The Power of Human Connection

Dr. Stacie J. Stephenson talks with Purist about how meaningful relationships are essential for well-being.
Family love strongly contributes to health, healing and longevity. Photo by Dawn Davis Photography

As an expert in functional and integrative medicine, I don’t just look at symptoms. I consider every part of someone’s life. That means I don’t just look at diet or exercise, but also at interpersonal relationships, which we all need in order to thrive. Social connections are as essential for health as diet and exercise, but people don’t often think of this first.

When people talk about making changes to their lives, or “getting healthy,” they’ll often mention their new diet, or apps to help them monitor steps, but what often gets lost in the shuffle is the very real way that human connection supports mental as well as physical health. Evidence shows that isolation, loneliness and also stressful or troubled relationships are damaging to health and healing. This can keep you from feeling as positive and vibrant as you could feel.

Because humans are social creatures, troubled relationships are our most potent stressors. Supportive, loving relationships are perhaps our most powerful stress relievers. When you feel understood, loved and supported by the people around you—your partner, your family, your friends, your community—you are much less likely to suffer health problems.

The science is clear and the results are straightforward. For decades, studies have illustrated that those with positive relationships live the longest, get sick less often, heal faster and have a higher quality of life than those without strong social ties, who are more likely to develop depression and cognitive decline in old age, and who don’t heal as quickly or report being as happy. People who live in perceived isolation without meaningful contact with others, or who report feeling lonely frequently, are much more likely to develop diseases, including heart disease and cancer. One study showed that those with fewer positive relationships were twice as likely to die prematurely, which is equal to the risk of being obese, never exercising or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. There is no doubt that we need each other to be vibrant. Social isolation in our modern world, which happens for many reasons, has contributed to a mental health crisis. One great remedy for this is to pay more attention to the power of interpersonal relationships and how they can and do affect health.

Types of Relationships

There are many ways to have relationships and they are all beneficial, but what most people crave is a romantic partnership with one primary person (whether or not they get married), or at least fulfilling, supportive companionship. Most people want to find “their person” sooner or later, even if they are enjoying being single at the moment. It is our human destiny to be in relationships (I recognize that relationships can have many different forms), and people will do just about anything to create them, even when other people aren’t available. That’s why we are so bonded to our pets, and even to things like houses and cars. We make relationships out of everything because we all want to love and be loved.

Love is complicated. Especially now, when traditional gender roles are so often called into question and many are unsure about their place or role, figuring out how to interact with a romantic partner, especially when living together, can be confusing. Figuring out how to find a romantic partner can feel like even more of a challenge.

Social expectations can further complicate the picture. Are you still “supposed to” get married? Have children? Do your parents expect it? Do you assume you should do it even if you aren’t sure you want to? More and more relationships are nontraditional, and that can sometimes still result in stressful social pressure, both from others and from yourself and your own conditioning.

There is also a psychological component to love. We all have programming from childhood about what love looks like, and many people continue to repeat mistakes from the past because that is all they know.

Love is also definitely biochemical. That initial rush of passion and infatuation is really more about attraction than actual love, although people often mistake that euphoric and irresistible feeling of longing and desire as love. It’s hard to be logical about your relationship in those first few months of romance, but what’s really going on is hormonal, as are many of our emotions. Hormones are the connection between physical and mental health, because they influence how we feel about things. They play a role in every aspect of your health, influencing food cravings, motivation, energy and passion. They have more power than you might realize, and can influence and change the relationship dynamic.

I’m going to put on my doctor hat for a moment and explain what love does to your endocrine system. It’s a dance of rising and falling levels of hormones, including:

Cortisol: The notorious stress hormone, cortisol, rises with initial attraction. This is a stress response, but one that energizes and excites, creating a feeling of tension and sexual desire. It is more like an acute response than a chronic response, and when the relationship settles in, cortisol levels should return to normal.

