The affairs of the heart may actually affect the affairs of the heart in ways previously not understood.”Growing evidence suggests that the quality and patterns of one’s social relationships may be linked with a variety of health outcomes, including heart disease,” says Thomas Kamarck, professor of psychology and Biological and Health Program Chair in the University of Pittsburgh Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. He is an author of a new study that correlates unhappy marital interaction with thicker carotid arteries and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
“The contribution of this study is in showing that these sorts of links may be observed even during the earliest stages of plaque development [in the carotid artery],” Kamarck continues, “and that these observations may be rooted not just in the way that we evaluate our relationships in general but in the quality of specific social interactions with our partners as they unfold during our daily lives.”
Nataria Joseph, who recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship under Kamarck, is the lead author of the paper, published this month in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. Given the size of the effect in the study and the relationship between carotid artery plaque and disease, Joseph’s findings, made at Pitt, indicate that those with marital interactions light on the positive may have an 8.5 percent greater risk of suffering heart attack or stroke than those with a surfeit of good feelings. MORE
Relationship & Health: Science the Theology Agree
More and more, research is showing that the quality of our relationships has tremendous impact on our physical and emotional health. I think this is another area where there is increasing agreement between psychology and theology. For instance, Dr. Dan Siegel– a founder of the developing field of Interpersonal Neurobiology which looks at how relationships affect health and neurological functioning–argues that it is foolish to think of an individual as apart from his relationships. He argues that, in a sense, there is a flow of energy within the relationships between people that interacts with and impacts the functioning of the mind and body of each individual in the relationship on an atomic level. The effects of this interaction can be observed–if not the process itself–in the way different relational and environmental states have been shown to impact gene expression and the development of new neural connections throughout the brain and nervous system. When I read his work, I am often reminded of Pope St. John Paul the Great’s argument in his Theology of the Body that just as the Trinity is a communion of three distinct but united persons, the human beings made in the image and likeness of that Communion are also, at their most basic level, best understood to be inseparable from the communion of persons in which they participate.
I realize that’s all rather thick language and if I lost you, it doesn’t really matter because the larger point is still clear enough. Namely, that the well-being of each human person is intimately tied to the quality of his or her relationship with others and that is exactly as God intended it to be.
The takeaway is that taking care of your relationships may be just as important as diet and exercise for longevity and health. Even if you don’t feel like working on your marriage for the sake of your partner, for instance, you may want to work on it out of a commitment to your own well-being because avoiding the work isn’t punishing your partner as much as it may be punishing yourself. If you fail to do the work that your intimate relationships require, you may literally be breaking your own heart.
To learn more about how you can create life-giving love in your marriage, check out the resources we offer at the Pastoral Solutions Institute including our various titles on marriage and our Catholic tele-counseling practice. Do it for your marriage. Do it for your health.