No one likes to be sick! And these days, in the midst of a pandemic, almost everyone is obsessed with avoiding illness. “Wash your hands. Wear a face covering. Practice social distancing.” These are all things we’ve been told to do and in many ways they make sense. They cut down on the spread of the virus. They help us avoid illness.
In some ways, the COVID health directives we receive are kind of like the direction we get to exercise regularly, avoid high fat foods, sleep seven to eight hours a night, wear a seatbelt, avoid using tobacco, and limit consumption of alcohol. Doing these things doesn’t eliminate all health concerns, but they do increase the likelihood of maintaining strength and vigor.
The Relationship Factor
There’s another component to health and well-being we don’t hear much about. That’s relationship health. As noted previously, a contentious, quarrelsome relationship can set you up for a weakened immune system, but a strong, happy relationship is the foundation for better outcomes.
In a study done several years ago by Drs. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and Ronald Glaser at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, couples were given blisters and then asked to discuss conflictual topics. The researchers found that “even a simple discussion of a disagreement slows wound healing,” but the most concerning outcome occurred with hostile couples. These couples, the ones who engaged in criticism, sarcasm and put-downs—took the longest to heal. On average, it took the hostile couples 40% longer, or two more days, to heal than those couples who were able to resolve their differences in healthy ways. Why did this happen? Kiecolt-Glaser and Glaser noted that the more conflictual couples produced less of the proteins linked to healing and suggested this might be the cause.
The researchers suggest that these results are even more impactful for serious health concerns or for healing from surgery. Poorly handled conflict gradually erodes all the “good stuff” in a relationship, but the converse is also true. Conflict, handled well, has the ability to improve one’s immune functioning, aid in the healing process, and ward off serious illness.
In another study psychiatrist Brian Baker at the University of Toronto studied the impact of a good marriage on 201 couples in high stress jobs. All had high blood pressure when the study began, but one year later, those spouses in happy marriages lowered their diastolic (bottom) blood pressure by a couple of points while couples in less happy unions experienced a 3-point rise in blood pressure.
Wash Your Hands . . . Wear a Mask . . . and Protect Your Relationship
Strong, healthy, committed relationships aren’t always easy. Some days they require more work than others, but just as with physical exercise, the long-term commitment often results in big benefits. If you find yourself struggling to stay on task with your relationship health, get help. Many people consult with or use a personal trainer for physical fitness. Consider using a relationship specialist, e.g. a couples’ counselor, to help you stay fit relationally. Your partner and your children will thank you for taking better care of yourself and them.