I saw one of my favorite couples today. Mr. and Mrs. Smith have been coming to the clinic for several years now and they’ve been both through a whole lot health wise. Mr. Smith was a poorly controlled diabetic when we first met, with an A1C in the 11’s. Mrs. Smith was so worried sick about it that she would do his meal prepping for him and make sure he took all his medications. She would force him to go out and walk with her. Now, his A1C is at least in the managable 8’s. Mrs. Smith had a cancer scare that we had to deal with. She had a cough that wouldn’t quit for several months, but never thought to get it checked. When we finally checked the chest x-ray, there was a lung mass present. She needed to subsequently get multiple consultations with thoracic surgeons and pulmonologists. While going to these doctor’s visits, she also ended up with a bout of atrial fibrillation, which compounded to her sense of anxiety. During that time, Mr. Smith was dealing with the death of his mother and had to put on a brave face for his wife. Ultimately, Mrs. Smith had thoracic surgery to remove the mass and fortunately, it was found to be benign and has been mass free for the better part of two years.
In my encounters with them separately during that time, Mrs. Smith confessed to me that she was worried about her husband. He never showed any sign of grief over his mother. She also worried that his diabetes was also getting worse. Mr. Smith, during his visits, told me that he was extremely nervous for Mrs. Smith regarding her upcoming surgery and that he was trying to stay attentive to her needs. He didn’t want her to worry needlessly about him.
Today, when I saw them together, we talked about how things were going with them and they were both extremely excited. Their daughter was due to give birth any day now and they couldn’t be more overjoyed about the occasion. This year, they were also celebrating their 50th anniversary. Mrs. Smith confided that she was grateful for everyday she was with Mr. Smith and prayed every night that they spend another day with each other. Love can be an amazing thing.
It’s true that loving, stable relationships can confer some very good health benefits. So, what is a loving, stable relationship? It is not a new relationship. While there are certainly different benefits to being in a new relationship, typically, there is a sense of anxiety about them that will unfortunately disqualify them from this conversation. It is not a volatile relationship. While every relationship will go through ups and downs, relationships that create tension without justification can ultimately be more detrimental than they are worth.
With that said, here are my top three benefits, among others, to a having a loving, stable relationship:
- Less depression and anxiety. One of the benefits of being in a relationship is that you’re never really alone. Being single can lead to more situations of being lonely or socially isolated. This can lead to more neurotic behaviors. Social isolation can also lead to a higher risk of substance abuse, with either alcohol or drugs, which can also contribute to higher rates of both depression and anxiety. Being in a relationship is like being in a twenty four hour support group. There’s someone there to talk to about the crappy day at work or how Uncle John can be a real pain in the butt when he drinks. There’s someone to lean on when a close relative passes away or when things don’t go according to plan. When a relationship is going right, coping strategies are typically healthier and more effective when dealing with stress.
- Better health. In a loving relationship, stress and anxiety can be better managed, which can lead to less stress hormones, ie. cortisol, and less risk taking behaviour, ie. drinking and smoking. Married people also tend to eat better than their single counterparts, potentially leading to better outcomes. Studies have shown that people in relationships that exhibit more positive emotions have healthier immune systems and are better equipped to fight off colds and illnesses. The happier the relationship, the better the immunity. In addition to this, married people were also noted to complain of headaches and low back pain less than there single counterparts. Of course, all of this is contingent on how happy the relationship is. In other words, a terrible relationship or marriage can potentially have a deleterious effect on health. Marital unhappiness has been shown to actually increase blood pressure readings, which is a major risk factor for coronary events. Discord in a relationship can lead to increase in stress hormones that can lead to generalized inflammation, which can also contribute to coronary events, as well as other health problems, like cancer.
- Longer life expectancy. Ultimately, if a relationship succeeds at keeping both parties happy, life expectancy might be extended. However, there are some caveats. Again, this is contingent on the quality of the relationship, so if a marriage is strained or leads to divorce, it may have a negative effect on life expectancy. In addition, if a person is widowed, again life expectancy may change, as loss of a supportive loving partner will lead to depression.
In the end, it’s not just about finding someone to be with, but finding the right one. Mr. and Mrs. Smith have a great relationship, but this isn’t to say that love is easy. As a matter of fact, I can say with certainty that love is hard work. This year will mark the 8th year that I’ve been married to my wife. I couldn’t be happier with her. She’s there for me when times get hard and we work through our problems when times get rough. She’s a great mother to my son. She’s a great friend to me. But we are always working on our relationship. We try to go on our date nights, try to avoid nagging each other, compliment each other, and try to be the best versions of ourselves for each other. It’s important to remember that happiness is a fleeting feeling and if we don’t kindle and nurture these moments consistently, they will disappear into our memories in a flash. My wife and I work hard on our relationship and with some luck, we will hopefully get through at least 50 years, like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and live to tell the tale.