Ways Your Relationship Might Be Sabotaging Your Health

People in relationships, specifically married couples, enjoy healthier lives, the experts say (via HuffPost). If you're married, you're more likely to eat well and exercise, enjoy a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and experience better mental health than your single counterparts. You may even live longer, according to a 2006 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

"Marriage, if you stay married, is wonderful social support," Peter Martin, a professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, told Time magazine. "Being married is a big factor in survivorship." He and his colleagues found in their research that having a partner during middle age was protective against premature death and that people who never married were over twice as likely to die early as those in stable marriages.

All this sounds wonderful if you're in a loving, thriving relationship, but for those whose relationships are strained, stressful, or downright miserable, the impact on health is quite different. Indeed, staying in a bad relationship may be worse for you than getting out and going it alone. Here's a look at the ways your relationship might be sabotaging your health.

Romantic relationships aren't the only kind of relationship that can harm your health

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, "Certain relationship situations are more likely to set the stage for chronic stress. Examples include being in a caregiver role, really struggling to balance work and family, living in an unhappy marriage, or going through a divorce." That's right, it's not just your romantic relationships that play a role. "Toxic relationships can exist in any kind of relationship," George Pratt, a clinical psychologist associated with Scripps Health, told addiction recovery treatment center Practical Recovery, "and they are bad for your health."

You've probably experienced this. In a healthy friendship or relationship, you enjoy the support and love of another person, which helps you cope with stress and provides you with a sense of security. That not only makes you happy but allows you to relax, which translates into clear physical benefits.

In a strained or difficult relationship, on the other hand, you're likely to experience more stress and upheaval, putting you and your body on alert. As noted in a 2018 study, you'll have more stress hormones coursing through your veins, which over time, wears down your defenses, leaving you more vulnerable to health problems.

A bad relationship causes stress

Much of the damage comes from the chronic stress that often exists in bad relationships. You live on edge, never sure what's going to happen next. You may even anticipate seeing your partner with a sense of dread. Normally, when you experience stress, your body releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to help you cope with the danger, as an Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science report demonstrated. These hormones increase your focus and awareness and send blood and energy to your limbs so you can run away if you need to.

Once the danger passes, the body stops releasing these hormones, and all returns to normal. When you're in a strained relationship, though, you may be stressed most or even all of the time, bathing yourself in a consistent wash of stress hormones (via Johns Hopkins Medicine). Unfortunately, that's unhealthy.

In a 2013 research article published in PNAS, researchers found that consistent stress encouraged inflammation and could contribute to the increased risk of inflammation-related diseases. An earlier study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine also reported that marital stress increased cortisol levels throughout the day, affecting both work and family life.

A struggling relationship can make you anxious

Stress and anxiety often exist side by side in a struggling relationship. You're stressed out, but you may also have an underlying current of anxiety going on, making you feel jumpy and on edge. Some people experience a full-blown anxiety disorder.

As part of a 2013 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, researchers examined data from nearly 10,000 people with a mean age of about 44 years. They looked at their relationships with their romantic partners as well as with family members, friends, and even exes. They found that for those who were single or divorced, the quality of relationships with relatives and friends was associated with anxiety disorders like social phobia (fear of being watched and judged by others), agoraphobia (fear of leaving one's home or being in crowded places), and generalized anxiety disorder. For those who were married, relationship quality with partners and relatives was associated with generalized anxiety disorder and PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder).

Of course, if the relationship is abusive, the anxiety levels skyrocket. In a 2020 study published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, researchers reported that domestic violence had a "robust association" with anxiety disorders in women.

A difficult relationship can make you gain weight

Study after study shows that stress leads to weight gain. So if you're in a relationship in which stress is common, you may notice the number on the scale rising. Researchers from the University College London took health measurements from 2,527 men and women aged 54 and older who took part in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. They found that people who had higher levels of cortisol — caused by chronic stress — tended to have larger waist circumference measurements, weighed more, and had a higher body mass index (BMI).