Dopamine: Increases in dopamine can cause that euphoric, weak-in-the-knees, I-can’t-be-apart-from-this-person feeling. It is an intense desire for physical and emotional bonding. This can last for a few months or up to a year.

Serotonin: Decreased serotonin during the attraction phase can cause feelings of obsession, which may be a primal response to help overcome any barriers to reproduction. It is also a temporary state; serotonin levels should be back to normal after a few months or up to a year.

Oxytocin: Oxytocin is the bonding hormone released by physical contact that helps mothers bond to their babies, makes hugs feel so good and helps you stay connected to your beloved even after your serotonin level goes back to normal. This is the hormone largely responsible for the long-term relationship glue, and it is released during intimate contact, which is one biochemical reason why couples who stop having sex often feel like they have lost their connection.

Your Relationship With Yourself

Of all the possible relationships, there is one that must come first: your relationship with yourself. Do you have that friend who can’t be without a romance in his or her life? Or, maybe it’s you. Romance is a lovely thing, exciting and full of promise, but when you are in a romance, it’s easy to lose sight of yourself, at least in those initial swept-away stages. Sometimes people, women in particular, think it’s selfish to focus on themselves, and we put everybody else first, or we’re afraid of what we might find out about ourselves if we look too closely. But you can’t be in a truly healthy relationship until you know who you are. I think I probably would have stayed single forever if I had not met my husband. There is enormous value and fulfillment in owning your own space and not having to compromise.

Being single for a while is a gift. Trust me when I tell you it is much better to be single than to be in an unhappy relationship. Even if partnering with someone is your ultimate goal, those times in your life when you are single offer a great opportunity to work on your relationship with yourself. If you just got out of a relationship, take some time just for you, to really dive into who you are and what went wrong. Be honest and figure out what you don’t want. Don’t waste time jumping back into the exhausting world of dating apps and blind dates until you have figured out what patterns to avoid, and what warning signs to look for. This is your chance to decide what matters to you, and figure out what your purpose is in this life, other than partnering with someone else.

Besides, it’s the 21st century. Technically, you don’t need a partner. You are your own person, not somebody’s property. You don’t need anybody to complete you. You can have your own life, your own home, your own career, your own identity. When you really know who you are, why you are here and what you want in this life, you will be in the best possible position to find someone else equally evolved, equally self-aware and equally capable of the kind of deep, lasting, loving partnership we all crave. Or, they will find you. Often, when you are ready, the right person appears. Then the added benefits of love and supportive partnership can pile on top of the many benefits of independence and autonomy.

So put yourself first. Become whole. Dysfunctional relationships are relationships where two people need each other in order to be whole. Healthy relationships are about two whole people who choose to walk side by side into the future. Become the person capable of that, and you will be a person capable of a truly vibrant relationship.

Seven Things Happy and Successful Couples Do

Dr. Jay Ferraro is a relationship coach whom I’ve known for some time, and while I’d need another book to share everything I’ve learned from him, these are a few key things that he says successful couples generally do:

They have high standards, both for whom they choose and for themselves, as someone in a relationship.

They put the relationship first, above all else, regardless of what else is happening in their life. (Hardly anyone does this.)

They have crystal-clear boundaries around their relationship. They have articulated to each other exactly what they have established that it will mean to love each other.

They say “I love you” every day. And mean it!

They have rituals of connection, like always having dinner together or always kissing each other goodbye.

They have regular sex and are comfortable talking about their sex life.

They have a common vision, common values and common interests. They like doing things together.

I love these tips, but the truth is that no relationship can be created or fixed overnight with “seven easy steps,” or pithy phrases from any relationship guru. All relationships are challenging. They do take work, and it’s work some people aren’t really willing to do. But it is also work that can make your life better. When you are willing to do the work on yourself and for yourself, you can get there. The most difficult barriers are the ones in your own head. Pay attention to the messages from your heart, and do what is right for you, always.