“If a fraught relationship significantly shortens your life, are you better off alone?”

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From The Atlantic, a good read about that Danish study we covered here showing relationship conflict can be surprisingly deadly, comparing it with alternative of social isolation. The study adjusted for all the usual health risk factors but found that even for people who seemed equally healthy, conflict with people near them, especially spouses, greatly increased the risk of death:

“In your everyday life, do you experience conflicts with any of the following people?”

Partner
Children
Other family
Friends
Neighbors

A Danish health survey asked almost 10,000 people between ages 36 and 52 to answer, “always,” “often,” “sometimes,” “seldom,” or “never” for their applicable relationships.

Eleven years later, 422 of them were no longer living. That’s a typical number. What’s compelling, Rikke Lund and her colleagues at University of Copenhagen say, is that the people who answered “always” or “often” in any of these cases were two to three times more likely to be among the dead. (And the deaths were from standard causes: cancer, heart disease, alcohol-related liver disease, etc.—not murder. Were you thinking murder?)

The stress of constant conflict degrades health and eventually kills, it seems. But being isolated was not great, either:

In isolation, most of us wither psychologically and crumble physically. In 1979, a California epidemiological study showed that the risk of death during a given period among people with the fewest social ties was more than twice as high as in those with the most. Some experts have suggested that isolation, perceived or objective, should be commonly considered alongside things like obesity as a serious health hazard. One study found social isolation was as strong of a predictor of mortality as smoking. People with heart disease are 2.4 times more likely to die of it if they are socially isolated. We could go on and on with these decades of pro-social correlations.

So the point here is relationships are like almonds. We know that if you eat almonds, you increase your odds of living longer—unless you hate almonds so much that eating them sends you into a rage, raising your blood pressure, and you eat them every day until at some point the hypertension eventually causes a stroke. Yes, just like almonds. The objective nature of what’s said or done between people converges with our personalities to create perceptions of that relationship, and that’s what matters and (seems to) significantly influence our bodies. “Certain personality traits may promote the reporting of any social relation as stressful,” the researchers write, “and therefore strong correlations between measures of stressful social relations would be expected.”

Men did seem more physically vulnerable to worries and demands from their partner than did women, which is in keeping with a scientific understanding of men’s health as especially relationship-dependent. Men release more cortisol in response to stress than women do, and marriage has proven more beneficial to men’s health than to women’s. And it was Harry Nilsson, not Mariah Carey, who was first moved to popularize Badfinger’s “Without You” in 1971 by really drawing out the emotive i in the line, “I can’t liiive if living is without you.”

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