Relationships Can Help 
or Hurt Health

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Relationships can have a positive effect on health. Our partners, family, and friends often lighten our burden, and provide us direct assistance and the emotional support we need. They help us in some way to cope with life and be strong and healthy. If we fall sick, our partner, family, and friends stick with us, comfort us, and provide as inspiration to go on living and to get well again. This is what close relationships are about--"in sickness and health."

In one study, patients, who were unmarried and had no one with whom they could share their troubles were three times more likely to die in the next five years than did the patients who had a partner or a close friend in whom they could confide. To be more specific, the death rate for socially isolated patients was fifty percent compared to the seventeen percent for those who were connected to at least one person in a close emotional relationship.

Beside the extreme example of higher death rate, isolation and loneliness are also associated with increased incidence of illness. For a lonely and unsupported individual, illnesses linger on longer and their ill-effects are magnified. On the other hand, intimacy and emotional bonding with others protects our overall sense of well-being and acts as a buffer against the stress of illness. A study of physiological measures provides us with information that supports these observations. Individuals with good family relationships and social support tend to have lower cholesterol levels and a stronger immunity against diseases. Lonely and isolated people tend to have higher levels of cholesterol and lower immunity.

Recognizing that relationships have an effect on health, let's consider the quality of relationships for their variable effect on health. Some relationships can definitely cause emotional stress. We even refer to relationships as "healthy" or "unhealthy." In fact, a negative relationship can hurt more than a positive relationship can heal. Family relationships, when laden with negative emotions, such as conflict, anger, sorrow, and despair, become a constant source of stress. Unhappy couples rather than enjoying each other remain tense as long as they are together. They drag their problems and conflicts around all day long and then take them to bed. If there is sex, it is unfulfilling, submissive on the part of one partner, and aggressive on the part of the other. When asleep, dreams turn into nightmares and in the morning they wake up with a gnawing feeling of anger, fear, and unrelenting stress.

Such a pattern in a relationship, compounded by months and years, will surely have bad consequences for a couple's psychological and physical health. Many such couples succumb to emotional disorders, such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, chronic pain, compromising their daily routines and habits , and eventually their immune system. They may sleep insufficiently, eat poorly, neglect exercise, and produce excessive stress hormones. Some may go on to abuse alcohol and drugs in a highly self destructive way. When the relationship between two partners becomes intensely bitter, strangely enough, they turn their anger upon themselves and begin to care less whether they live or die. Physical disorders finally catch up with the alienated mates as they drag through the grueling journey of conjugal life.

Though both men and women are affected by relationships, women are especially vulnerable to the conflict and tension in relationships. There is some evidence to suggest that more women develop mental and physical disorders in response to family stress. Perhaps, a satisfying family life is more critical for women. For thousands of years they stayed home and tended the family while men went out hunting. Women also have a tendency to suffer far more than men when their loved ones are in pain or facing a major trouble in their life.

We cannot overemphasize the value of social support for the quality of health we enjoy.  Lack of support is as bad for health as are smoking, lack of exercise, and obesity. But how an individual feels about the support is critical in determining whether or not the support is really going to improve his or her overall sense of well-being. Some feel helpless while receiving support and some feel crushed under the weight of the obligation. Some seek support but resent it when given, because it makes them feel dependent on the person with whom they have an unresolved tension. Therefore, how much good the social support will do for a person depends on the attitude of the giver and of the recipient.

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 



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