Positive experiences in close relationships are associated with better physical health

April 2, 2023

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Positive experiences in close relationships are associated with better physical health

Social relationships influence physical health, but questions remain about the nature of this connection. New research in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests that the way you feel about your close relationships may be affecting the way your body functions.

Previous smaller-scale studies have examined the connection between relationship conflict or satisfaction with stress levels and blood pressure. The new research examines the effects of positive and negative relationship experiences on the body, as well as how these experiences and health outcomes change from day to day.

What the researchers say: “Both positive and negative experiences in our relationships contribute to our daily stress, coping, and physiology, like blood pressure and heart rate reactivity,” said the lead author. “Additionally, it’s not just how we feel about our relationships overall that matters; the ups and downs are important too.”

Over the course of three weeks, 4,005 participants completed daily check-ins via their smartphone or smartwatch, providing assessments of their blood pressure, heart rate, stress, coping. Every three days, participants also shared reflections on their closest relationship, detailing their positive and negative experiences.

Researchers found that, on average, people with more positive experiences and fewer negative experiences reported lower stress, better coping, and lower systolic blood pressure reactivity leading to better physiological functioning in daily life. By contrast, variability – or daily ups and downs – in negative relationship experiences like conflict were especially predictive of outcomes like stress, coping, and overall systolic blood pressure.

The researchers note that one broader implication of this study is that it is important to consider how outside stressors – such as the COVID-19 pandemic – can affect people’s relationships, and therefore their physical health.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic, relationships have been facing unprecedented challenges, turbulence, and change,” they explained. “What this means is that the COVID pandemic may have health implications not just because of the virus itself, but also indirectly as a result of the impact it has on people's relationships. That is, because the COVID-19 pandemic has created considerable strain, turbulence, and variability in people's relationships, it may indirectly alter stress, coping, and physiology in daily life, all of which have important implications for physical well-being.”

Researchers cautioned against interpreting the study as proof that relationship experiences have physiological effects. Instead, the findings contain associations from daily life that illustrate how relationships and physical health are often intertwined.

So, what? More proof that humans are relationship-orientated animals. I am sure that, with more research, we’ll find that there is a causal link between the state of a near relationship and physical health.

We already know that mood and emotions affect the immune system and thus health, and since mood, emotions and relationships are very closely linked it would be surprising if there wasn’t a direct link between relationships and health.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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