Alisa Robinson loves a big, juicy burger with a heaping helping of fries.
She loves her husband Tim more.
“When I have a craving for McDonald’s, he says, ‘Do you really want that? How will you feel after eating that?’” Alisa says. “It is so much easier to make a healthy choice when someone who loves you is there to keep you on the right path.”
Various studies have long supported the notion that romance is good for us. A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services review of studies on health and marriage concludes that married people have fewer colds and bouts of flu. Love doesn’t just make our hearts go pitty-pat. Affection reduces stress and improves our cardiac health.
The Robinsons, of Wilmington, say taking on the world is less daunting when you have a teammate.
“Being married means that we are basically one,” says Tim. “Whatever I can do to promote and maintain that sense of oneness, I do.”
Partners who have just fallen head over heels for each other really do feel as if they are walking on air, says Bettina Herbert, M.D., director of the pain management program at the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine in Philadelphia.
“Love is a complex, neurological process and the early stages of romantic love are absolute elation,” she says.
Over time, loving relationships establish patterns in the brain that tell us we are safe. That reduces emissions of cortisol, a stress hormone that has been linked to heart disease.
“Unconditional love is marvelously healing,” she says. “Just holding the hand of someone who is in pain helps to relieve some of the discomfort.”
Conversely, bickering can scar a relationship. It also can impede physical healing. In fact, an Ohio State University study concludes that a 30-minute argument with your main squeeze can slow your body’s ability to heal by at least a day. If you fight often, a wound takes twice as long to heal.
In the test group, researchers used a suction device that caused small blisters on partners’ arms. When the couples were prompted to talk about a hot-button issue, the wounds took about 40 percent longer to heal than the blisters on partners who didn’t fight.
“I frequently see the toxic effects of negative relationships on individuals,” says Dawn Schatz, a therapist and owner of Appoquinimink Counseling Services in Middletown. “It leads to depression, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, difficulty concentrating, high blood pressure, insomnia, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, frequent colds and other illnesses.”
Scientists theorize that arguing causes a surge in cytokines, which spark the body’s inflammation response. Elevated levels of cytokines have been linked to arthritis, cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Love has the opposite effect. Chalk it up to chemistry.
“From the biological perspective alone we know that positive thought processes lead to the secretion of positive hormones and neurotransmitters, which make us feel good,” says Carl White of Milford Counseling Associates. “Thoughts of love, compassion, forgiveness and gratitude lead to increased production of dopamine, serotonin and endorphins, which have a positive effect on the body and mind.”
A healthy sex life helps, too. Studies conclude that hitting the sheets regularly reduces stress, boosts immunity and promotes a good night’s sleep. British researchers report that men who have intercourse twice a week or more are half as likely to die of heart attacks than guys who have sex less than once a month.
Love also can improve your memory. The euphoria associated with romance releases chemicals into the brain that stimulate the growth of little gray cells. So there’s no excuse for forgetting your anniversary.
The National Longitudinal Mortality Study, which has been tracking more than a million individuals since 1979, concludes that married people live longer than their single counterparts. They don’t get cancer or pneumonia as often. They also have fewer heart attacks.
“We’re all aware that mind and body interact, and studies consistently show that people live longer if they’re in loving relationships,” says Michael J. Hurd, a psychotherapist in Bethany Beach. “I know from hearing people’s personal experiences, psychologically and emotionally, that they do better when they’re in love with someone with whom they truly feel compatible.”
A caring partner is motivated to encourage a loved one who isn’t feeling well to go to the doctor, nudge a significant other to quit smoking or praise a spouse who loses weight. In short, it’s sharing a comfort zone, a place where it’s safe to say, honey, you really don’t want another cocktail. Trust me.
“When it was just me, it was easy not to work out and to slip back into eating the foods that aren’t good for me,” Alisa says. “When you have a partner, you need to be accountable, 24/7.”
Finding a soul mate has had a profoundly positive impact on her life emotionally, spiritually and physically.
“Before I got into a healthy relationship, I had no energy,” she says. “When I talk with women who aren’t happy at home, they invariably say it pulls on their energy.”
The Robinsons met at a fitness center and were immediately attracted.
“I almost fell off the treadmill looking at him,” she recalls.
Soon they were both putting in a lot more hours at the gym.
“He would go in earlier and stay later in hopes of catching me,” Alisa says. “And I was doing the same thing, working out longer, trying to look good so he would notice me.”
That fondness for fitness stuck. She now owns and operates Art Fitness, a personalized training studio in Wilmington.
After a year of happy marriage, Tim says he feels better than ever. He can’t remember the last time he had a cold.
“I do believe that great feeling you get from love translates to the physical,” he says.
Still, affection can’t protect us from all human ills. Loving partners get struck by curveballs like anybody else—falling off ladders, taking a hit in the stock market, getting dinged in fender benders. They get laid off from jobs. They suffer deaths in the family.
Love can be a powerful antidote to despair, says Sue Thompson, a Wilmington psychologist and founder of Exceptionality, a motivational firm. It has the power to lift us up and carry us over the rough patches.
“People who have a sense of love are more resilient,” she says. “They are better equipped to deal with the setbacks of life.”
So how to find the perfect partner in a love that lasts?
Herbert suggests starting by finding safe ways to show affection, such as caring for a pet. Connect to your inner self through prayer and meditation.
“Be your own trusted friend,” she says. “With love comes good self care.”
White concurs, saying we can teach ourselves to achieve a state of bliss on our own.
“Practicing being calm leads us to greater awareness and regulation of our thoughts, which in turn helps us to regulate our emotional state of being,” he says.
Hurd says people who love themselves are the ultimate romance magnets—and make great partners.
“It sounds paradoxical, but the people who cherish their own lives tend to be the best lovers,” he says. “They have the most to give because they have given the most to themselves.”