People who fall in love and settle down in their 20s sleep better in middle age and suffer less stress, according to a new study. Researchers say that their findings offer a possible explanation for how marriage reduces the risk of a premature death.
It is already known that just cuddling a loved one improves the immune system by exposing it to more bacteria, protecting against infections.
And regular sex works muscles you wouldn’t otherwise use and increases blood flow.
Now a research team at the University of Minnesota has found those who have positive, lasting relationships in their early adulthood experience less anxiety after the age of 32.
That, in turn, predicts better quality of sleep by the time they are 37, according to the findings published in the journal Personal Relationships.
Study lead author Chloe Huelsnitz, a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota, said sleep is a shared behavior between couples.
Relationships boost long term health by getting ‘under the skin’ – literally, she said.
It adds to a growing body of literature showing one of the important ways partners impact us is by lowering levels of life stress.
‘The current study is the first to demonstrate stress exposure as a mechanism linking relationship effectiveness to an important health outcome – sleep quality – over time,’ Huelsnitz said.
‘A large body of research has consistently found that romantic relationships are important predictors of long-term health and well-being.
‘Although the behavioral processes linking relationships and health outcomes are not fully understood, sleep is a shared behavior in many romantic relationships, and it is a strong contender for how relationships ‘get under the skin’ to affect long-term health outcomes.
‘The current research found support for a stress exposure reduction model of relationship effectiveness and sleep and added to a growing body of literature showing that one of the important ways in which relationships impact individuals is by reducing the occurrence and severity of life stress.’
She said for decades research has showed people who have higher-quality relationships with their friends, family and romantic partners tend to have better health.
But despite these well-established links, less is known about the behavioral mechanisms that account for these associations.
‘Given adults typically share sleeping environments with their romantic partners and given the centrality of romantic relationships in most people’s lives,’ Huelsnitz said, ‘the patterns of behavior and experiences that characterize one’s current and past romantic relationships may affect the prevalence of conditions that undermine better sleep.
‘Stress has been shown to be a precipitating factor of poor sleep quality and duration.
‘In order to get sufficient sleep, people need the opportunity to sleep and must reduce vigilance to potential threats in their environment.
‘Stress exposure affects both of these pre-conditions as it precedes and promotes stress responses and reduces opportunities for sleep.
‘For example, someone who has to work an extra job to stay afloat financially is not only grappling with financial stress but also has fewer hours available to sleep.’
Her team followed 267 participants born in Minnesota in 1975-76 who were all interviewed about their current and recent romantic relationships at 23 and 32.
They described past conflicts, how their partners treated them and vice-versa, aspects of their relationship they did and did not like, perceptions of their partners’ values and feelings, along with their general romantic experiences.
At each time point trained coders rated the degree to which participants were competently engaged in romantic relationships on a five-point scale.
High scores indicated mutual caring, trust, and emotional closeness; concern for, and sensitivity to, the other’s needs and wishes; sharing of experiences and enjoyment of each other; and faithfulness, loyalty, and honesty.
At 23, more than half participants (53.5 percent) reported on romantic relationships with more than one partner.
Seven in 10 were currently involved with someone – and had lived with at least one partner.
When relationship effectiveness was assessed at 32, almost eight in ten had lived with at least one of their romantic partners. Nearly three in ten (28.8 percent) were still in the same relationship as nine years earlier.
Huelsnitz added: ‘Although a large body of evidence shows relationships are important for health, we are just beginning to understand how the characteristics of people’s close relationships affect health behaviours, such as sleep.
‘The findings of our study suggest one way that relationships affect health behaviour is through their effects on individuals’ stress.’