21st Century Aging

Living longer and better.

Relationships and Health

How interactions heal and harm

You have likely heard it over and over:  Social support is linked with health and longevity.  The claim is true; social isolation predicts increases in mortality, particularly among older adults.

It is less known that conflictual relationships are also bad for our health.  

In what I consider to be the first major review on this topic, a couple of researchers in 2001 noted that in heterosexual marriages, marital conflict led to reports of poorer health. People, though more often women unsatisfied in their marriages, had higher risks of disability, reports of pain, and even a higher likelihood of periodontal disease!

Most of us can identify with and understand marital conflict. Remember the last time you threatened your spouse with sleeping on the couch? But what does conflict really mean in psychological research?  What specifically happens in relationships when we feel dissappointed?

A recent, brilliant, and sobering report in the journal Health Psychology, by Bert Uchino and otherssheds light on what troubles us about our mates. The study looked at quality of relationships and cardiovascular risk and they measured levels of inflammation—markers important in the development of heart disease. 

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What they found was striking.  Among both women and men, a sense that a spouse was not supportive or listening well was associated with increased inflammation, even when considering other factors that could also influence health. An example would be coming home to discuss a stressful day and feeling like your husband really is not interested.

Additionally, when spouses perceived that their partner was not engaged when describing something good that had happened to them, they had increased levels of fibrinogen, a risk factor for heart disease.

These findings really shake-up our notions of “social support.”

A client who is taking a stress reduction class recently said to me, “I keep hearing all of this stuff about social support and how much it matters. But what if your relationships are toxic? How is that helpful?”

It’s not. The quality of relationships matters—a lot. The next time you find yourself trying to ignore a situation in which you feel someone (even if they are not a spouse) is not listening to you, or are not happy for you, try to think about what this is doing to your health. You might say, “Hey, it does not feel like you are really listening to me.” That may help. More often though, I think the best prescription is to put a lot of time and effort into thinking about who you should talk to and how to identify generous listeners. Not everyone is or can be. 

But we need to find people who are interested in hearing about us and seek out their support. Our minds and bodies depend on it.         

Follow me on Twitter for updates about health, relationships, aging and psychology! 

Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Psy.D., M.S., is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

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