Relationships and Health
Just returned from the IARR conference in Chicago and while the majority of the 700 or so attendees are dedicated to researching interpersonal attraction, sexuality and the challenges associated with maintaining long term romantic relationships, a few bold souls presented health related findings.

This is a fun conference since there are few places on earth where people can gather to report on the scientific aspects of close relationships from the serious: Abuse and Violence in Close Relationships, the silly What Makes You Hot,  &  Exploration of the “F*ck  Buddy”  Relationship  and the sublime, The Expression of Compassionate Love in Newlyweds.  Despite all the talk about love, sex and attachment, I made a special effort to check out research that explores health related themes.

Although health and relationships research is still relatively new, a growing number of researchers are investigating how our close relationships affect health behaviors. As much as relationship research focuses on what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the bedroom, how much sleep we get each night can certainly affect health and may depend on the person we share a bed with.

Heidi Kane from UCLA described new data that shows how daily experiences in relationships influence sleep.   Mothers and fathers of young children were tracked daily for two months reporting on their interactions and sleep patterns.  It turns out that when mothers disclosed more thoughts and feelings to their partner they got a better night’s sleep.  It also helped that mother’s felt understood and accepted by their partner. 

Self-disclosure was not a significant predictor of men’s sleep quality suggesting that women may require a greater sense of intimacy throughout the day than men in order to sleep well.  This may be especially true for mothers who likely spend more time monitoring her family dynamics. A solid sense of commitment and love from a partner would be a psychological cue that the family is functioning well and she can rest easy.

For women who are not connecting well with their husband, they might feel the family is at increased risk and may worry or ruminate about the consequences well into the night.  It would be interesting to see if self-disclosure plays a similar role for couples who do not have children. Family role is key since traditionally women are caregivers and focus more attention on relationships whereas men might lose more sleep when they are worried about their careers and their role as resource provider is under threat.  As these roles change in the modern world will some men (stay at home dads) require more self-disclosure in their marriage to sleep well if their wife is the primary income provider?

Sleep is necessary to health as part of the daily rhythms that renew the body for the demands of the following day.  Lack of sleep may make a person less able to cope with daily stressors such as commuting, pressures at work, and dealing with a chaotic family life. Casey DeBuse and colleagues at UMass have investigated how newlyweds cope with stress by examining a biological marker tracking the regulation of the stress response known as anabolic balance. Measuring the ratio between two hormones (DHEA-S to cortisol) shows how flexible a person is at responding to stress and relaxing after a stressor has passed.

 As I have discussed before in this blog, chronic stress is widely known to lead to increased risk of illness.  The better people cope with stress, allowing for a directed response followed by rest or calm, rather than long periods of high arousal or chronic stress, the better chance they may have for avoiding illness. has shown how attachment is associated with the stress response  such that insecurely attached individuals  cope with interpersonal stress in less optimal ways than securely attached. 

The folks at UMass have found that husbands and wives who were low in attachment anxiety showed a more variable ratio of the anabolic balance hormones after a stressful conversation.  In other words, during interpersonal conflicts securely attached couples tended to get more aroused initially by the conflict to focus and deal with it but were better able to chill out after the conflict was over.  The cool thing about this study is the objective measure of anabolic balance that describes a person’s adaptive response to stress.  Casey told me that they have video of the stressful conversation that should yield insight into behavior and communication styles that accompany the more adaptive stress response. 

These were only a couple of the interesting health and relationship studies presented in Chicago. While people will always be fascinated by what draws couples together and what threatens to divide them, I sense that investigating how relationships impact health will continue to grow as young researchers find innovative new ways to test how close relationships influence health in both positive and negative ways. 

by Maryhope Howland

I once took a self-defense yoga workshop. That might sound counterintuitive--we don't often think of yoga types going kung-fu style on their attacker--but my sister and I liked the sound of it, a more emotionally healthy way of defending ourselves in the big city.

The instructors in this class taught us a bunch of moves, how to stand so it's harder to push you over, how and where to hit someone else for maximum impact, and how to take a hit. But they also talked a lot about how we might go throughout the world to invite conflict less. One thing they said, that stuck in my mind, was that we have to give and take in order to be a "whole" person. We can't expect others to behave how we want them to if we don't tell them what our expectations are. We can't get mad when someone doesn't do something we think they should do if we didn't communicate that well. In other words, we have a responsibility to show people how we feel so that they can react accordingly.

There is a psychological study that always reminds me of that advice from the butt-kicking yoga instructors. The researchers (Diamond, et al., 2006) brought couples into the lab and hooked them up to heart rate machines, and then they asked them to have a conversation about their relationship. For some people conversations that bring up relationship issues can be very stressful, and this is definitely true for individuals who are insecurely attached. For securely attached individuals--those who trust that their partners will always be there for them--these conversations weren't stressful, and their heart rates didn't really go up. Folks who were anxiously attached on the other hand, that is they are never sure if their partner is really there for them or not, reported being very stressed out during the conversation, and their heart rates went way up. The interesting thing was what happened for avoidant individuals, who generally don't believe their partners are there when they need them. These folks reported that the conversation wasn't stressful at all, not one bit. But when the researchers looked at their heart rates, they were through the roof! This is what the researchers called "repressive coping,"--they were experiencing a lot of emotion, but were denying it even to themselves.

