How Bad Relationships Affect Your Health

Troubled woman, husband in background

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You may have heard, or assumed, that relationships are good for your health, longevity, and life expectancy. In general, that's true—except when a relationship is bad. Anyone who's been through a tough divorce, dealt with difficult parents or children, or had a backstabbing friend knows that not all relationships are good for your health. If a person in our lives creates stress and problems, that has an impact on well-being too.

What Research Tells Us

Researchers measured relationship quality in a study of 9,000 men and women in the British Civil Service in a study published in 2007. The participants were surveyed about their relationships and the different negative aspects that exist in their close relationships. Participants were also closely monitored for health problems.

Those who reported "adverse" close relationships had a 34% increase in the risk of developing heart problems, even after taking weight, social support, and other factors into consideration. That’s a pretty substantial increase. And more recent research, such as a University of Michigan study from 2016, supports this finding, noting that "stress and [negative] relationship quality directly effect the cardiovascular system."

In other studies, researchers have found:

  • Social isolation is linked to inflammation and hypertension. A review of two decades of research, published in 2016, underlined the connection between being socially isolated and the risk of inflammation, comparing isolation to physical inactivity in adolescence. The same study reported that social isolation could be riskier than clinical factors, like diabetes, when it came to hypertension (high blood pressure).
  • Prolonged conflict with other people was strongly associated with lower self-rated health and more health issues, according to a survey of more than 650 adults over two years. Any kind of stress, whether it's due to a lousy relationship with a lousy person or a demanding job, has a remarkable impact on the efficacy of the immune system.

When a Bad Relationship Goes Unacknowledged

Suppressing your feelings is unhealthy, especially when those feelings are anger or resentment. Some research suggests that couples tend to die younger when partners have different styles of coping with anger; the more severe the mismatch, the greater the risk of early death for both partners.

In some relationships, one person might be very dissatisfied, while the other is completely unaware of an issue. Addressing this situation means conflict, but that conflict does not have to end a relationship.

Effective conflict resolution can improve and repair a relationship. Unresolved conflict is bad, but a botched attempt at reaching resolution is even worse. How you choose to resolve conflict will affect any relationship in which you're involved. If you're dealing with extreme conflict, couples counseling or individual therapy can be very helpful..

How to Handle Bad Relationships

Interacting with friends and family is good. Staving off loneliness increases your life expectancy and protects your brain, in addition to many other benefits. But spending time and energy on less desirable friends and family members can literally make you less healthy. Do your best to maximize time spent with the friends and family you enjoy being around, and minimize interactions with those who aren't as pleasant and who bring negativity into your life.

Unfortunately, some negative people can't always be avoided, particularly if they are family. In that case, use relaxation techniques to let go of the stress these encounters cause. Learn how to actively manage your interactions with difficult people so they have less of an impact on your health and life.

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