Can your relationship status make a difference in your overall well-being? To borrow a commonly used Facebook phrase, it's complicated. Research shows that strong partnerships can help us avoid illness, adopt healthier habits, and even live longer. On the other hand, troubled relationships tend to breed stress and weaken immunity.
"So many factors affect our health, whether it's the behaviors we exhibit toward each other or the habits that we pass on to each other," says psychologist Maryann Troiani, co-author of Spontaneous Optimism. So whether you're dating casually, shacking up, or already married, keep in mind these 12 key ways your romantic bond may influence your mind and body.
It's a common belief that couples "let themselves go" after pairing off, and there may be something to it. According to a 2012 review, people tend to gain weight as they settle into marriage and lose weight when a marriage ends.
But Troiani has seen the opposite happen quite often, as well: "A happy couple can motivate each other to stay healthy—they'll go to the gym together, set goals, and feel responsible for each other." When couples do pack on the pounds, she adds, it may be a symptom of conflict, not slacking off. "Dissatisfaction in the relationship can lead to passive-aggressive eating behaviors and sleep problems, which will lead to weight gain," she says.
Surprise, surprise: Regular physical intimacy appears to reduce stress and boost well-being. One study, published in 2009 in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, found that people who frequently had sex were healthier mentally and more likely to report greater satisfaction with their relationship and life overall.
Sex is just one aspect of a relationship, however. And your partner's behavior outside the bedroom can just as easily send stress levels soaring in the opposite direction. Parenting disputes, disagreements over money, or even questions as simple as who does which household chores have been shown to increase stress.
Sex isn't the only type of physical contact that can lower stress and improve health. In a 2004 study of 38 couples, University of North Carolina researchers found that both men and women had higher blood levels of oxytocin—a hormone believed to ease stress and improve mood—after hugging. The women also had lower blood pressure post-hug, and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
"These types of caring behaviors are so important: a touch on the arm, holding hands, a rub on the shoulder," Troiani says. "It only takes a few seconds of contact to stimulate those hormones and to help overcome stress and anxiety."
Sleeping next to someone you love and trust can help you fully relax and embrace sleep, Troiani says. A big exception to that rule, of course, is if your bedmate keeps you up at night—by snoring, for instance, or by tossing and turning. In a 2005 poll, people were more likely to experience daytime fatigue and fitful sleep themselves if their partner was struggling with insomnia.
Relationships can affect sleep in less direct ways, too. Research shows that relationship insecurity or conflict is associated with poorer sleep—and to make matters worse, sleep problems can exacerbate relationship problems, creating a vicious cycle.
Relationship difficulties can put anyone on edge, but in some cases they may actually contribute to full-blown anxiety. Several studies have found a link between marital problems and an increased risk of diagnoses such as generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety.
These links can be difficult to untangle, however, since anxiety has been shown to breed relationship problems (and not just vice versa). What's more, some research suggests marriage may help protect against anxiety. In a 2010 World Health Organization study of 35,000 people in 15 countries, those who were married—happily or otherwise (the study didn't specify)—were less likely to develop anxiety and other mental disorders.
Depression and anxiety often go hand in hand, so it makes sense that relationships can affect depression in similarly complex ways. On the one hand, some studies have found that long-term relationships—and marriage, specifically—can ease symptoms in people with a history of depression.
On the other hand, fraught relationships have been shown to dramatically increase the risk of clinical depression. In one small but highly cited study, women—regardless of their personal and family history of depression—were six times more likely to be clinically depressed if their husbands had been unfaithful or if their marriages were breaking apart.
Our romantic partners have a noticeable impact on how much alcohol we consume, and how often. One study, which followed more than 600 couples during their first four years of marriage, found that people's drinking habits tended to mirror those of their spouse; if their partner drank heavily, they too were more likely to do so.
It's also true that relationship conflict and a lack of intimacy can drive people to drink. Research suggests that both men and women drink more in response to relationship problems—and excessive drinking, in turn, can add fuel to those problems.
A person's diet, exercise habits, and stress levels can all have an impact on blood pressure, so it's not surprising that your relationship status—and the strength of your relationship—can, too.
In a highly publicized 2008 study, researchers at Brigham Young University found that people in happy marriages tended to have lower blood pressure than their single counterparts. People who were unhappily married, however, tended to have higher blood pressure than singles.
"Being in an unhealthy relationship causes your body to release stress hormones and your heart to beat faster," says Troiani, adding that those factors can push blood pressure up over time.
The link between relationships and cardiovascular health goes well beyond blood pressure. Studies have consistently reported that being married is associated with a lower risk of heart attack and better outcomes after heart surgery, especially for men.
What explains this pattern? Stress and other underlying biological factors (including blood pressure) are thought to be involved, but the emotional and tangible support that partners provide likely plays a role as well. "It's the caring behaviors—affectionate touches, thoughtful actions—that really make a difference in a person's recovery," Troiani says.
In several studies, supportive marriages have been shown to improve survival rates in people with cancer, including prostate, lung, and colon cancer. In a major study of 3.8 million cancer patients published in 2009, 58 percent of married people lived for 10 years post-diagnosis, compared with 52 percent of people who were never married, 46 percent of divorcees, and 41 percent of widows and widowers.
People who were separated from their spouses fared worst of all, with only 37 percent surviving for 10 years. The loneliness and unexpected stress of going through a separation may have a negative effect on the body's immunity, the study authors noted.
Attention to health
Although it might seem like pestering at times, a partner's watchful eye and day-to-day care—whether it's pointing out worrisome symptoms, or checking that you've taken your medicine—seem to foster a healthier lifestyle and closer attention to health problems. Case in point: A 2011 Canadian study found that married men experiencing chest pains tend to get to the hospital sooner than single ones, regardless of whether their wives were even home at the time.
"People in healthy relationships really do take care of each other," Troiani says, "and they may even feel more of an obligation to take care of themselves, too."
It's not just your current relationships that can affect health, but your past ones, as well—especially those that ended in hurt feelings and rejection. In 2011, researchers from Columbia University found that thinking about an ex-lover can have similar effects on the brain as physical pain.
It's even possible for a breakup to result in something called broken heart syndrome, a temporary enlargement of the heart (with symptoms mimicking a heart attack) brought on by extreme physical or emotional stress. Postmenopausal women are most likely to experience the syndrome, but research shows that it can also occur in men and younger women, as well.