Most people are very aware of the health benefits stemming from exercise and eating a balanced diet. But, in addition to fitness and nutrition, maintaining meaningful relationships can lead to long-term emotional, physical and mental health benefits, too, according to several studies published over the last decade.
A recent blog post from Harvard Medical School states that social connections help relieve harmful levels of stress, directly affecting gut function, insulin regulation, coronary arteries and the immune system in general. Plus, noted research from the post suggests caring behaviors can trigger the release of stress-reducing hormones.
While the benefits of relationships are clear, in order for them to be effective it is necessary for the quality of that relationship to be strong. Here, Linda G. Ritchie, Ph.D., owner of private practice Center for Life Strategies, LLC in Reston, shares her advice on maintaining a healthy relationship.
If you had to pick, what are a few essential things all couples should do in a relationship?
It starts with respect for each other. That is the foundation. Being able to resolve conflict and still stay connected is essential, because relationships just don’t exist without conflict. You have to be able to resolve it, which takes skills that come with time. So, what makes a successful relationship is knowing how to interact with each other in a healthy way where both people feel heard and supported. That doesn’t mean each partner will always get their way, there’s always compromise, but it’s the feelings that are most important.
I work with people a lot on how to interact with others, with the people they are in intimate relationships with, specifically. Each person needs to know how to have a conversation, how to listen and how to validate the other person’s emotion, which isn’t necessarily intuitive. We all pick up what we know about relationships from our family of origin, and if you grew up where there was a lot of criticism, judgment and arguing, then that’s what you learn. You don’t know any better until somewhere along the line you learn a better way to act, resolve conflict. It takes practice, but eventually the relationship should be a source of joy rather than pain.
What are the mental health benefits of being in a stable relationship?
The research shows that people in relationships live longer. Bonding is one of the essential elements for people, in addition to air, food, shelter and water. It really is a necessity and being in relationships with people, whether it be family, friends or a significant other, is necessary for well-being.
Coming out of a stable relationship can absolutely deteriorate one’s mental health, too. If you have somebody who is going through a breakup or a divorce, that can be emotionally devastating which deteriorates that essential need of bonding. It’s not uncommon for someone going through a divorce to be depressed and then that comes with a whole other set of symptoms that they then have to address.
What are some common challenges your clients deal with when it comes to long-term relationships?
The most common problem is the inability to resolve conflict and still stay connected. The primary thing I do with couples is work with them on communication skills to be able to have a conversation rather than a fight. They need to know how to ask for change, express their own needs and share with their partner what they are feeling because nobody is a mind reader.
What are tips for keeping the romance aspect of a relationship alive?
Consistent effort. I always equate it to keeping a healthy lifestyle: You can’t be in top physical condition and then just stop doing what you were doing because your physique will go away. You can go a day without eating well or working out, but if it becomes a habit you will see the deterioration. Relationships and romance are the same way. If you are in love, you did things to get there and you need to keep doing the same things to keep that romance. There needs to be alone time with your partner—without TV, phones and the children—just the two of you connecting and talking. There needs to be an effort to nurture and encourage that primary relationship.
Interested in all-things health? Subscribe to our weekly Health e-newsletter.