Research shows that this is an unhealthy coping strategy. If you don't express your stress to your partner you're denying yourself the opportunity to get their support and love, and you're probably not doing much to calm yourself down. This means your heart rate is elevated for longer, which can cause wear and tear over time. It's just like my yoga teachers said--we need to own up to our feelings and share them in order to get from the world what we need.

Diamond, L. M., Hicks, A. M., & Otter-Henderson, K. (2006). Physiological evidence for repressive coping among avoidantly attached adults. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23, 205-229.

by Jhon Wlaschin

Relationships can be stressful at times and those who are unfortunate to have their closest relationships also be their primary source of stress are likely to be experiencing corrosive effects on their health.  Shelley Taylor and her colleagues  have summarized a  that demonstrate how the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone are deeply linked to the stress response.  Most of our understanding for how both humans and animals reacted to stress was from the classic “fight or flight” model. 
Relationships and Health: Gender Differences
Researchers have only recently noticed gender differences in the stress response perhaps because research in this area has traditionally been limited to male participants. In many studies even the rats were all male!

What we now know is that women are more likely to seek out social support and engage in care giving when stressed whereas men are more likely to engage the fight or flight response.  You can start to see that what women and men start out with biologically might be a source of misunderstanding when couples are under stress. 

Once an argument starts, the stress response engages.  She wants to affiliate, draw closer, and talk about the problem.  His body is preparing for increased aggression and since modern society discourages spousal abuse he may tend to be more inclined to seek avoidance by disengaging.

Sound familiar?

Again, oxytocin is involved here but as the  points out the pathways are complex and somewhat contradictory.  Oxytocin appears to work together with endogenous opioids, our own feel good neurochemicals, to make social bonding pleasurable.  Sex hormones play a critical role since androgens inhibit the stress-induced release of oxytocin, while estrogen enhances the stress buffering effects of oxytocin.   

Interpersonal situations matter such that when her affiliative efforts are unsuccessful, the biological stress response increases by way of the sympathetic nervous system and HPA axis activation.  When support seeking is reciprocated the opiod system engages to reduce sympathetic nervous system and the HPA axis limiting the amount of cortisol and other stress hormones in the bloodstream.

Oxytocin can therefore be at high levels when we are bonding with loved ones and also when we are feeling rejected, perhaps as a signaling system to increase efforts to seek out secure relationships.  Often times when we fight with our partner there is no one else to turn to for satisfying the body’s need for compassion and caring.  Perhaps this is the reason we turn to alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and comfort food when we are stressed, especially when that stress involves our closest relationships.

by Jhon Wlaschin
Want to stress out a rat? Put it a box with a remote control car and chase it around for a few minutes. That's what Bibb Latane' and David Glass did in a  back in the 60s to investigate fear and attraction in rats. Rats were pretty terrified when experiencing this alone.

How do you measure stress in a rat you ask?

Basically the researchers measured the fear response, freezing, pooping or peeing and how close the rat would come to the car when it stopped.

What was interesting was when accompanied by another rat they both showed much less fear than when alone. It seems the mere presence of another rat calmed the creature down and that having a buddy at your side might be enough to better prepare you for a frightening situation.

Even more interesting, rats were noticeably less freaked out when the experimenters placed an anesthetized rat in the box. So just having another warm body next to you might be enough to measurably reduce the fear response of an oncoming Ferrari. 




by Jhon Wlaschin
At the biological level researchers have identified a neuropeptide that is associated with the feelings of love and care giving. It is called oxytocin and is often used to induce uterine contractions during childbirth. It also is know to flood our brains during moments of intimacy, especially when a mother is breast-feeding her baby or during intimate and loving sex. This is the bio-chemical that promotes attachments.

Oxytocin in the form of a nasal spray has been  of social stress, increase trust and connection with others, especially those of our in-group. Oxytocin and the ability to understand what others are thinking. A shot of oxytocin to the brain will  and help you remember the names of people you recently met.

Some  who were avoidantly attached found that after only one dose of oxytocin they were more likely to respond as secure when assessing attachment images and phrases linked to security, comfort and safety with others. Even though this was a momentary shift, the researchers suggest that it could be used effectively in therapy sessions to promote changes toward secure attachment relationships over time.

So why isn't oxytocin more widely available for use to promote love and kindness? Well, as noted above the effects are temporary and only tested on men since oxytocin is can induce labor in women. Also oxytocin may have a dark side. In one study oxytocin was shown to promote ethnocentrism (the tendency to favor your in-group and disparage members of the out-group). So it seems that when people gather for a football game with other fans of a favored team oxytocin levels are driven up. Not only is there a feeling of solidarity with the other fans, but also there may be an increased dislike for those who are fans of the opposing team.

It seems that oxytocin evolved as a biological mechanism that helped our ancient ancestors identify whether others had a long -term commitment to the group.

A more  has shown that an external dose of oxytocin can change memories of how nurturing a person's mother was. The researchers found that the effects of oxytocin depended on the attachment representations people possess. Securely attached individuals remembered their mother as more caring and close after oxytocin (vs. placebo). In contrast more anxiously attached individuals remembered their mother as less caring and close after oxytocin.