700 men from a cross-section of socio-economic and educational backgrounds.
“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too.”
The Harvard study showed that the chronic stress of being lonely and unhappy effects the body over time. Social class, IQ and even genetics take a backseat to the value of close relationships. “People who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were healthiest at age 80,” says Waldinger.
Your relationship quotient doesn’t have to be fulfilled by a spouse, but your Facebook follower count isn’t the ultimate measure. The number of friends you have isn’t as important as the quality of the relationships. The Harvard study noted that having a close relationship with even one person has a big impact on happiness over the course of a lifetime.
In Sickness and in Health
Conversely, a 2014 study by the Institutes for Health found that people in unhappy marriages were at a much higher risk for heart disease. The negative effect was even greater in women and in older adults. Study investigator Hui Liu, believes this is because women are more likely to internalize their feelings and become depressed. The health implications of being in an unhappy relationship may be compounded if the stress leads to unhealthy habits, such as overeating, drinking or smoking.
Likewise, a 2015 Brigham Young University study of 94 couples indicated that only couples who were very happy had healthy blood pressure levels, while couples that were unhappy or even ambivalent about their marriages had much higher levels. And it turns out that an individual’s blood pressure can be influenced by their partner’s reports of chronic stress.
“An individuals’ physiology is closely linked with not only his or her own experiences but the experiences and perceptions of their spouses’,” says lead author Kira S. Birditt, lead author of a study in the Journals of Gerontology. “We were particularly fascinated that husbands were more sensitive to wives’ stress than the reverse especially given all of the work indicating that wives are more affected by the marital tie. We speculate that this finding may result from husbands’ greater reliance on wives for support which may not be provided when wives are more stressed.”
If you’re in a dysfunctional or unhealthy marriage, it might be time to seek professional help. A skilled therapist may be able to guide you through emotional issues, while an experienced family law attorney can provide legal insight. Although addressing the causes of an unhappy relationship may not be easy, it could be a prescription for what ails you.