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The health benefits of being in a relationship

Elisabeth Shaw
Two women talking happily on sofa with phones

How your wellbeing is supported in a healthy relationship

Two women talking happily on sofa with phones

No matter your relationship status – or what you’re hoping it will be in the years to come – it’s worth knowing how your mental and physical wellbeing can benefit by being in a healthy relationship. If you’re not in a committed relationship, however, there’s no need to worry – all kinds of connections with others can be a help.

“We are social beings who need others to thrive,” explains Relationships Australia NSW CEO Elisabeth Shaw. “From the barista who knows our coffee order or the neighbour you wave at, through to people who are more intimate, people make us feel known, worthy, interesting, loved and engaged in our lives – and they fuel our mental and physical health.”

What is a healthy relationship?

In healthy relationships partners respect one another and are on the same page when it comes to which behaviours are acceptable within the boundaries of their relationship.

“They navigate separateness and togetherness effectively and recognise that each will need others in their lives (friends and family) to feel well supported and loved,” Elisabeth says.

There are times when individuals within the relationship have needs that can get in the way of the other, such as wanting to move interstate for a job, undertake an MBA or put off having children. Elisabeth says a healthy couple works out issues like these in a useful and respectful way, even though they can be contentious.

Don’t panic if your relationship doesn’t seem to measure up. Elisabeth says even healthy relationships have ups and downs.

“Even the best of people can also behave badly at times and do things that are hurtful and unfair. The difference is in the intent, the willingness to behave differently, and the ability to repair the harm done.”

Couple swimming together near waterfall

What is an unhealthy relationship?

An unhealthy relationship can manifest in different ways, the most obvious being abusive and violent behaviour. “It could also be ruled by insecurity, jealousy and rigid roles and rules, often driven by one person,” explains Elisabeth.

An unhealthy relationship can be a collusive arrangement, with two insecure people clinging together as if it is ‘us against the world’.

“This leads to the relationship being an anti-growth arrangement, with the social world of the couple getting smaller, and individual and couple goals not achieved. It can lead to one or both experiencing significant mental health conditions, unable to thrive at work, or to excel, as success can be seen as a threat.”

Related: The health benefits of male friendships (aka bromances)

How do healthy relationships benefit our physical and mental health?

A growing body of research shows just how much healthy, meaningful relationships can help humans flourish, with close and caring relationships linked to health and wellbeing at all stages of life.

Well-functioning, close relationships (with family, friends and intimate partners) are as vital
to helping us thrive when the going gets tough as they are when life is going swimmingly, Elisabeth says.

In times of adversity, she says a supportive partner can provide reassurance and relief and buffer the effects of stress by offering emotional and physical comfort, empathy and understanding. In the absence of adversity, partners can encourage their other halves to pursue their goals and aspirations and support them on the journey.

In times of adversity, a supportive partner can provide reassurance and relief and buffer the effects of stress

People in supportive and rewarding relationships have better mental health, higher levels of subjective wellbeing, and lower rates of disease.

Healthy relationships can also provide people with a safe haven and foundation for recovery and growth, help them to bounce back from critical incidents, and support them to get the most out of life, Elisabeth says. On the flip side, unresponsive and insensitive responses from a partner can seriously undermine an individual’s ability to thrive.

Related: How to create and maintain deep, meaningful friendships

How can I help my partner thrive?

“It is really important to enable and encourage your partner to pursue any goals and interests that are in the direction of a healthy mental and physical life,” Elisabeth says. “That means not standing in the way of your partner trying new things, and being invested in things that bring happiness, pleasure and staying well.”

It also means supporting your partner spending time with friends and family, even if they’re not your favourite people.

“Your partner might want to try things that you think won’t go well; stand back and encourage experimentation. Cheer him/her on when there are successes and be supportive when things don’t work out,” Elisabeth advises.

Relationships Australia provides relationship support services for individuals and families, including counselling and family dispute mediation. Call 1300 364 277

For crisis support, call Lifeline 13 11 14

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Elisabeth Shaw portrait

Elisabeth Shaw

Elisabeth Shaw is the CEO of Relationships Australia NSW, a leading provider of relationship support services for individuals, families and communities. She is also a clinical and counselling psychologist with 25 years’ experience in relationships services. Having invested in further skill development in management and professional ethics, she spent 15 years providing supervision to clinicians in child protection, drug and alcohol, sexual assault, women’s health, disability and general counselling services, executive coaching to not for profit and public sector leaders, and consultation in relation to professional ethics to
industry bodies. Elisabeth has taught in Masters programs at ACU, UNSW and Newcastle universities in areas of clinical practice, management and professional ethics, and routinely presents and publishes work in these areas. She is a senior consultant at The Ethics Centre, a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, a chair of the board of Settlement Services International and board member of Youth Insearch.