Samantha Joel Ph.D.

Dating Decisions

How Do Romantic Relationships Get Under The Skin?

Powerful effects that still benefit you 10 years later, even if you break up.

Posted Jan 03, 2017

Pressmaster/Shutterstock
Source: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

If someone asked me to pick the most influential finding that has come out of relationship science to date, I’d say it’s this: Relationships matter for your health. In 1988, House and colleagues published their classic paper showing that social isolation is a powerful predictor of premature death.1 Since then, dozens of studies have replicated this finding. Indeed, a recent meta-analysis of 148 studies (with more than 300,000 participants) showed that people with stronger social relationships are about 50 percent more likely to survive over a 7.5-year period, compared to those with weaker social ties.2 This is a huge effect: It suggests that social isolation is more dangerous than a number of well-established risk factors of mortality, such as obesity and physical inactivity.

In response to these findings, many policy makers, health practitioners, and members of the general public have started viewing social relationships not just as nice to have, but as a fundamental human need. We simply must have close relationships in order to survive and thrive. However, the issue of just how relationships affect health is not as well understood. What aspects are particularly important (i.e., specificity), and in what way do social relationships influence the body (i.e., mechanism)? These are the questions many researchers are now grappling with.

In a recent study published in Psychological Science, Slatcher, Selcuk, and Ong3 tested a specific path through which relationships—in this case, romantic relationships—might influence health. They predicted that one aspect of romantic relationships that may be particularly important for health is partner responsiveness.

A responsive partner is one who makes you feel understood (this person “gets” you); validated (they respect your perspectives and feelings); and cared for (they’re concerned about your well-being, and they want the best for you). In a previous post, I wrote about how having a responsive partner is like navigating a relationship in Easy mode: It’s much easier to work through issues with a partner who is understanding, validating, and caring, as opposed to a partner who lacks these characteristics. But there is also some research suggesting that people might be physically healthier when they feel that their partner is responsive to their needs.4,5

How exactly could a partner’s responsiveness “get under the skin” to influence health? Slatcher and colleagues predicted that the partner’s responsiveness might affect cortisol production. Cortisol is a hormone that helps to regulate a diverse set of functions in the body, ranging from higher-order functions like learning and memory to more basic functions like immune-system response and the breaking down of food (metabolism). New research suggests that the body’s rhythm of cortisol production throughout the day has important implications for health. People with “steeper” cortisol profiles—higher cortisol output in the morning, with declining output throughout the rest of the day—tend to have better health outcomes than those with flatter cortisol profiles.6,7

Slatcher and colleagues predicted that having a high-quality romantic relationship—in which you feel that your partner is responsive to your needs—might lead to long-term improvements in how the body produces cortisol. To test this, the researchers analyzed more than 1,000 thousand participants who were either married or living with a partner. Participants indicated how responsive they thought their partner was by rating how much they thought the partner cared about them, understood their feelings, and appreciated them. Participants also provided four saliva samples per day over a four-day period, so that researchers could determine their cortisol profiles. Ten years later, the same participants again completed the same measures, allowing the researchers to examine how responsiveness might have predicted changes in cortisol profiles over time.

The researchers found that, indeed, people who felt their partners were more responsive at Time 1 had healthier cortisol profiles 10 years later: They had higher cortisol levels shortly after waking up, as well as a steeper decline throughout the day. This was true even for people who were no longer with the same partner, suggesting that we may benefit from high-quality romantic relationships even after those relationships end. Further, these effects held controlling for a number of other relevant factors, such as gender, age, and depressive symptoms, suggesting that the results likely could not be attributed to these other things. However, the researchers did find that their results were partially explained by negative emotion: People with more responsive partners subsequently tended to experience fewer negative emotions, which helped to explain their improved cortisol profiles.

These results suggest that having a thoughtful, caring romantic partner, even temporarily, may have a lasting, positive impact on how our bodies function. However, as this is the first study of its kind, more research is needed before we can feel confident about this conclusion, particularly the causal link. It’s difficult to say just from this single study that responsive partners cause people to produce cortisol more effectively. Further, if responsive partners do improve cortisol profiles, it’s not at all clear how that process happens. The negative emotion results give us a clue—perhaps responsive partners lead to steeper cortisol profiles because they help us regulate our emotions more effectively?—but at this point we can only speculate about the specific mechanisms that might be at work.

The question of why healthy relationships go hand-in-hand with healthy bodies is one of the field’s biggest puzzles. This new study represents one of the more ambitious attempts to fit the pieces together.

Are you questioning whether your current relationship is right for you? We are conducting an online study about how people decide whether or not to end a relationship. If you are thinking about ending your dating relationship, please consider participating! 

This article was originally written for Science of Relationships, a website about the psychology of relationships written by active researchers and professors in the field.

References

1. House, J. S., Landis, K. R., & Umberson, D. (1988). Social relationships and health. Science, 241, 540-545.

2. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLoS Medicine, 7, e1000316.

3. Slatcher, R. B., Selcuk, E., & Ong, A. D. (2015). Perceived partner responsiveness predicts diurnal cortisol profiles 10 years later. Psychological Science, 26, 972-982.

4. Khan, C. M., Iida, M., Stephens, M. A. P., Fekete, E. M., Druley, J. A., & Greene, K. A. (2009). Spousal support following knee surgery: Roles of self-efficacy and perceived emotional responsiveness. Rehabilitation Psychology, 54, 28-32.

5. Seluk, E., & Ong, A. D. (2013). Perceived partner responsiveness moderates the association between received emotional support and all-cause mortality. Health Psychology, 32, 231-235.

6. Kumari, M., Shipley, M., Stafford, M., & Kivimaki, M. (2011). Association of diurnal patterns in salivary cortisol with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality: Findings from the Whitehall II study. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 96, 1478-1485.

7. Dmitrieva, N. O., Almeida, D. M., Dmitrieva, J., Loken, E., & Pieper, C. F. (2013). A day-centered approach to modeling cortisol: Diurnal cortisol profiles and their associations among U.S. adults. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 38, 2354-2365.