The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Coupling Up

February 8, 2016

That storied, earth-shattering, life-changing love that rocks you to your core is not just in the movies. Sid and Nancy, Whitney and Bobby—love can do some seriously crazy stuff to people.

Relationships aren’t always roses, but when they’re good, man, they’re good. And when love is on the rocks, it can have some truly dangerous side effects to health. Here’s the lowdown on the good, the bad, and the ugly of coupling up.

The good

It takes the pain away

That euphoric feeling of being freshly “booed up” can make everything else fade into the background—and that goes for pain, too. In a 2010 study from the journal PLOS ONE, researchers looked at MRI scans and found that when a subject was shown a photo of their partner, there was a spike in activity in the brain’s reward-processing region, and a decrease in pain-processing regions.

It can lower stress

Researchers at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University conducted a study in which they measured hormonal changes in 500 students in their late 20s after playing a series of stressful computer games. They found that single individuals experienced a higher increase in cortisol levels than their married counterparts. One of the study authors, Dario Maestripieri, pointed out that although marriage itself can be stressful, it may equip people with an improved ability to handle stressors.

You feel it in your bones

A study published in the journal Osteoporosis International found a correlation between marital status and bone health. Out of 632 adults, married men (or ones in committed relationships) in general had higher bone mineral density than ones who were unmarried, divorced, widowed, or separated. For women, only participants who were happily married showed stronger bones. More research is needed to determine the actual biological reasons for this connection.

Your brain stays healthier

In a Florida State University survey of 1,621 college students showed that being in a monogamous relationship led to fewer mental health issues than having multiple sexual partners.

You can grow old together

Love is definitely something to live for. In one 2013 study of 4,802 baby boomers, those who were in a stable marriage during midlife had a significantly lowered incidence of premature death, compared to individuals who had never married or had lost a partner.

The bad

It can break your heart

Aside from the heartache of constant quarrelling, being in a tumultuous relationship can have adverse consequences to actual heart health.

A study published in Psychological Science found a higher risk of coronary artery disease—due to higher calcium deposits that cause to plaque buildup in the coronary arteries—in individuals who experienced ambivalence in their marriage.

In another study, women who experienced moderate to severe marital strain—isolated from work-related stress—were nearly three times more likely to have heart attacks, require heart surgery, or die of heart disease than happily married or unmarried women. Women in high-conflict relationships may also have higher blood pressure, blood sugar, triglycerides, and low HDL, or “good” cholesterol, according to research out of University of Utah.

Remember, seeking help to deal with marital issues can not only save a marriage—it can save a life.

Things can get heavy

“Letting yourself go” in a relationship might not be all on you! Our hormones could be setting us up for it. Heated arguments in a relationship may lead to a rise in ghrelin, an appetite-regulating hormone which researchers also believe triggers a preference for fatty and sugary foods. And in one study of 43 couples between the ages of 24 and 61, researchers asked participants to resolve a relationship conflict after eating a high-calorie meal. Those who had experienced depression or had marital problems burned an average of 118 fewer calories than those who hadn’t had turmoil, potentially translating to up to 12 pounds of weight gain in a year.

And for men in particular, putting a ring on it has been associated with weight gain. According to a study published in Families, Systems, & Health, married men could be up to 25 percent more likely to be obese than their single counterparts.

You might stress more

It may sound obvious, but mismanaged stress is basically a deal-breaker when it comes to maintaining a healthy relationship and a healthy you. Couples who experience particularly hostile spats and are insecure in their relationships produce more cortisol, which may result in lower numbers of cells that contribute to a healthy immune response. Poor immunity can lead to chronic inflammation, which can accelerate aging and also affect the condition of skin, hair, and nails.

It can influence your drinking habits

And for women, even those in a happy marriage have exhibited an increase in alcohol consumption. According to longitudinal data from University of Cincinnati, Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers University, and the University of Texas at Austin, married women tend to imbibe more in order to keep up with their husbands’ drinking habits. And since excess alcohol can dehydrate skin, cause bloat, alter mood and behavior, cause inflammation, and weaken the immune system, it’s a pattern worth keeping a close eye on.

Whether you’re attached or looking for love, remember that being in a healthy relationship should feel good, inside and out. Pick a partner who brings out the best—or just do you!

Photo credit: Alicia Cho

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This article is related to:

Health, Valentines Day, Well-Being

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Dana Poblete

Dana's love for all creatures under the sun (bugs, too) drives her in her advocacy for ethical eating, environmental sustainability, and cruelty-free living. A natural born islander, she surfs when she can, and writes, always.


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