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. 



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