Robust, dynamic and balanced relationships can be the source of untold support and happiness in our lives. They can also provide us with the scaffolding on which to structure and maintain the health and meaning of our existence.
On the other hand, precisely because positive relationships can be such powerful forces for good, toxic, fractured and unbalanced interactions can create physical, emotional, social and spiritual havoc. Most of the evidence about the physical impact of negative relationships has concerned heart disease and disturbances of the immune system.
An article in this week’s issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine continues to flesh out the interaction between dysfunctional relationships and heart disease, suggesting that If you are in stuck in a close relationship with many negative characteristics, for instance conflict, you may well have a raised risk of heart disease, compared with somebody whose close relationship is more positive overall.
Roberto De Vogli and his colleagues from University College, London, looked at 9,011 British civil servants who filled in a questionnaire about negative aspects of their close relationships during two periods: 1989-1990 and 1985-1988. The main focus was on couples and participants also outlined how much regular emotional and practical support they received from their partners. They were followed up twelve years later to find out whether they had had a fatal or non-fatal coronary event, including chest pain of cardiac origin or a full-blown heart attack.
Of 8,499 people who were followed up and had provided enough information at the start of the study, quite a high number - 589 - had sustained a coronary heart disease event, although none of them had obvious coronary heart disease at the beginning of the study. The analysis took account of multiple potentially confounding risk factors including socioeconomic status and health habits. When they had all been stripped away, the researchers found that there was a 1.34 higher risk of coronary heart disease events among those who experienced a high level of negativity in their close relationships. This link was found in both men and women and in each social class. It could not be explained by depression or negative personality traits: it seemed to be the negative relationships itself that was to blame.
We already know that negative marital interactions are associated with depression, often in combination with reduced self-esteem and higher levels of anger. These are all emotions that can have both acute and chronic effects on the coronary arteries, through alterations in the normal balance of the autonomic nervous system, neuroendocrine changes, disturbances in coagulation and inflammatory and immune responses.
Many people are sensitive to any kind of negative interactions in the people around them, but the effects are particularly toxic if they involve the people closest to us. They are more likely to elicit strong emotions such as worry and anxiety that are the most likely to induce effects on our bodies.
Staying in a chronic negative relationship may be more than just masochistic.
It could kill you.
“Tenderness emerges from the fact that the two persons, longing, as all individuals do, to overcome the separateness and isolation to which we are all heir because we are individuals, can participate in a relationship that, for the moment, is not of two isolated selves but a union.”
--Rollo May (American Existential Psychologist, 1909-1994)
“Whenever you're in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.”
--Timothy Bentley (Canadian Family Therapist)
“Today the network of relationships linking the human race to itself and to the rest of the biosphere is so complex that all aspects affect all others to an extraordinary degree. Someone should be studying the whole system, however crudely that has to be done, because no gluing together of partial studies of a complex nonlinear system can give a good idea of the behavior of the whole.”
--Murray Gell-Mann American Physicist Noted for his Concept of Strangeness and the Discovery of Quarks, and, in 1969, Winner of the Nobel prize in Physics, 1929-
“We shield our heart with an armor woven out of very old habits of pushing away pain and grasping at pleasure. When we begin to breathe in the pain instead of pushing it away, we begin to open our hearts to what’s unwanted. When we relate directly in this way to the unwanted areas of our lives, the airless room of ego begins to be ventilated.”
--Pema Chodron (Formerly Deirdre Blomfield-Brown, American Buddhist Nun, 1936-)