How Can Relationships Affect Our Health Throughout Our Lifespan?

How Can Relationships Affect Our Health Throughout Our Lifespan?

“This week’s blog is written by one of our volunteers, Sarah Vaughan-Jones. Sarah is entering her last year of her Psychology degree at UBC this fall and is helping out around the clinic as she learns more about the field of psychology.”

Relationships can be challenging. They don’t come along easily and require constant attention to sustain them. At different stages in our lives, they can be more difficult with the other challenges that life throws at you. Being in a relationship, and having a romantic partner can play an especially large role in our health outcomes. Whether it is a budding relationship in high school, or a 30-year marriage, having a partner can certainly impact our health. Let’s take a look at a few of the ways this can happen throughout our lifespan.

 

Late adolescence

As we reach our later teens, major changes happen in our day to day lives. Many of you are heading off to college or joining the workforce. It is probably the first time many of you have lived on your own, with less direct guidance or support from your parents. You may find that you are ripped out of your comfort zone and put in a new environment, where you may not know anyone! This can be lonely and stressful!

With your newfound freedom, you might explore new things such as drugs and alcohol, experimenting with sex, and others. Often, these are in an effort to develop and form relationships with others, including romantic partners. How might relationships affect this? Research has found that young adults in a relationship may have less mental and physical health problems when compared to single college students, as they may engage in less risky behaviour (Braithwaite et. al, 2010). Sometimes we experiment with risky behaviours as we look to expand our social network. Alternately, being in a relationship might encourage us to be healthier. In the people studies, exercise, smoking habits and eating habits were more likely to improve due to being in a relationship with a partner (Nichols, 2017). Couples can receive the emotional support and comfort that they may be missing from home, benefiting their wellbeing.

 

Early Adulthood

Life continues to change once we’re in early adulthood. Relationships can quickly become a more important part of our lives. Many feel stress and pressure from society to find a relationship, as it’s a common time for marriage, moving in together or having children. Whereas a few years ago it was all new and experimentation, now the pressure is on – people may be expecting you to be in a relationship as you get older. It can be tricky to balance; you’re trying to find security in a job and search for a partner at the same time as dealing with whatever other life challenges come your way!

In this stage of life, research suggests that women will have better mental health outcomes, while men will have better physical health, when in a happy, committed relationship (Nichols, 2017). A married man’s health was similar to that of a non-smoker, with regular blood pressure and BMI levels (Loving & Slatcher 2013, p.8). Happy couples also have a decreased mortality risk, decreased the risk of cardiovascular disease, and decreased cancer-related mortality.

On the other hand, when in a relationship, conflict can arise between career and love. With a common goal of being financially stable, this can mean more time at work, which can strain and cause stress in relationships. This kind of stress has been linked to future cardiovascular problems (Nichols, 2017). Research suggests that adults who are able to maintain a good balance between many demanding situations have the ability to adapt to demanding environments better than others, which helps form a greater identity (Cao, 2013, p.7).

If this is you, you might feel trapped in a cycle of doubt, as it can be hard to find a solution and how to balance a relationship with work and other commitments. What you might find interesting is that being in a relationship can help with coping; that is, the relationship becomes a strength in coping. They call this “dyadic coping” and it can be beneficial for many couples. Dyadic coping focuses on how couples can cope together to decrease their stress. They can prepare for future stressors, and plan on how to deal with them together. This can increase an individual’s support for their partner, and improve trust and intimacy with one another, improving each other’s mental health (Landis et. al 2014, as cited in Umberson & Montez, 2010).

 

Adulthood

Long-term marriages and relationships can also have a significant impact on our health. Whether you are new parents or retiring, relationships still have a substantial influence on your health.

Research is finding that that long-term relationship satisfaction is different between men and women. Men that engage in problem-solving and stress management, are predicted to have the healthiest relationships (Pietromonaco et. al, 2013). It seems as though focusing on problem-solving and stress management in relationships may allow men to be rational and calm under stress, which may place less of a negative stress on their body.

Some of the research highlights that health outcomes for women improved when they were intentional about paying attention to their personal satisfaction and this led to better relationship happiness overall (Pietromonaco et. al, 2013).

What about children? Having a child can be an important part of a relationship. Research has found that during pregnancy, women that receive support from their partner had reduced anxiety during and after pregnancy. It can be a stressful time for many couples, and having support can be not only healthy for the mother, but also the child. Reducing parental anxiety levels can also improve the infant’s behaviour and development for the better (Pietromonaco et. al, 2013). Parents who are calm and less stressed during, and after pregnancy may have less distressed children.

Later on in life, as we age, more and more health problems may arise, including chronic diseases. Having a partner as a support system can have great effects on health outcomes. Cancer patients reported feeling more intimacy in the days in which their spouses supported them. What’s interesting is that giving support, not just receiving support can also be beneficial to our health. Supporting a spouse showed lower mortality rates for the supporting partner (Brown et. al, 2009, as cited in Pietromonaco et. al, 2013).

What can we take from this? Although relationships require effort to find, grow and maintain, they may be very beneficial to our health in the long run. With the curve balls life can throw in your direction, it can be very beneficial to have the support of a partner, at any time in your life. But of course, there is always an alternative to this. Others in your life such as close friends and family can also provide a similar support for you in times of need, or anytime at all! For any question, feel free to contact us!