Relationships as Regulators

There’s a mountain of scientific evidence linking high quality relationships with good health. I want to start explaining why and how relationships can be good for our health. 

I’ll begin with a scenario we’ve all grown too familiar with: celebrities and public meltdowns. It seems wealth, the advent of social media and YouTube, and more “hangers-on” than actual high quality relationships can create a recipe for a public meltdown.

QUIZ: Measure Your Attachment Style, Or How You Act In Relationships

Without high quality relationships, we can become untethered from the basic social rhythms that sustain health and well-being. Relationships are regulators. Humans depend on other people to regulate their basic psychological and even biological functions. It is often not until relationships are lost or absent that we observe this powerful regulatory force.

If you share a bed with someone, think about how you sleep when that person is away. Some of us will say, “Great! Never better,” but most of us will say, “Pretty crappy.” In fact, my friend and colleague, Lisa Diamond at the University of Utah, has done research on a variant of this question and has shown exactly what I described.

Indeed, some people may be prone to show exaggerated stress responses – defined by the release of cortisol, which is the quintessential stress hormone – when their partners travel for business. In this case, psychological responses to the separation co-occur with biological stress responses that have clear health relevance.

The obvious money question here rests in understanding how this social regulation process works. Scientists know a fair amount about two potential pathways, one overt and the other covert. The overt pathway is about the direct control of health behaviors via our social relationships; these so-called “social control” efforts are like those I described above – our relationships play a limiting role in how much we smoke and drink, what we eat, how much we visit the doctor and exercise and the quality of our sleep.

It is possible, too, that these overt regulatory effects are more pronounced for men than for women. In many relationships, men outsource the regulation of their health behaviors to women, and this logic is sometimes used to describe why men may suffer more adverse consequences than women when relationships end.

MORE: Think Your Mate Is Hotter Than You? Learn What That Means.

As its name suggests, covert regulatory processes are much more subtle. Data in this area suggests that relationships help sculpt psychological and biological systems in ways that are far outside our conscious awareness. Often, these processes occur in the earliest stages of development.

The best example of this idea comes from a series of important animal studies done by a scientist named Michael Meaney at McGill University. Meaney’s early work on this topic examined two patterns of nurturing behavior among rat mothers (dams) with their offspring (pups) in the first eight days after birth. This research discovered that high levels of two types of caregiving behaviors by the dams – licking and grooming of pups and arched-backed nursing – had strikingly profound effects on the ways in which the pups responded to stress and novelty throughout their lives. (I try not to use phrases like “strikingly profound” too much, but this is the only way to describe what they found.)

The dam’s nurturing behaviors in the first week of life permanently altered the pup’s gene expression in brain regions and biological systems that play a role in stress response. Pups reared by the nurturing dams had better biological regulation of their stress response well into rat adulthood. Most importantly, findings of this nature are now observed in humans.

Here’s why I described this finding as strikingly profound: Our earliest experiences in relationships can play a pivotal role in how we respond to stress for the rest of our lives, and it appears that our genes get set to express themselves in important ways based on early social experiences.

Human functioning – our emotions, our health, our job performance – is deeply embedded in a social context, and if we can begin to see our relationships as regulators, we can begin to think about how to improve our well-being through strong relationships.

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