5 Oct 2020

Steph Tan - The importance of committed relationships

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 2:23 pm on 5 October 2020

Research shows the positive impact of committed relationships on your mental and physical well-being.

Steph Tan is researching at the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Yale School of Public Health. 

Steph Tan

Steph Tan Photo: Supplied

She tells Jesse Mulligan relationships play a profound role in well being and relationship satisfaction contributes so much to our overall happiness, above any other factor.

“The truth is we naturally crave relationships. We have an inherent desire to have a companion as love is the most basic human need," she says.

“A great example of how we see this is the movie Castaway, where Tom Hanks is the main character and he’s completely isolated on an island until he finds a volley ball, draws a face on it and names him Wilson, then Wilson goes everywhere with him.

“That’s quite the example that if you isolate us it’s going to drive us a bit crazy – we really need that companion.”

Healthy relationships involving, parents, siblings, children, friends and colleagues have a bearing on our well being, but intimate relationships are central.

She says research shows the effects of intimate relationships are more beneficial to yourself and others.

“You have societal benefits. For example, research on people who come out of prison after being convicted of crimes. When they enter stable, committed relationships they are actually much less likely to commit crimes in the future, because the partner helps them confirm to social norms and follow rules.

“You also have reduced drug use. So, people who dealt in cocaine, when they enter stable committed relationships, the cocaine use drops dramatically and so you have reduced drug-related incidences and reduced burden on the healthcare system.”

In terms of finance, being in a stable relationship has a significant impact. Statistics show New Zealand poverty rates for single parent households are 62 percent.

“That’s so much higher from children in two-parent households, being at 15 percent.”

Tan says the research however doesn’t suggest you have to be in a relationship to be happier, but shows on a population level that coupled people are generally happier than singletons.

“But if you are in a toxic or unstable relationship that’s detrimental to everyone and there’s research that shows divorce can have positive effects for children if their parents were arguing all the time and the children are actually happier when they’re separated.”

The physical impacts of a relationship on the body can be scientifically measured, she says.

Levels of the stress hormone cortisol can go down. Other research, she says, shows married people are three times more likely to survive a heart surgery than if you are single. Healthy relationships, which bring less anger and more conflict resolution reduce stress-related illnesses, inflammation and bring better overall immunity in the body.

Mental health is better too. A study where couples look in each other’s eyes for a period showed this activated parts of the brain associated with positive feelings, happiness and empathy. It also deactivated brain regions associated with negative emotions and sadness.

Maximising the health of your existing relationship can be as easy as saying thank you. Showing gratitude has been shown to biologically reduce feelings of insecurity in a partner and boast relationship satisfaction, Tan says.

Taking things personally when a partner has had a bad day, or being defensive and passive-aggressive, do the opposite.

“You don’t need a good intellect to listen and empathise with your partner,” she says.

Physical touch, like handing your hand, also brings benefits.

“When you hold a partner’s hand you are controlling their nervous system and be strong in a fearful situation and it also biologically decreases their worry.”

For singletons looking to tap into the benefits of a getting a healthy relationship, Tan says a relationship will not make you happy. You need to first be happy within yourself to attract a partner to share mutual happiness with.

“It shouldn’t be the reverse, looking for a health relationship to make you happy. This applies to everyone, but you certainly shouldn’t rely on your partner to make you happy.”

You can find out more about Steph on her website Nourishing Mind.

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