Happy Heart, Healthy Heart:
Reap the health benefits of love

Veronica Kallos-Lilly, Ph.D., R.Psych. (1314)

We all know that the novelty and passion of new love is very exhilarating.   But when new love grows into a close, long term, intimate bond, your life is enhanced in a multitude of ways.  The most obvious benefit of long term love is joy and general wellbeing.  Surprisingly, scientists are also discovering many physical health benefits to love and marriage.

Love and the heart

For a long time researchers have noted that coupling is associated with lower mortality rates.  However, recent research is beginning to identify more specific health benefits related to happy relationships.  Heart disease is one of the most common concerns facing all of us.  Epidemiological studies suggest that happily married couples are at lower risk for heart attacks and cardiovascular disease than unhappily married couples.  High blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease, is found to be lowest among happily married couples, followed by single people.  Unhappily married couples show the poorest blood pressure results. 
We are also beginning to learn which specific relationship factors foster or hinder the health advantage of relationships.  High levels of criticism, power struggles, and lack of warmth, can hinder recovery from heart disease and increase the risk for future heart problems in both men and women.  Indeed the emotional tone of a relationship turns out to be as good a predictor of heart disease as smoking or high cholesterol.  All relationships have conflict; it is how you fight that can have a physical toll on you and your partner.

Immune System Boost

The health benefits of a good relationship bond extend beyond the heart into day-to-day functioning.   One of the most striking findings is that married people pay fewer visits to their doctor and on average report shorter hospitalization stays than unmarried people.  By examining blood samples and recovery time from minor cuts scientists have also found that couples who are warm and supportive to each other show better immune functioning than couples who are highly conflictual.  High conflict and hostility seem to be a recurring theme in determining what erodes the health benefits of relationships.

Stress Relief

Indeed, the quality of your relationships seems the most important factor in determining general wellbeing and happiness in life.  People in long term stable relationships experience less anxiety and depression and report less drug use and heavy drinking.  When people do seek help, the most common reason given for seeking psychological services is related to relationship concerns. 
Scientists who study love relationships have discovered that physical touch or expressions of affection from a loving partner that convey “I’m here for you” lower the body’s response to stress.  These gestures of support have a similar calming impact on the neurological activity of the brain to pain relieving drugs.  To know that your partner is there sends a message to the brain that says “It’s OK, you don’t have to deal with upsetting circumstances by yourself.”  Your body does not have to work as hard, which decreases the physical toll of stress.

Five Simple Ways to Nurture Your Love Relationship                                                                                  

  • Greet your partner warmly when you reunite at the end of the day
  • Convey gratitude regularly
  • Express affection daily
  • Show interest and curiosity in your partner’s life
  • Notice how you communicate: does it foster openness and connection?

Cultivating a solid, emotionally close, intimate relationship is not only one of life’s greatest pleasures; it is also good for your health.  What can you do to nurture your relationship today?