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Vitamin L: All You Need is Love

February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine’s Day! Today’s devoted to one of life’s most important primary foods: romantic love. Whether you plan to dine in with your special someone or go out with your spouse, a happy romantic relationship is something to cherish all year long.

Having a partner to love is good for the soul – not just for the moments of passion, but also for the ordinary comforts of sharing how your day went over dinner and watching Modern Family together.

Study after study shows that love is good for your physical health, too. For centuries, scientists have observed the “marriage advantage”; people in happy romantic partnerships tend to be healthier and live longer.

It’s not just because people in love are less likely to engage in unhealthy activities such as smoking and heavy drinking; studies show that a supportive relationship fundamentally changes one’s brain chemistry. In a recent experiment, a group of women were told to expect an electric shock. Happily married subjects who held their husbands’ hands released much less of the harmful stress hormone cortisol than unmarried and unhappy participants.

Similarly, happily married people are less likely to develop pneumonia, cancer, and dementia, and more than three times likelier to survive coronary bypass surgery. These benefits even cross traditional marriage lines. Researchers noted that since the 2003 legalization of same-sex unions in Massachusetts, the number of visits by gay men to health clinics has dropped by 13%.

At the same time, stressful marriages can be as bad for the heart as a regular smoking habit. Researchers have found that when married couples argue, their immune systems suffer and their bodies take much longer to heal. Divorce can wreak even more havoc on one’s health. People who have never married are healthier than those who married and then divorced, and a 2009 study found that divorced people report about 20% more chronic health problems than married people.

So what’s the secret to a happy relationship? Though all couples are bound to fight, researchers agree that the “emotional tone” of a conflict makes all the difference. Psychology professor Timothy W. Smith found that it’s important to try to inject warmth into arguments (“Honey, I don’t like it when you do that!”) and above all, avoid personal attacks. Personally, I’m a big believer in the power of laughter – my husband makes me laugh every day – and hugs can go a long way, too.

What do you think is the secret to a happy romantic relationship?