In the context of relationship science, today’s most influential findings reveal the following: Relationships are important for health. In 1988, House and his team published the classic research that found that social isolation is a powerful predictor of early death. Since then, dozens of studies have confirmed these findings. A recent collective analysis of 148 studies showed that people with strong social relationships were 50% more likely to survive a 7.5-year period than those with poor social connections. This is a big impact; it turned out that social isolation is more dangerous than problems with a high risk of death, such as obesity and inactivity.
In response to these findings, policymakers, healthcare professionals, and members of the public began to view social relationships as a basic human need, not just something nice to have. We simply have to build close relationships in order to live and thrive. However, the issue of how relationships affect health remains unresolved. Which parts are particularly important, and how exactly do social relationships affect the body? These are questions that many researchers seek answers.
In a study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers Slatcher, Selçuk, and Ong specifically tested the health effects of relationships – particularly romantic relationships, in this case. They speculated that one aspect of romantic relationships that could be important for health was partner sensitivity.
A sensitive partner is someone who makes you feel understood, approved (they respect your perspectives and feelings) and loved (they worry for your well-being and want the best for you). It is much easier to try to solve problems with an understanding and loving partner than a partner who lacks these qualities. But there are studies that claim that people can be physically healthier when they feel sensitive to their partner’s needs.
How exactly can a partner’s sensitivity physically affect health? Slatcher and his team thought that partner sensitivity could affect cortisol production. Cortisol is a hormone that helps regulate a wide variety of functions in the body; From higher-level functions such as learning and memory to basic functions such as immune responses and food breakdown. A new study shows that the rhythm of the body’s cortisol production during the day has important health effects. People with a ‘steeper’ cortisol profile are more likely to achieve better health outcomes than those with a flatter cortisol profile.
Slatcher and colleagues predicted that having a high-quality relationship where your partner is sensitive to your needs can lead to long-term improvement in the body’s cortisol production. To test this, the researchers analyzed over 1,000 participants, either married or living with their partners. Participants talked about how well they are loved, understood and appreciated by their partners, and their thoughts on whether their partners are sensitive. In order to remove cortisol profiles, saliva samples were also taken from the participants 4 times a day for a period of four days. Ten years later, the same participants underwent the same measurements again and gave researchers the opportunity to explore how sensitivity has an impact on cortisol profile over time.
Indeed, the researchers found that participants who felt their partners were more sensitive at the time had a healthier cortisol profile 10 years later. This was also true for people who broke up from their partners; In other words, it has been demonstrated that we can benefit from high quality relationships even after the relationship ends.
These results show that having a sensitive, engaged partner – even temporarily – can have long-lasting, positive effects on our body functions. But since this research is the first of its kind, more studies need to be done before we can reach this conclusion with confidence – especially on the cause and effect relationship. It’s hard to say that a single study made sensitive partners cause people to produce cortisol more effectively. What’s more, if sensitive partners are improving the cortisol profile, it’s unclear how this process works. Negative emotion results give clues – is it because sensitive partners provide steep cortisol profiles because they help us regulate our emotions more efficiently? – but at this point we can only predict the specific mechanisms that act. The question of why healthy relationships go hand in hand with healthy bodies is one of the biggest riddles in the field. This new study represents the most influential attempts to put the pieces together.