If you were to ask people in committed romantic relationships who in their life has the greatest impact on their health and well-being, they’d probably point to their partner. This is because partners are, typically, who coupled-up people connect and share their daily lives with most intimately and frequently.
However, a new study published Thursday in the Journal of Family Psychology found that significant others don’t have that much of an impact on their partner’s health. In fact, it’s our relationships with family members—in the study, this refers to our parents and siblings—that matter more when it comes to our overall health. According to the study, greater family strain is linked to greater chronic health conditions down the road, and vice versa (a decline in health can lead to familial turmoil)—each were found to be causal to the other. The opposite is true, too, according to the study: Good relationships with family are "associated with longevity."
The researchers studied data from 2,802 people who participated in a national survey that collected information about their health between 1995 to 2014. The survey included questions about family relationships—like, how often do your family members criticize you or demand things of you—along with questions about their intimate relationships—how much does your partner appreciate you or argue with you? The research team then looked at the participants’ health, such as whether they ever experienced a stroke, stomach trouble, or chronic headaches. They found that those with toxic family relationships had poorer health, whereas intimate partner relationships—good or bad—didn’t have a big effect on people’s health.
These findings contradict previous research suggesting romantic relationships are the most important type of relationship for adults and can therefore influence our mental and physical health the most. The researchers of the latest study suspect family members seem to have a greater impact on our health more or less because we’re stuck with them. Partners change, breakups happen, and, now, people tend to put off relationships until later in life, but family is always there. This isn’t to say our partners have no effect on our health whatsoever—it’s too soon to negate all that past evidence we have claiming intimate relationships influence our cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, and neurosensory health—but that our family’s impact seems to be much more powerful.
The researchers recommend prioritizing family ties and adding in family therapy if needed. “It’s important that people don’t leave critical, strained relationships with family unchecked, especially since they may have serious ramifications for physical health,” the study’s lead author Sarah Woods, an assistant professor of family and community medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center, said.
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