In line with the changes in our culture, recent research has begun to examine the effects of relationships on our health, both mental and physical. Our current culture no longer focuses on ‘just’ being in a relationship for social standing – we now engage in relationships to feel attachment and supported by another. And while many relationships have ups and downs (and this is normal), chronic unsupportive relationships have been shown to be associated with a range of negative effects.
It is not only the existence of close relationships, but the quality of these relationships that have an impact on our psychological wellbeing. Perceived social support - the belief that you are cared for, have assistance available, and part of a supportive network - is obtained through supportive relationships and is strongly associated with psychological wellbeing. It is theorised that social supports act as a buffer during times of stress, reducing the psychological and physical symptoms of stress. Consequently, when your perception is that these social supports is inconsistent, such as in an unsupportive relationship, this buffer is reduced, leaving you more vulnerable to the impacts of stress. Stable and supportive relationships provide high levels of affection, and allow for sharing of thoughts and feelings. Individuals that lack this intimacy often report higher levels of depression, loneliness, emotional distress and greater mood disturbance – particularly in the face of negative and stressful life events. The research has also shown that in the face of negative life events, having social support can influence your anxiety response. Clearly – a supportive relationship not only reduces loneliness, but is particularly important to how you react in times of stress!
So what about your physical health? Higher levels of support from relationships have been shown to be associated with better immune system functioning overall and predictive of lowered morbidity and mortality for long term and short term illnesses. Stress has been associated with increased inflammation and we know that unsupportive relationships increase the impact of physical symptoms, including inflammation. The poor health outcomes that arises from negative relationships can be theorised through two frameworks. Firstly, unsupportive relationships often see the onset of negative health behaviours, including poor diet, reduced quality of sleep, increased use of alcohol and drugs and less physical activity. As explored in our previous blog these aspects impact your mental health, but additionally they are also associated with poorer physical health outcomes. Put simply, when we are in unsupportive relationships we often don’t sufficiently look after our physical being and we know that this is linked to poorer health outcomes which can increase the development of disease. Secondly, we can consider the impact of stress and inflammation. Chronic inflammation has been suggested to be a key mechanism that drives a decline in our health. Although the pathways linking social stress, inflammation and health are complex, it is known that psychosocial stress, such as an unsupportive and difficult relationships, can directly result in inflammation. Studies have also demonstrated that insecurity in romantic relationships is associated with a wide range of health conditions, particularly cardiovascular conditions. So matters of the heart can truly affect the health of the heart.
It’s clear – stress, including stress from relationships, is bad for your mental and physical health. So how can we improve our relationships to make them more supportive?
There are a few basic things we can do:
1. Be open, honest and frequently communicate with your significant other
This is not just talking about conflict! Check in with your significant other regularly – you don’t want them to sweat the small stuff on their own!
2. Ask what you can do
If your significant other is struggling, simply asking them “How can I help you?” or "What do you need right now?" can demonstrate to them that you're there for support.
Instead of 'listening to respond', or jumping into problem solving mode, experiment with listening to your partner in a way that an empathic journalist writing an article would listen to the person they are interviewing. Ask questions and be curious and show that you are taking the time to understand them. This level of interest and care can provide significant emotional support which can increase security and be an antidote for stress!
You could also consider psychological therapy including Emotionally Focused Therapy or Gottman Method therapy which helps couples overcome negative cycles of interaction and create more intimate connections… for more information stay tuned for the next blogs!