Saturday, March 30, 2013
Why are “good” relationships better for our health?
What a lot of people have been finding in psychology and health research over the past decade is that having poor, or very few, “good” relationships is actually as detrimental to your health as poor lifestyle choices, like smoking. The question is: why? How do “good” relationships improve your health? One theory is that “good” relationships shape the way we respond to stress in our environment, thus reducing the quantity of stress hormones our brain and body are exposed to. These stress hormones, while helpful to our survival in acute situations, also suppress our immune system and can “kill brain cells” in consistently or abnormally high doses.
In a paper published this year, Dr. Paula Pietromonaco and her colleagues at University of Massachusetts at Amherst reviewed all of the findings related to relationship attachment and these stress hormones to explain how relationship quality may lead to differences in health.
When we are children, our emotional responses to the world around us are largely determined by our relationship with caregivers. Most children have what psychologists call “secure attachment.” This means that we respond to the world emotionally with the assumption that our caregiver will be sufficiently supportive and protective. Likewise, securely attached children will match their emotional responses to the world with that of their caregivers. For example, if there is something frightening in the environment like a large dog, the child will often look to their parent to see if the parent is also afraid. If the parent is smiling, instead the child will know that the large dog is something that doesn't necessarily warrant fear. However, some children develop insecure attachments to their parents which are related to emotional responses to the world that are mismatched to the situation. Some insecurely attached children will over-react emotionally (anxious attachment) to the large dog to get their caregiver to provide more comfort or reassurance, and some will under-react emotionally (avoidant attachment) to the large dog by hiding their emotional reaction entirely and thus reducing communication between them and their caregiver more and more over time. This is important because our attachment style as children influence our attachment to important relationships for the rest of our lives.
As it turns out, men and women with high levels of attachment anxiety and avoidance react to stress in different but very informative ways. For example, one commonly used stress test for couples within psychology research is to put a couple in a room and have them discuss a recent conflict in their relationship. They found that women with high attachment avoidance have much higher stress in anticipation of the discussion, while men who are high in attachment anxiety have much higher stress during the discussion. This suggests that your security in the relationship generally may contribute to elevated stress in fairly regular relationship experiences. In another study, they looked at stress hormones in women when their husbands were out of town on business for up to a week. They found that partners who have high attachment anxiety have much higher stress hormone levels while their partner is away. Together, this research shows that people with less secure attachment to their partners are more sensitive to potential threats to their relationship and experience more physiological stress as a result.
But what does this mean people who are anxiously attached shouldn't date or marry someone who travels for work? Not necessarily. While we are a long way from being able to make specific, empirically driven recommendations about this, we all have the power to influence our thoughts which cascade into changes in emotions and behavior. The trick is for anxiously attached individuals and their partners recognize situations that may be seen as a potential threat to the relationship, and find ways to reduce that stress.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot we don’t know about relationships and health. For example, many people hold the Freudian misconception that your relationship with your mother determines your relationships for the rest of your life. While there is strong evidence that they are related, our childhood relationships merely provide a working model for what relationships are and can be. This model remains flexible to experiences within all of our subsequent relationships. You can think of it as similar to how a good or a bad math teacher in 1st grade addition and subtraction will relate to your grades in 4th grade fractions or high school calculus; a great one may help and a terrible one may set you back, but none of this is irreversible or even close to deterministic. What also remains to be understood is how good, supportive, secure relationships change behaviors over time, and how those behaviors contribute health. For example, in a supportive relationship, if one person starts dieting, the other might participate as a way of supporting the other; while in an unsupportive relationship the other may not and thus reduce the likelihood of maintaining the healthier lifestyle.
Either way, the take home message is to identify and nurture your good relationships as much and as often as possible; not only for your happiness but also for your health. One of my mentors, Dr. Chris Peterson, had a very good recipe for doing this on a daily basis, “Have a but-free day!” To do this, when anyone, especially people you love, shares good news with you, respond actively and constructively (For more on The Good Life according to Chris Peterson check out this new book). So when your boyfriend comes home and says, “I got that promotion!” You should always 1) match their enthusiasm with “that’s great,” “I am so happy for you,” or “congratulations” and then 2) ask them a question about it like, “how did you find out?” or “what will your new title be?” The recommendation to be active and constructive seems obvious, however many studies have shown that most couples don’t consistently respond in an active, constructive way to their partner’s good news. More importantly, what differentiates the “good” relationships from all of these others was whether or not they practiced this seemingly obvious habit. Instead, many people respond to their loved ones with criticism or fail to share in the excitement by saying the first things that comes to mind, like “Awesome, but I bet this means you’ll have to work even more.” In the real world, there are always details of “good news” from your partner that warrant questions or concerns, but those should never come first.
Pietromonaco, P. R., DeBuse, C. J., & Powers, S. I. (2013). Does Attachment Get Under the Skin? Adult Romantic Attachment and Cortisol Responses to Stress. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(1), 63-68.
Posted by Kate Ryan at 11:05:00 AM