Relationships and Your Mental Health

Love makes us happy and healthy

Aly and Nathan

Aly and Nathan

Relationships aren’t just a way to connect; it turns out they have a multitude of health benefits, too.

Recent studies have found that being in a relationship can significantly decrease stress, help reduce mental health problems, and increase levels of the chemicals in our brain that make us happy.

“Certainly just connecting with other people, feeling valued by somebody or valuing someone else puts a purpose or meaning behind those everyday interactions,” Sarah Keene, instructor of the Success Over Stress course at the University of Minnesota said.

Specifically, a study from Florida State University in 2010 found that those in committed relationships experienced significantly fewer mental health problems such as lower levels of depression, anxiety, mood disorders, adjustment problems, suicidal behavior and other forms of psychological distress. So why exactly is that?

“Having someone just to vent to or to offer a different perspective I think can help, either with coming up with a solution to a stressor or just getting it off your chest,” Keene said.

For couple Aly Grudem and Nathan Daninger, who met through church their freshman year and recently got engaged this January, having someone to talk to is certainly something that helps them.

“I think that if it’s been a long day having someone to talk through things with, that you know is in your corner, really helps,” Daninger said. “You know that whatever they say, even if it’s hard to hear, they’re really on your side and they want the best for you.”

Dante and Kevin

Dante and Kevin

According to Keene, just by knowing that you have someone else to talk to can make a big difference in managing stress. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a romantic partner, but instead someone you can depend on and you know will be there if you need them.

This is true for best friends Sam Gunderson and Abby Rommel, who met in the fifth grade over a shared love of playing hangman on their electronic dictionaries. The two grew closer over time because of long phone calls about the struggles they were dealing with in their lives. They found themselves always turning to each other first, and today still do the same.

“He’s the easiest person to talk to,” Rommel said while seated comfortably at their favorite restaurant Shuang Cheng in Dinkytown. “If I tell him something that is going on, it’s not like I had to explain everything else that has happened. He already knows, and he’s not going to try to fix my problems. But he’ll listen, and he’ll ask questions that might help me figure it out.”

The act of talking it out with a friend can help you problem solve and feel supported, but it goes even further than that. According to a study from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, it is actually your perceived social support that matters more than what your actual support is. Instructor Keene explains:

“Even if I don’t necessarily have a lot of really good friends or people that can support me,” Keene said, “if I think I do it matters, it still matters. So just this idea that I have a safety net below me maybe makes me feel more confident in my ability to handle things or that my stress is more manageable.”

When it comes to stress management, we feel like we have a better chance of handling or coping with our stress or even problem solving it if we think we have people we can turn to, whether that be a romantic partner, best friend, a family member, or even a counselor or advisor.

photographer: Kelcie McKenney

Sam and Abby | photographer: Kelcie McKenney

“Even in our stressors we are always there for each other,” Gunderson said between bites of beef fried rice. “Abby doesn’t see me for almost seven days and she’s like I miss you! We haven’t seen each other in a long time! And I’m like; calm down, it hasn’t even been a week.”

“Hey! You’ve done the same thing to me,” Rommel chimes in.

The fact that they are always there to support each other is what they say keep them so close. If you build a strong relationship with someone, you feel confident in knowing they’ll be there to support you. It’s the same thing for engaged couple Grudem and Daninger, who’ve learned how to respond to each other when they’re having a bad day.

“If you have gotten to know somebody well enough to the point, well for us, to the point that you know you want to marry them,” Grudem said, “you know very much how they respond to different things, like different stresses, and how to best get them through it.”

Dante and Kevin

Dante and Kevin

But with all the research finding benefits for those in romantic relationships, such as a study from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University in 2010 that found single people are more prone to psychological stress than those who are married or in a relationship, what might be the difference between a romantic relationship and a friendship?

According to a number of studies, such as the 2010 Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Review on the role of touch, evidence suggests that interpersonal touch and connection influences both short- and long-term well-being.

“Holding hands, hugging, kissing, and those types of things that tend to happen in intimate relationships can provide that additional benefit,” Keene said, “but isn’t absolutely necessary to feel supported.”

Research shows that since the sense of touch develops before any other sense in our bodies, the impact of it is surprisingly greater on our well-being.

Couple Dante Chambers and Kevin Galster, who have been dating for the past five months, have found that physical touch in their relationship has helped to relieve stress.

“Honestly,” Chambers said, “just holding him works for me. Him being there helps a ton.”

On top of that intimate connection, Chambers said he’s opened up more since dating Galster. When he was single he used to close himself off from people and hold all his stress in, but now he feels comfortable talking to his boyfriend because he knows Galster will not only listen but also won’t judge him.

“There are friends of mine that I can talk to as well,” Chambers said, “but sometimes you don’t want to burden your friends the way you can talk to your significant other about things.”

For Grudem and Daninger, that special connection and the fact that their relationship stands on such a strong base of commitment as an engaged couple helps them to feel more comfortable to talk to each other, too.

“You’re trying to reach the same goals, which changes things,” Grudem said. “And we both know we’re not going to think any differently of each other if you say something or feel something. There’s no judgment there.”

photographer: Kelcie McKenney

Sam and Abby | photographer: Kelcie McKenney

But while these extra benefits are great, it doesn’t take a romantic relationship for someone to help you relieve stress. Furthermore, if you’re feeling pressured to be in a relationship, it might make things even worse.

“I’m hesitant to say definitely find a partner because touch is good and intimacy is good and all of these things,” Keene said. “Because they can be good, but if you feel like you have to be in a relationship, you might be more likely to seek out one that’s not so great and stay in it.”

It is better to not be in a relationship than to be in an unhealthy one. Unhealthy relationships can come in all shapes and sizes and don’t necessarily have to be violent.

Bottom line, an unhealthy relationship is when the abusive or manipulative partner holds some sort of control over the victim or survivor in the relationship, according to Becky Redetzke Field, a legal advocacy coordinator for The Aurora Center. Beyond that, being in an unhealthy relationship can cause even more damage to your mental health and stress levels.

“It’s exhausting,” Redetzke Field said. “Folks that we see are certainly just stressed out beyond belief, often times being full time students or grad students trying to get degrees, sometimes have children, you know, all these things they’re trying to balance in their lives and then also trying to manage the existence of dealing with this abusive partner and it just really takes a toll on people.”

Redetzke Field has seen a number of students, who came into The Aurora Center for help, feel relief and lowering of stress when they leave unhealthy relationships. While there are a number of benefits for your mental health and stress relief when you have a partner, those are only applicable if the relationship is healthy.

“I think it’s also important to realize that having a significant other isn’t going to solve your problems,” Daninger said. “Because if you’re going looking for that, you’re just going to end up disillusioned. I mean yeah, Aly helps me, but that’s not the reason we’re in a relationship, so she can get help from me and I can get help from her. Because if that’s it, maybe it will resolve the initial set of stresses and issues but then you’ll end up with a different one.”

Relationships can have a number of benefits to your health, from decreased stress or better management of depression or other mental health issue. It could be your best friend or your significant other, but it’s important to build those relationships only if they make you happy, and the health benefits will come on their own.