Whether you’re lovesick or sick of love, it’s hard not to think about relationships and all they bring during this time of the year.
Difficult dinner reservations and price-inflated Valentine’s Day roses aside, a steady, committed relationship does offer some benefits. Here are five ways romantic relationships can be good for you.
Fewer mental health problems
Couples may occasionally drive each other crazy — but not literally so. Overall, people in committed relationships experience significantly fewer mental health problems than single people , according to a study done by Florida State University in 2010, which observed 1,621 college students.
In fact, the study showed that those not in committed relationships who had more sexual partners also had more physical and mental health problems.
The same trend can also be found in post-college adults. Compared with those in relationships, single men and women have comparatively higher levels of depression, anxiety, mood disorders, adjustment problems, suicidal behavior and other forms of psychological distress, according to a 2002 review in the American Journal of Sociology.
The study also showed that men and women in relationships experience equal benefits in terms of mental health. However, the author acknowledged that mental health is likely both a consequence and cause of being coupled up — those with mental health issues are also less likely to be in a committed relationship in the ﬁrst place.
Popular ballads might bemoan that “love hurts .” However, research has shown the opposite is true — love can actually help numb your pain.
A 2010 study published in the journal PLoS ONE examined the relationship between pain relief, feelings of romantic love and activation of reward systems in the brain. Researchers subjected 15 college students who said they were intensely in love to mild pain — they placed a heat block in the palm of the students’ hands — while showing them pictures of a loved one or an equally attractive stranger.
The results showed that a picture of their loved one distracted them from the pain, but a picture of another person of equal attractiveness was not as helpful. Images of their brains using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) confirmed that while looking at pictures of their romantic partner, they experienced increased activity in reward-processing regions of the brain, and decreased activity in pain-processing regions.
The students also performed a word-association distraction task while the heat block emitted moderate-intensity heat. In this case, their pain levels were reduced by an average of 36 percent while they were distracted by doing the task, but decreased by 44.7 percent while they looked at pictures of a romantic partner.
It’s easy to assume that a low-maintenance, drama-free romantic relationship should be relatively free of stress. To boot, there are studies to back that up.
Recent studies have found that single people are more prone to psychological stress than those who are married or in a steady relationship. Relationship status can affect the production of cortisol, a stress hormone, during stressful events, according to a 2010 study by University of Chicago and Northwestern University researchers.
And a 2008 study in the Journal of Family Psychology found that women with supportive spouses experienced less marital strain and in turn, were better at tolerating relationship stresses. The researchers also suggested that partners who are satisfied with their relationship are in a better position to provide support when the other partner experiences stressful events.
Longitudinal studies and census data have shown that unmarried adults had a higher probability of early death than those who were married and living with their spouses. A 2000 study by the U.S. Bureau of the Census of 281,460 people over age 45 found that non-married people had a significantly increased risk of death over the study period compared with married people, even after adjusting for other socioeconomic factors. Similar effects have also been shown in Great Britain, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands.
In fact, a 2011 study published by University of Pennsylvania researchers in the Journal of Aging and Health found that being continuously married (as opposed to being continuously single or transitioning between separation and divorce) led to longer lives among men with low income and socioeconomic inequalities.
Although the researchers cautioned that it’s difficult to assess the causal effect of marital status from observational data, it’s possible that married people, even those who have undergone divorces, have more supportive social networks and children that stimulate continuing family contact than unmarried singles, hence extending their life expectancy.
Some lovesick couples seem to revel in showing how happy they are. They can’t help it — some of them truly are happier than singles. Studies have shown that when we look at the face of someone that we are truly, madly, deeply and passionately in love with, it engages certain areas in the brain.
Brain images from fMRI suggest that early-stage, intense romantic love can activate certain dopamine-rich areas in the brain, according to a 2005 study in the Journal of Neurophysiology. These areas are associated with reward, desire, addiction and euphoric states. In fact, one of these areas, the anterior cingulate, is responsible for obsessive thinking, cognition and emotion — the characteristics of love.
Interestingly enough, the researchers also said the fMRI images of a brain in love were slightly different than the images of brains that were sexually aroused.
Related: 5 Ways Relationships Are Terrible for Your Health
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