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Love it or hate it, Valentine’s day comes around every year, with the corresponding explosion of pink, heart-shaped objects, and those soppy declarations of love on our social media feeds. I think it’s safe to say that our society has an obsession with romantic love, the ultimate end of which is often marriage. Popular music, films and TV shows are littered with it, reflecting its centrality in Western culture. Growing up, nearly every little girl has a dream of a big white dress and the ever-elusive Prince Charming. Teenagers and students spend their days hopping between romantic partners, hoping to find ‘the One’, and to quote Mrs. Hudson from the BBC’s ‘Sherlock’, “Marriage changes people.” But what about our health? Does romantic love really do us any good, in the end? Let’s take a look.
Romantic love has been described as being made up of passion, intimacy and commitment, [1,2] and the likely endpoint of any long-term romantic relationship is marriage. Marriage could be seen as a rite of passage for many, with perceived social benefits, increased financial stability and emotional support. Studies into the topic have repeatedly found that marriage is generally good for your health, a factor I’m sure no one considers before walking down the aisle, but which may be important nevertheless. Romantic relationships in adolescence too could impact mental health. And what about university students? Or people in unhappy marriages? Having taken a look at the evidence, I’ve found the following…
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Despite the constant pursuit of relationships (however short-lived) that teenagers engage in, it seems it’s actually not beneficial to their mental health.  Multiple cross-sectional studies and some longitudinal studies have found that romantic relationships are associated with more depressive symptoms in adolescents, particularly girls. This extends even to feeling attracted to someone, or romantic activities such as flirting or kissing, which have also been linked to depressive symptoms in girls in early adolescence.  But why? Several theories suggest different mechanisms. It may be that relationships impact negatively on school performance or family relations, leading to depressive symptoms, or that adolescents are not yet able to cope with the challenges of an exclusive, intimate relationship. There are many factors that could be at play, including genetic susceptibilities to certain personality traits, family problems, a tendency to focus on the negatives when discussing problems with friends… The list goes on.  It is true that more research in this area would be desirable, though I doubt there would be a corresponding revolution in adolescent behaviour!
Now when we think of a typical student, perhaps we’re likely to think of someone who drinks too much, parties too often and has multiple casual romantic (or not-so-romantic) encounters. Whether that is the norm or not, there are students in exclusive, committed romantic relationships, and it seems they reap the benefits of this. In contrast with the depressive symptoms seen in adolescence, romantic relationships confer on students a sense of social identity and a source of intimacy and support.  Students may have more positive social control over their partners, so they are less likely to participate in all the above-mentioned risky behaviours. When asked about their wellbeing, young adults in an exclusive relationship with one partner reported that they had a greater wellbeing than those who were single, or dating multiple people.  I think it can therefore be said that dating as a student is better for you than as an adolescent, perhaps due to the greater maturity and independence you have at this life stage.
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If you think about this, it makes sense. If you’re happily married, you’re more satisfied with life; you can share your problems and emotions, decreasing your stress levels and pressure on you. This has been borne out in scientific studies too – high quality marriages have been associated with lower average blood pressures during the day and at night.  This reduces the load on the individual’s blood vessels and organs over time, meaning they are less likely to develop heart problems, strokes and other vascular (blood vessel-related) issues later in life. People who rated their marriage as high quality also showed lower stress levels and less depression than others. But what about those in unhappy, ‘low quality’ marriages? Well, it has been shown that stressful relationships cause increases in stress hormones like cortisol, and other hormones like adrenaline, which can affect the cardiovascular and immune systems, making these people more prone to heart disease and infections in the long run.  These individuals have higher average blood pressure, and a greater pressure load on their blood vessels and organs compared to happily married people.  There is also an increased risk of depression and other psychological problems.  So marriage itself does not appear to be inherently beneficial; it is the quality of the marriage that counts.
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It’s a commonly-held view that romantic love cannot last, that there is a ‘honeymoon period’ or a ‘seven-year itch’, after which we can never recapture those youthful passions. However, the evidence suggests otherwise. One study found that 40% of a sample of adults married for over 10 years said that they were ‘very intensely in love’, and other studies have found a significant proportion of couples claiming the same thing, even much later in life.  The health benefits that come with marriage only increase with time, so that in the elderly there is a bigger difference in health between those who are married and unmarried even than there is in younger people.  Being married at this age enhances physical and mental abilities, and when the relationship has lasted for many years, the couple know each other’s needs better, and how to care for them. Married patients are more likely to keep doctors’ appointments than unmarried patients, generally look after themselves better, and have more time to care for loved ones.  It has even been suggested that marriage should be promoted in the elderly age group, to improve health without increasing the burden on the healthcare system.
So, love is important to all of us, be it the hearts-on-notebooks /soppy poetry kind of teenage love, or the warmth and companionship of love in later years. I hope I’ve been able to uncover some of the many health benefits that can come from it, as well as how our health could be affected when it goes wrong. Suffice it to say – in life there aren’t all that many things that feel good and are also good for you. This could well be one of them.