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Why Having A Supportive Partner Matters

Shannon Harvey
This is the story of well-intentioned wife who set out to make her husband a birthday cake. This wife realised the importance of celebrating birthdays and having rituals to mark special occasions. But in recent years she had become increasingly aware of the need to eat food that doesn’t have hidden nasties. So rather than buying a double-choc-fudge-swirl-something-or-rather like she may have in the past, she instead decided to make a raw vegan birthday cake. That way the whole family could have their cake and eat it too.

The “cake” was made from ingredients such as almond meal, dates, and dried gogi berries. As she placed it into the refrigerator to set, the wife worried. It did not look appealing. In fact, the colour strongly resembled the dirty nappy of her five-month-old baby. Lets face it, it wasn’t a cake. It was smoosh. The wife had made a poo-coloured birthday smoosh.

How would her husband and their three-year-old son react? Disappointment? Tears? Full blown tantrums?…

The wife in this story is, of course, me. Regular readers will know that I’ve spent a lot of time looking into the latest research on the link between good health and diet. While I’m not a “foodie,” one of my main goals this year is to learn how to cook healthy foods from scratch. By default my family is coming along for the ride, hence, the smoosh. But in an increasingly time-poor, junk-rich world, achieving this goal is going to be tough. It’s going to take patience, persistence, research, planning, preparation and most importantly, its going to need support, especially from Jules, my husband.

In most countries, 90 percent of people will be married at some point in their adult life and while the definition of what constitutes marriage is currently the subject of heated debates in churches and parliaments around the globe, in the scientific sense, marriage involves being in a long term committed relationship with another person. If you’re in the 90 percent, you won’t find it surprising to know that your spousal relationships are profoundly connected to your health and wellbeing.

A 2014 review of 50 years of research, which considered the results of 126 published empirical articles looking at the associations between marriage and physical health in over 72,000 people, found that a good marriage was significantly related to better physical health and that a bad marriage was a risk factor for poor health outcomes.

Research also consistently shows that couples often have similar or concordant health statuses. For example, if you’re married to a man with coronary heart disease, you’re more likely to have coronary heart disease. The same goes for type 2 diabetes. Analyses of almost 12,000 Dutch couples found that people who reported having a partner with poor health were almost three times more likely to report poor health themselves.

There are a number of reasons for these associations. Although the saying goes that opposites attract, research actually shows that partners tend to be more similar than different. For example, drinkers are more likely to be married to other drinkers and smokers are more likely to be married to other smokers.

I also found it fascinating to learn that our relationships can physically get under the skin. When researchers studied the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in newly married couples, they found that the longer they had been married, the more similar their cortisol responses were when they were prompted to try and resolve a topic of conflict. Frequent hugs between partners are associated with lower blood pressure and higher levels of the love hormone oxytocin.

We can also influence the behaviour of our partner – for better or for worse. For example, non-smoking wives are more likely to resume smoking in the early years of their marriage if their partners are smokers. The spouses of people enrolled in a weight-loss program are more likely to loose weight, even if they aren’t officially participating in the program. If married people started a fitness program with their partner, they are significantly more likely to attend and less likely to dropout. One major study of more than 6000 people found that when one spouse improves his or her health behaviour, the other spouse is likely to do so as well.

It is this influence that I could have on my husband and that he could have on me that I was most conscious of as I was serving the poo-coloured birthday smoosh. Since I started investigating the science of the mind-body-health connection I’ve made enormous changes in my life. Sticking to those healthy changes was tough enough, but without the support of Jules, those goals would have been even more difficult.

The wonderful thing about Jules is that he is totally on board with my health endeavours and always has been. He listens to me drone on for hours about my deep-dives into health research and especially supports me in my efforts to move more, sleep well, and meditate. He’s also willing to give new things a go.

I served up the smoosh with all the usual pomp and ceremony of birthday celebrations. There was a big reveal, candles, singing, dirty knives, having to “kiss the nearest girl” – the works. We sliced it, served it, and devoured it. My three-year old son didn’t notice the difference. When Jules thanked me for it, he told me how much he liked it. “Even though it tasted like health-retreat dessert?” I asked. “No. It’s because it tasted like health-retreat dessert,” he replied.


Further reading:

The research on the link between social support and health is abundant. In fact, leading researchers call it “one of the most well-documented psychological factors influencing physical health outcomes". If you’d like to read more about the influence that the people around us can have on our health you might like to check out these blog posts:

How Loneliness Led To My Chronic Disease

What Is Love? The Human Need For Connection

Viral Friendships: How Your Friends Affect Your Health  

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