People who are married or partnered in middle age are around 50% less likely to develop dementia than those who live alone. This is the finding of a study published in the British Medical Journal. Isn’t that incredible!? Simply by not being in a relationship when you’re around 50 years old can double your risk of dementia.
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With this in mind, we wanted to build on our last blog here — which looked at the importance of friendships for your health — and explore the impact relationships can have on our health and wellbeing.
Now, before we get into the health benefits of relationships, let’s first clarify the kind of relationships we’re talking about. As you know, relationships come in different shapes and ways: personal, professional, close, casual, etc. Having variety and diversity in your relationships is important. But for the purpose of this blog we will be focussing on close intimate relationships.
How relationships develop
Close intimate relationships almost always gradually evolve over time. You might hit it off with someone right away. But the relationship inevitably gets stronger, closer and deeper as you get to know one another.
For this to happen, we need to prioritise our time, energy and focus. Only then can we actually nurture and develop a relationship with the other person or persons.
Now, there’s often a strong cultural narrative, driven by Hollywood, media, songs and books, that an intimate relationship should develop in specific stages with key milestones and be between two people i.e. monogamous. This form of relationship is often presented as a universal truth and that these two people should be each other’s best friends, able to foresee and meet all of each other’s needs. Whether that’s the need for security, adventure, intellectual stimulation, emotional intimacy or sex to name just a few of those needs. But, for many, this is not always the most helpful structure.
That’s why we’d like to invite you to get curious about your understanding of what makes a close intimate relationship. See if the cultural narrative of what it ‘should’ be like fits with your own personal views and needs, regardless of whether you are currently in one or not.
Your relationships – your way
The invitation is to shift your attention from the cultural ideal of a relationship and look at relationships from a much more personal perspective. What kind of relationship you want to have and experience? What is important to you when you’re in a relationship?
It may be the case that you enjoy a close emotional relationship with one person, but have a sexual relationship with another. It may be that you are well matched in terms of sexual, emotional and financial needs with one person but that your intellectual stimulation and satisfaction comes through a different connection.
While this may not adhere to the typical cultural narrative, if it’s helpful for you and the people that you are intimately close with and not harmful to others, that is all that matters, right?
Trust is a must if relationships are to survive
Whatever the structure and dynamic of the intimate relationship you want and need, the primary and fundamental ingredient is most likely to be trust. Musson and Rousseliere describe trust as ‘…the foundation of most personal relationships’.
The more that trust develops, the more intimate the relationship becomes because there’s a sense of acceptance and safety. When we feel safe, or at least safe enough, we don’t feel the pressure to hide our needs, sexual or otherwise. When we feel accepted and valued for who we are, we thrive and blossom.
Why trust matters for your health
So, why does this have anything to do with your health? Well, there are a number of reasons why but let’s focus on the most basic factor that affects your health: stress state versus maintenance state.
Without trust, you and your partner(s) will struggle to open up and share with each other who you truly are, because fundamentally it doesn’t feel safe. When you don’t feel safe, your stress state is activated.
The longer you stay in the stress state and don’t manage to support the body to do the necessary maintenance, the impact will show up in your health. The maintenance state, often referred to as Rest and Repair, is essential to keep the different systems like detox, digestion and immunity running. You can read more about stress state and maintenance state in this blog here.
The three questions to ask yourself about your relationship(s)
With that information in mind, here are Thor’s top three questions. Use them to get curious about your relationship(s) and discover what is right for you, or not as the case may be.
Is it helpful?
Our first question, as always, is ‘is it helpful?’ Looking at your close, intimate relationship(s), is it helpful to you?
- Within this relationship, do you feel ‘good’ or ‘bad’ about yourself?
- Do you put up with difficult behaviour because you’re scared that the relationship will end if you challenge them?
- Do you often feel inadequate and struggle to appreciate why your partner is with you? Or feel clumsy and unskilful.
- Do you feel that you have to watch what you say and mask your true feelings?
- Does your partner respect any sexual, financial and emotional boundaries that you have established?
The second question is ‘why bother?’ Now, this question may sound really negative, but it actually gets right to the point.
So think of it in terms of why are you bothering to sustain and maintain the relationship? What’s your incentive or motivation to be in it? Is it e.g. companionship, sexual satisfaction, financial security, kids or status?
Whatever your reasons for being in the relationship, recognise what they are and think about if they are a strong enough incentive to keep you in that relationship. Are you getting what you need? Is it supporting or draining your health and wellbeing?
What am I making it mean?
Our third and final question is ‘what am I making it mean?’
- What meaning do you attach to the relationship that you’re in?
- Does the relationship give you a certain status, a sense of social confidence or something else?
- Does it make you feel successful or unsuccessful? A good person? A stand-up citizen? Something else?
- Does the identity and status of your partner(s) affect or influence your sense of your own identity?
Write down your answers to these questions and anything else that comes to mind. Gather the clues about your relationship(s) and the impact of your relationship(s) on your actual physical, mental and social health. Remember we always talk about health in those three dimensions, read more about it here.
The state of the relationship will affect your health
Having asked yourself the questions above, you’ll have a clearer idea of whether the relationship is right for you. This is important because while being in a relationship brings health benefits, such as the reduced risk of dementia and various other life-threatening or life-limiting illnesses, a negative or toxic relationship can have the opposite effect.
Indeed, research has shown that women with coronary heart disease who experience marital stress have a 2.9 times greater risk of recurrent coronary events and cardiovascular issues.
Separate research shows that suppressing your feelings is unhealthy, especially when those feelings are anger or resentment. Couples tend to die younger when partners have different styles of coping with anger. The more severe the mismatch, the greater the risk of early death for both partners.
So it’s not just that you are in a close, intimate relationship but more importantly, what is the state of that relationship? Does your experience of being in the relationship support you to move between maintenance or stress state as you need? Are you more in the stress state than is healthy?
Our invitation to you
Remember that feelings are information, if the answers are showing you that you’re not in the kind of relationship(s) you need, it could be time to rethink your situation. This could be to invest your time, energy and focus in improving the relationship(s) you’ve got. It could be to explore how to end it well and take this learning with you forward.
If your answers are showing you that the relationship(s) is helpful to you and you are getting what you need, or you can see your way forward to that potential, that’s great. The invitation to you is to not take that for granted but to take action to safeguard and nurture what you’ve got.
June is PRIDE month for the LGBTQIA+ community in the UK. The principle of PRIDE is to celebrate who you are and how you do relationships. So whatever your gender and regardless of whether you are straight or queer, give yourself the permission to celebreate with pride who you are and how you do the relationships that are helpful to you and your health.
Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor
PLEASE NOTE THAT THOR A RAIN IS NOT A MEDICAL DOCTOR. THE HELPFUL CLINIC IS NOT A MEDICAL CLINIC AND THIS IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. FOR MORE INFORMATION CLICK HERE