Did you know that our relationships have much to do with our health? Supportive social connections have a powerful influence on how long and how well we live. Unhealthy relationships have the opposite effect. Over time, exposure to chronic stress in a relationship may have a negative effect on the body and can be associated with many chronic diseases. Thus, a positive choice for health is to cultivate healthy relationships. They can be a healing balm and a protective factor, helping us deal with disease and difficult situations we face in life.
For instance, supportive and caring relationships have a positive impact on one’s immune system and may contribute to fewer illnesses,1 but negative social interactions and unhealthy relationships may weaken one’s immune system and bring about disease. One study showed that when a person was in conflict with his or her spouse or companion, his or her immune system was less effective.2 However, the immune system is not the only health factor at risk. A recent study has shown that people can be at increased risk for a heart attack soon after an outburst of anger.3
In essence, violence in all its forms (intimate partner violence, child abuse, elder abuse, witnessing abuse) has been linked to poor health and increased mortality. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have documented abuse as a major public health problem around the world. Unfortunately, it is just as common among church members and church leaders as it is in the homes of those who do not know Christ and His love. But it does not have to be that way.
Cultivating healthy relationships is a choice that requires the investment of time, energy, conscious decisions, and the will to intentionally set priorities. Controlling our minds and emotions requires the constant presence of the Holy Spirit. Here are some tips for cultivating healthy relationships:
1. Make time for face-to-face interactions. Sometimes in their busy lives, people choose to relate to others on social media or through a phone screen. But to invest in healthy relationships, we must make time for quality one-on-one, in-person interactions with those we love.
2. Respect people’s individuality and become a good listener. If you want to make friends, be friendly and do not push your ideas onto other people. Allow others to share their thoughts without judgment. Avoid giving advice without being asked and without demanding a change of behavior. Be positive and supportive as you listen to others’ concerns. Be patient. Share an encouraging word with patience.
3. Devote time to shared meals and family worship. Studies have shown how beneficial family meals can be for children and youth. This family time can protect kids from at-risk behaviors. When the TV is turned off and family members can speak and listen to each other, real connections are formed. Additionally, family worship connects family members as they grow together in their relationships with God.
4. Forgive one another. Forgiveness brings healing not only to the person who is forgiven, but especially to the one who forgives. Carrying bitterness toward someone for years will affect one’s health in a negative way. Sometimes forgiveness may mean setting limits for interactions with a “toxic” or abusive person and seeking guidance from God and from a professional. No matter the circumstances, we must always pray for the ones who hurt us and sincerely wish them well.
We will not always have everyone’s approval, love, or respect, but we are asked to do everything we can to live in peace with all people (Rom. 12:18) and to forgive those who have hurt us in any way. With God’s help, we can develop healthy relationships.
1 S. Cohen (1997), “Social Ties and Susceptibility to the Common Cold,” in JAMA, 77(24):1940-1944.
2 J. Kiecolt-Glaser, R. Glaser, et al. (1987), “Marital Quality, Marital Disruption, and Immune Function” in Psychosomatic Medicine, 49(1), 13-34.
3 Suzanne Steinbaum, MD, news release, European Heart Journal, March 3, 2014.
Katia Reinert is director of the Health Ministries Department for the North American Division.