February. Valentine's Day. The season of LOVE. The "W Network" is playing romantic comedies back-to-back for easy binging. This is good news if you like that stuff. It can be torture if your relationship situation is not where you want it to be. I am not here to add salt to the wound, but I just read an article from Harvard stating that "good connections can improve health and increase longevity". How is that not adding salt, you ask? The studies quoted were not just looking at romantic relationships, butall satisfying relationships with family, friends, and within the community.
The article describes that, conversely, studies show that a lack of social ties is associated with depression and a cognitive decline later in life, as well as increased mortality. A study of more than 300,000 people demonstrated that a lack of strong relationships led to an increased risk of premature death by 50% from all causes. A swedish study found that the risk of dementia in those over 75 was lowest in those with a variety of satisfying contacts with family and friends. Now you will notice it says "satisfying" contacts. Stressful relationships can take a toll on health too! One study of married women in midlife found that those who were in highly satisfying marriages and marital-type relationships had a lower risk for cardiovascular disease compared with those in less satisfying relationships. One researcher has found signs of reduced immunity in couples during hostile marital spats. So if you don't want to get a cold- don't have a fight with your spouse!
What can I add to all of this? From my experience in my practice and in my life, I would like to offer two thoughts:
First, relationships can happen and grow when you think of LOVE as an action, not an emotion. Hollywood has taught us that love is an emotion- this overwhelming feeling that is accompanied by music and lighting changes, and this feeling leads to our lives being transformed to new heights. As a doctor, I have seen some patients that wait for motivation to act from a feeling that never arrives, and so they never end up getting to do their exercises or start that diet or whatever health change they intended to make. As a follower of the bible, I read about love being described as a verb. When love is an action and not an emotion, one behaves in a particular way, regardless of how they are "feeling". The amazing thing is, when one acts in a manner of love, that "feeling" of love is quick to follow. In married couples we have counselled over the years, if they haven't been "feeling close", we always advise them to start doing the right things- notes, cards, dates, flowers, etc. (this isn't our own idea- we've been told the same thing!) Invariably, the feelings catch up pretty fast. I remember when my daughter was a baby and cried in the middle of the night. I didn't feel loving and like cuddling with her, but when I dragged myself out of my warm bed and got her in my arms, the emotion of love caught up very quickly. If you desire to experience more love this month, in a current relationship or a new one, a suggestion is to be vulnerable and try and act in the manner of love.
The other practical on relationships I have seen is forgiveness. Many health problems I treat are related to unresolved resentment. When I hold things against others, it hurts me. They say that bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting to harm the other person. Forgiveness allows us to move forward- both in the relationship that suffered injury and in other relationships. Sometimes we can have trouble trusting someone because of something that happened with someone else entirely! Of course this is easier said then done, but it is worth the effort. One of the members of our pratice recently resolved a relationship with her adult daughter. They had not spoken in years, but all it took was vulnerability and a phone call to restart that relationship.
I hope you have a fantastic month of February, whether you choose to binge on romantic comedies or not. Perhaps you will watch movies with friends and loved ones, developing (to quote the Harvard article) "good connections that can increase health and longevity". While movies may entertain, they get some things really wrong, like "Love Stories" famous line "Love means never having to say you're sorry." Forgiveness is an integral part of all relationships.
As I looked through famous lines from movies, the one that struck me as most relevant is from "As Good as it Gets". Melvin tells Carol, "You make me want to be a better man". I hope we can all strive to be the best versions of ourselves in our relationships, for the good of our health!