What bad relationships can do to your health
Good relationships are extremely beneficial to our health, but what exactly is the effect of bad relationships?
A new study, conducted over 20 years, has explored the health consequences of crappy relationships. Researchers found that people whose blood boils regularly with anger are at greater risk of high blood pressure, while those who go cold emotionally better watch their backs.
Last year, Harvard researcher, Robert Waldinger revealed the findings of a 75-year study that found that warm, loving relationships determine a sense of happiness and fulfillment in life.
As well as contributing to emotional health, quality relationships – which aren’t conflict-free, but are overwhelmingly supportive and kind – help our minds stay sharper and offer more immunity to physical ill health.
“People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected,” Waldinger said of the study’s findings, adding: “It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.”
While Waldinger’s research touched on the harmful effect of long-term conflict, the new study, published in the journal Emotion, explored the impact of stonewalling or aggression, both of which are common counter-productive behaviours in relationships.
The researchers, psychologists from Northwestern University, followed 156 couples over the course of 20 years.
As well as filling out regular questionnaires about their physical health, every five years the couples went to the clinic and sat in a room together where they chatted about how their day had been as well as a hobby or activity they enjoyed together. They were then asked to discuss an issue – such as sex, money, or parenting – that caused conflict in their relationship.
Hidden cameras recorded the sessions and the researchers later rated the interactions based on facial expressions, body language and tone of voice.
Specifically, the researchers looked for signs of anger, such as pursed lips, furrowed brows, raised voices and tight jaws as well as signs of stonewalling behaviour, such as blank expression, rigid neck muscles, and little or no eye contact.
“Conflict happens in every marriage, but people deal with it in different ways. Some of us explode with anger; some of us shut down,” lead author Claudia Haase said. “Our study shows that these different emotional behaviours can predict the development of different health problems in the long run.”
The researchers controlled for health factors including exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption and caffeine consumption.
Over time, angry spouses were at far greater risk (about 80 per cent more) of developing chest pain, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems, while stonewallers were more prone to developing backaches, stiff necks and general muscle tension. It is important to note the findings are based on correlation, not causation. However, they still provide a fascinating insight into the impact of our behaviours on our health.
“For years, we’ve known that negative emotions are associated with negative health outcomes, but this study dug deeper to find that specific emotions are linked to specific health problems,” said senior author of the study, Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson. “This is one of the many ways that our emotions provide a window for glimpsing important qualities of our future lives.”
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