How Many Years of Life Will a Bad Relationship Cost You?
Put differently, how many years will a good relationship earn you?
Posted Dec 02, 2020
Here’s good news for anyone currently in a committed romantic partnership: Being in a relationship, compared to being single, could mean an extra 1.5 years in longevity per decade lived.
Add that up over a 50-year marriage and we’re talking about a lot more evening walks, time spent with family, and Social Security checks collected.
This is according to a recent article published in the journal, Psychology and Aging. To arrive at this result, a team of scientists analyzed the life trajectories of 974 adults in New Zealand over two decades, from ages 26 to 45. They found that being involved in an intimate relationship was associated with slower biological aging, as measured by physical markers such as body-mass index, facial age, white blood cell counts, and cardio-respiratory fitness.
“The presence of social relationships has consistently been linked to improved health outcomes and longevity when compared to the absence of close relationships,” report the researchers. “People who are more socially integrated are at lower risk of death and disease across the life span and the magnitude of this association rivals other traditional risk factors for poorer health, such as a sedentary lifestyle and smoking.”
The results come with an important caveat, however: While a good relationship might help save years of your life, a bad relationship could cost you.
To figure out how much, the researchers divided the quality of people’s relationships into four categories:
- Positive relationships
- Low-quality relationships
- Relationships with instances of abuse
- Low quality relationships with instances of abuse.
They found that people in positive relationships aged approximately .95 years for every calendar year across the 20-year time horizon. In other words, they aged less than what would be considered normal.
Not surprisingly, people in low-quality relationships with instances of abuse aged quickest, adding approximately 1.2 years of age for every calendar year of the study. And, people in low-quality relationships or relationships with abuse aged faster than normal, but not as fast as the pace set by those in low-quality relationships with instances of abuse.
Interestingly, the authors note that changes to the quality of one’s relationship over time were not associated with biological aging. In other words, it is the amount of cumulative exposure to relationship problems, not whether one’s relationship has gotten better or worse recently, that is most relevant to biological aging.
They also report that victims of abuse are at a greater risk of premature aging than the perpetrators of such abuse. And relationship abuse is more common than one might think: More than half of people in the study experienced some form of relationship abuse during the 20-year study.
The results of this research have clear clinical implications. The authors write, “These findings identify that people in lower quality relationships or relationships with high levels of partner violence (particularly experiencing physical violence) are at risk for poorer health due to accelerated biological aging. This presents a potential opportunity to intervene to improve relationship quality or reduce partner violence using empirically supported treatment, such as integrative behavioral couple therapy or acceptance and commitment therapy. Improvement in relationship characteristics could slow the rate of biological aging, to the extent such effects are reversible.”
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Bourassa, K. J., Caspi, A., Harrington, H., Houts, R., Poulton, R., Ramrakha, S., & Moffitt, T. E. (2020). Intimate partner violence and lower relationship quality are associated with faster biological aging. Psychology and aging.