Written by Janice Billingsley
Updated on June 15, 2022
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THURSDAY, July 4, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Warm, nurturing relationships, whether with a spouse, a sibling or a friend, often result in better health.
In fact, studies suggest that supportive relationships can be as beneficial as eating a proper diet and getting plenty of exercise.
"There is pretty compelling research evidence that having a confidant, someone to whom you can unburden yourself, is very important," says Linda Waite, a University of Chicago sociologist. She's also the author of The Case for Marriage, a book that details the health benefits of matrimony.
"We don't know whether the nature of your confidant matters, or whether it just matters that you have someone to talk to, like a sister, a mother or a spouse," Waite says.
Adds Columbia University psychologist Matthew Silvan: "Some kind of open communication is very beneficial, and you don't necessarily have to be married. Some people have very strong social networks outside of marriage."
Silvan says the need for intimacy may be hardwired into our species.
"In infant studies, it is shown that the maternal figure -- which doesn't necessarily mean only the real mother -- is absolutely critical for physical health and intellectual development," he says. "We are social beings. Social groups are important for humans."
Being able to talk to someone is only one reward of healthful intimacy, Silvan says.
"There is also a feeling of support, that someone's in your corner, as well as a sense of safety, that someone can take care of you both emotionally and physically," he says. "Also important to people is feeling understood, that someone 'gets you.'"
Silvan points to well-documented examples of how the death of a long-married spouse often leads to the death of the other spouse soon afterward.
"It gives you an idea of how important the intimate relationship becomes to people," he says.
The importance of such a bond is becoming increasingly clear.
Recent medical studies demonstrate the benefits of positive relationships, and the feeling of being "connected" to others.
For instance, scientists at the University of Toronto studied a group of 103 men and women with early signs of high blood pressure for a three-year period.
Those who reported being happily married had an 8 percent drop in the size of the ventricular mass in their heart, a condition that often indicates sustained high blood pressure.
Conversely, those who reported weaker marital ties had, on average, a 6.2 increase in the size of their ventricular mass over the three-year period.
Research from Ohio State University further underscores the link between a happy heart and a healthy one.
Students in the OSU study who reported feeling lonely had more constricted heart arteries and less efficient cardiac output than those who weren't lonely. Over time, constricted heart arteries, a condition called vascular resistance, increases the risk for heart disease.
The benefits of supportive relationships aren't limited to physical well-being.
In researching her book on marriage, Waite found evidence that married people are better off emotionally as well as physically than those who aren't married. Among her other findings: Married people are less likely to drink heavily or use recreational drugs, have more money, and enjoy better sex lives than single people.
"We think married people have the boring, predictable sex, and single people have the passion," she says. "But married people report more physical and emotional satisfaction."
Perhaps the most telling sign of the importance of intimacy is how many people yearn for it, Silvan says.
"Wanting emotional support is one of the biggest reasons, if not the major reason, people go into therapy," he says. "They are either having trouble in a relationship or can't have a relationship and want one."
What To Do
To learn more about the healing power of relationships, read this article from Simmonds Publications. For a review of some of the research linking intimacy to good health and longevity, see this story from Cincinnati's Channel 5.
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