© 2018 SMART Labs @ Wayne. Photos by Jake Mulka.

title.  Can our relationships affect our health?

date. 06.26.2017

author. Richard Slatcher (rich.slatcher@gmail.com)

As a social psychologist, I’m interested in what makes relationships tick. My students and collaborators and I have looked, for example, at how when couples write about their romantic relationships in a journal writing sort of task over a few days, they are more likely to stay with their partner 3 months later. We’ve looked at how personality traits like neuroticism can shape relationships for better and for worse (in the case of neuroticism—which I call the “relationship killer”—for worse). And we’ve looked at how basic “junk” words like pronouns and articles that people use when talking with a potential romantic partner can predict dating matches when people speed date and predict whether people break up or stay together when they are in dating relationships. Increasingly, I’ve become interested in how relationships impact other aspects of our lives. It may come as no surprise that social relationships are one of the biggest drivers of happiness. But did you know that relationships can also affect your physical health?

 

Epidemiologists were really the first to take notice of the health effects of relationships. At various times when you complete a survey, you’ve probably noticed that you are typically asked what your marital status is. Doctors ask you this question, people who run the U.S. Census ask this question, as do epidemiologists. It was epidemiologists and sociologists working with large survey data who first started noticing that people who were married lived longer and were generally healthier. There are lots of possible of reasons for this. People who are married generally have better financial resources and can afford to take better care of themselves, eat better and exercise more. And spouses can be sources of support in times of need. 

 

But is being married always good for your health? A few years ago, colleagues and I tested this question by looking at every study that’s ever been published on the links between marital quality and physical health. We found consistent associations between the quality of people’s marriages and their physical health. People in highly satisfying marriages reported fewer health complaints, got sick less often, had fewer heart attacks, and lived longer. Further, the size of the effects between marital quality and health were similar to the effect sizes of other behaviors known to improve health like increasing fruit and vegetable intake and decreasing sedentary activity.

 

Building on this work, my students and I are trying to learn more about why relationships are good for our health. I’m especially interested in figuring out how relationships “get under the skin”, so to speak, from a biological standpoint. One of the body’s processes that we’ve homed in on is stress hormone production—which can be detected in the form of the hormone cortisol present in saliva (which is easy, if a little gross, to collect). We’ve shown, for instance, that when married couples are stressed about work, that those in more satisfying marriages have less of a physiological stress reaction (i.e., lower cortisol levels) in response to work worries. We’ve also shown that the responsiveness of romantic partners—how much your partner makes you feel understood, validated and cared for—predicts “healthier” cortisol patterns 10 years later, assessed by steeper average daily declines in cortisol levels.

 

It’s also clear that the links between social relationships in health begin early in life. One of the most consistent findings that I’ve seen in our own work has been that yelling and fierce arguments in the home are associated with poorer health and health-related biology, even among kids as young as preschool age. For instance, conflict at home that we assessed using an iPhone app called the iEAR (which stands for Electronically Activated Recorder) was associated with flatter declines in cortisol across the day in children aged 3-5 and with asthma symptoms in youth with asthma aged 10-15.

 

To what extent can these social behaviors actually be changed, and would such changes lead to improved health? This is a big question that hasn’t yet been answered. It’s my hope that large-scale intervention studies of couples and families will begin to include physical health measures as outcomes. Because when relationships are improved, it’s likely that people will not only be happier, but healthier as well.

 

Richard Slatcher is an Associate Professor of social psychology at Wayne State University and a SMART Labs collaborator. For a summary of his work on relationships and health, check out his recently published article with Emre Selcuk on this topic appearing in Current Directions in Psychological Science.