This makes sense considering cortisol stimulates your appetite (via Harvard Mental Health Letter). If you've ever experienced "stress eating," you know what we're talking about. And it's not the kale and spinach smoothies you're reaching for when you're upset over your partner. It's the ice cream, cake, and brownies. Frustratingly, when you're stressed out, the calories from those comfort foods are more likely to be deposited around your midsection instead of burned off, physician Charlie Seltzer told Healthline. In other words, stress increases fat storage.

An insecure relationship may mess with your sleep

There's a reason why your eyes are puffy and your skin looks dull. You're not sleeping well because your relationship is keeping you awake — and you're not alone. Particularly if you regularly sleep alongside your partner, how your relationship is going can have a big impact on the quality of your sleep. It's not just whether you can get to sleep — though that is part of it — but how deeply you sleep once you nod off.

Scientists reviewed several studies on this issue and published their results in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews. They found that healthy relationships that provided a sense of security and belonging promoted a good night's sleep. Conflict-ridden and hostile relationships, however, were more likely to make sleep difficult because they disturbed mood, made the partners feel on edge, and contributed to behaviors that impaired sleep (like drinking alcohol before bed).

Even a good relationship can lead to sleep problems

Your relationship doesn't necessarily have to be strained to mess with your sleep. If you have a partner who snores, you know this to be a fact! The National Sleep Foundation conducted a poll of about 1,500 Americans and found some interesting information about how partners affect sleep. Those whose partners had symptoms of insomnia, for example, were more likely to experience insomnia themselves or to report that they were getting less sleep than they needed.

Amazingly, about 67 percent of respondents who were married or living with someone said their partners snored. Over half of people who admitted to snoring revealed that their snoring "bothered others." No wonder no one is sleeping well these days!

Sleep problems in our partners, such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, can also affect our sleep — even if our relationship is great otherwise. It's worth noting, though, that such sleep disorders can negatively affect the relationship if couples aren't careful (via Everyday Health). Getting treatment for the disorder is the best approach.

Getting out of a bad relationship could improve your blood pressure

Perhaps the scariest health outcome of a bad relationship is the increased risk of heart problems. One of the first symptoms of approaching heart disease is high blood pressure, and that's something that can develop as a result of being in a chronic-stress-inducing relationship (via Johns Hopkins Medicine).

Researchers from Brigham Young University looked at this issue and reported their findings in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine. They found, after observing over 200 married and about 100 single people, that simply being married was not "universally beneficial," as we may have been led to believe. Instead, the quality of the marriage is what mattered most.

Couples who felt supported and satisfied in their relationships had lower blood pressure levels, lower stress, less depression, and higher satisfaction with life. When comparing the singletons with their unhappily married counterparts, however, researchers found that the single folks had lower blood pressure levels than those in "low-quality" marriages.

Depression can be a result of a poor relationship

It's not just physical health that suffers in a poor relationship. Mental health can be affected too. It makes sense that one would feel down while in an unsatisfying relationship, but the results can be more serious than that — sometimes expanding into major depressive disorder.

According to a 2014 study published in the Psychological Bulletin, major life stressors — especially those involving rejection and interpersonal stress — are among the "strongest" risk factors for depression. Researchers also found that the stress of a poor relationship leads to inflammation, and that such increases in inflammation are associated with depression.

An earlier study published in PLoS One reported similar results: The quality of social relationships was a major risk factor for not just the blues, but major depression. "Those with the lowest overall quality of social relationships had more than double the risk of depression," the study revealed. Poor-quality romantic relationships were also independently associated with an increased risk of depression.

Women in strained marriages are likely to have unhealthy hearts

Researchers from the University of Utah found that women in strained marriages were more likely to not only have high blood pressure, but also obesity and signs of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a term used for a group of risk factors that increase your risk of heart disease and other health issues like stroke and diabetes (via National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute). Excess belly fat, low HDL ("good") cholesterol levels, high triglyceride levels (fats in the blood), high blood sugar levels, and high blood pressure are the five risk factors of the syndrome. 

