Love is the best medicine: Why strong relationships are good for our health

The effects of living with a health condition can put our relationships under strain, but those of us with strong relationships are 50% more likely to survive life-threatening illness than people with weaker ones

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Indy Lifestyle Online

There’s a reason why we go to visit friends and family when they’re taken ill, and it isn’t just to deliver grapes. We all intrinsically know that good relationships make us feel better.

Well now there is evidence that this isn’t purely an emotional reaction; good relationships can actually help to prevent illness, help us recover more quickly or prevent deterioration of health conditions. The phrase ‘laughter is the best medicine’ may technically not be true, but it seems it should at least be part of the prescription.

This is all the more important in the context of the challenges faced by our most cherished institution, the NHS. 15 million of us in the UK are affected by long term health conditions such as cancer, dementia and depression, and these make up the bulk of the demand on the health service. This demand, combined with an ageing population, rising costs of social care and financial pressures has resulted in an estimated funding gap of £30 billion a year.

It’s clear we need to find new and different ways of preventing and managing health conditions, and a growing body of evidence suggests that relationships with friends, family and partners may hold some of the answers. For example, those of us with strong relationships are 50% more likely to survive life-threatening illness than people with weaker ones. However, just when we need them most, the effects of living with a health condition can put our relationships under strain: around 1 in 4 people with a life-limiting health condition or who are disabled said that their condition has impacted negatively on relationships they have or have had with partners (24%), friends (25%), family (23%) or colleagues (33%).

Living with a long term health condition can change the dynamics of our relationships, the effects of a condition and treatment can shape our sex lives, change our lifestyles and lead to anger, guilt, grief and anxiety. But health conditions can also bring people close together, reminding us what’s important and giving those around us a chance to show in some very practical ways just how much they care. The key to managing a long term condition is often about making the adjustment to your new normality, whether that’s facing an illness yourself or as a partner, family member or friend to someone who is.

Whether for better or worse, few relationships are unchanged by the effects of a long term health condition, and there are times when all of us would benefit from some extra support. Despite this, and the clear evidence that good relationships are good for our health, they are often overlooked or ignored within policy in the NHS.

It’s because of this that Relate and think tank NPC have teamed up to produce ‘The Best Medicine’, a new report reviewing the evidence and making clear recommendations for local and national government that would put relationships at the heart of the NHS, making relationship support more accessible at the point of diagnosis and beyond.

If you’re coping with the effects of a long term health condition on your relationships, don’t be afraid to ask for support. Here are five top tips from Relate for keeping your relationships rich:

Don’t bottle it up: It can be tempting to skirt around the issue with friends and family in case people get upset, but open communication is really important.

Expect change: Realise that the dynamics of your relationships may change, particularly if a partner or family member is taking on the role of ‘carer’. Don’t make assumptions about how this will make you both feel.

Make time and space for intimacy: In a couple relationship, try to separate yourself from the patient/carer role now and again to allow time for intimacy with your partner. Perhaps create a special room in the house where these roles no longer exist and you can spend quality time together.

Remember everyone is different: Health conditions affect people in different ways and what works for somebody may not be the same for everyone.

Consider counselling: It’s tempting to keep a ‘stiff upper lip’, but talking to somebody impartial about how you feel and putting mechanisms in place can help you cope with the changes in your relationship.

Ruth Sutherland is Chief Executive at Relate

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