Can Love Make You Sick?

Most of us tend to know that relationships take work but a large body of research now shows that romantic partners have more influence on our health than anyone else.

Article by Jen Boda

Most of us tend to know that relationships take work but a large body of research now shows that romantic partners have more influence on our health than anyone else and that they play a large part in our physical and emotional well-being. Since we tend to choose partners who are very like ourselves, many of our habits tend to be the same-both good and bad. And as the relationship grows, our habits grow even more alike. Researchers have found that spouses influence each others' exercise habits, doctor visits, and use of alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana.

Many people even develop the same afflictions over time–a condition in one spouse often places the other at increased risk for the same disorder. This may be true for cancer, stroke, arthritis, hypertension, asthma, depression, and peptic ulcer disease. One study shows that a person's hypertension risk doubles when their spouse is diagnosed as hypertensive. Some of the reasons for this are that couples tend to eat the same food, exercise together, and take on each other’s stress patterns. "Individuals don't live in a vacuum," says Gregory Homish, an epidemiologist at the State University of New York at Buffalo, "Everyone who's in a relationship should be aware that they're making some physically relevant decisions based on their partner's influence," he says. Here are some ways that our partners affect our health:

A study of Korean women found significantly higher risks of lung cancer and breast cancer among those whose husbands smoked, most likely from the effects of second-hand smoke. Wives of men with heart disease are more likely than other women to have cardiac risk factors.

Women in marriages full of hostility have more coronary artery disease than those in warmer relationships, while men in more controlling relationships (whether they are the dominator or the one getting bossed around) have more coronary artery disease than those in egalitarian marriages. Both situations likely activate stress responses, which are known to contribute to, if not cause, an array of ailments.

Marital conflict and strain are associated with heart disease and mortality risk. For example, women who "self-silence" during arguments with their spouses are four times more likely to die over a 10-year period than their peers who express themselves. These women (23 percent of the wives studied!) may be bottling up anger out of fear of the husband's reaction time.

Sleep patterns also affect our health, so if you are living with an insomniac you might tend to sleep less as well. "Sleep problems can screw up a person's physical and psychological well-being even more than eating and exercise," says Barry McCarthy, a couples therapist and a psychology professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

And while couples who thrive or suffer together grow closer, those who experience a divergence in health might fall apart. Health-mismatched pairs are more likely to get divorced than couples whose health is similar, whether good or bad. The risk of divorce is greatest for those who were happiest before the disparity emerged. That's why it's so important to make health a togetherness issue. We can't leave our partner behind if we suddenly get healthy and we can't fall behind if our partners decide to pursue health. Building health and exercise into the relationship is a good way to become closer and healthier at the same time. Taking classes together or picking up a sport or hobby that neither of you has tried before, taking a healthy cooking class, or even walking the neighbourhood together instead of watching TV at night are all ways to ensure that love doesn't make you sick.