In the university study, the women who reported experiencing more conflict in their relationships were more likely to be depressed, which in turn was associated with a higher risk of all these health issues. Although men in unhappy marriages were also more prone to depression, this didn't raise their risk of metabolic syndrome.

Men in negative relationships may have an increased risk of heart disease

It's no secret men and women handle stress differently. Though everyone is unique, men in general may be more less likely to express their emotions in relationships, particularly sadness and anxiety, as shown in a 2015 Emotion Review study. Repressing emotions, in turn, can negatively affect men's health. It can even increase the risk of earlier death, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research.

Relationship strain affects men's hearts too. Researchers from the University College London studied over 6,000 men and nearly 3,000 women for over a decade, examining the quality of their relationships and how it did or did not impact their heart health. Those who experienced negative close relationships — both men and women — had a "higher risk of coronary events." The researchers concluded, "Adverse close relationships may increase the risk of heart disease."

A hostile relationship can slow wound healing

Sometimes it's hard to get our heads around the idea that what we feel can have such a huge impact on our physical health — this is true even regarding wound healing. If you have a small cut or maybe a bruise and are navigating through a turbulent relationship, try watching how long it takes that wound to heal.

Scientists from Ohio State University experimented with this (via NewScientist). They had 42 healthy married couples volunteer to suffer a small blister wound in the name of science. The first time around, the couples were instructed to support one another, speak encouragingly, and avoid arguing. The second time this part of the study was conducted, the couples were told to discuss stressful issues within their marriage, and arguing was no longer off limits.

Interestingly, the results showed that the blister wounds healed more slowly following the marital conflicts than after the supportive interactions. Inflammation levels were lower during the supportive interactions too, the study showed. Some of the couples were also found to be consistently more hostile than others, even during the supposedly supportive interactions. These couples had wounds that healed at 60 percent the rate of the "low-hostile" couples.

Breaking up can cause distress

If you're in a bad or even toxic relationship, you may be thinking about getting out of it, but then there's the dreaded breakup to face. We all know that breaking up isn't fun — and that's true even if the relationship wasn't terrible. It's not like we need a study on this, but the scientists have looked into it. As of this writing, the research shows that in most cases, an individual who has just ended a romantic relationship is likely to report "lower levels of well-being" compared to people still in relationships.

In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, researchers looked at the impact of breakups in unmarried relationships. They found that experiencing a break-up was associated with an increase in psychological distress, as well as a decrease in life satisfaction. And if the partners were living together or had plans to get married, the results were even worse.

Breakups can be positive

Despite all the negative press that breakups get, they can be positive depending on how you approach them. Particularly if the relationship wasn't good for you, getting out of it could lead to a better life down the road. One of the gifts a bad relationship can give us is education — we learn from it. And according to a 2007 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, "experiencing more rediscovery of the self" can help a person better cope after a breakup.

Additionally, you can make it more likely that you'll recover well from your breakup if you write about it. A certain type of writing called "expressive writing" can be particularly helpful, as it encourages you to reflect on what you went through and gain insights from it. Scientists tested this theory in a 2002 study by splitting male and female undergraduates into two groups. The first group wrote about their breakups in an expressive way, and the second group wrote in a "non-emotional manner" (just the facts) about relationships.

The non-emotional writers suffered from short-term increases in upper respiratory illness, tension, and fatigue after their breakups, but the first group — the group that had done the expressive writing — did not.

Being single is better than being in a bad relationship

If you can't improve your relationship through counseling or other methods, you'd probably be healthier if you broke it off. Yes, it's much better to be single than to be in a bad relationship.

Researchers confirmed this in a 2020 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. They found that individuals in high-quality romantic relationships experienced greater well-being, but those in low-quality or even just so-so relationships had lower levels of well-being than those who were single.

Part of the reason for this may be because singles seem to maintain more close ties with family, friends, and neighbors than married people do. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that being single "increases the social connections of both women and men." Indeed, it's the quality of any relationship that matters. We need social interactions to enjoy optimal health, but whether those interactions are with friends, family, or romantic partners means little compared to whether those social interactions are positive or negative.