The Love Test

It definitely has its delights, but falling in love shakes up your life quite a bit. Devoting yourself to a partner includes taking on new friends, new relatives, and a new living arrangement. Pairing up also sparks sweet dreams about the goals you'd like to reach, trips you want to take together, kids you hope to have...

Likely, the last thing on your mind is how your beloved will tweak your cholesterol levels. Yet, a large body of research shows that relationships steer our physical well-being as well as our emotional health. A romantic partner often has more influence on our behaviors than anyone else. Exactly how he or she affects our health is sometimes common sense (if not obvious) and sometimes as mysterious as love itself.

We tend to hook up with people like us. "Everyone says opposites attract, but opposites don't stay together for that long," says Deanna Meyler, who co-authored a review of research on the tendency of partners' health habits and statuses to merge, a phenomenon known as health concordance. Sustained relationships tend to occur among people who have comparable backgrounds, attitudes, and behaviors—qualities that often find their way into one's physical condition.

Lifestyle like-mindedness is part of what drew Kelly McMasters, 32, to her now-husband, Mark Milroy, 40, back in October of 2000. She's a writer. He's a painter. When they met, both were self-employed. Both smoked. "A lot of our early courtship was going out to bars and diners," says Kelly. "We drank lots of coffee and ate lots of cheese. We didn't worry about it because we weren't seeing the effects on the outside. Little did we know what it was doing to our blood."

When two people marry, their habits become even more alike. A study of newlyweds found that each individual's health behaviors before marriage affected those same behaviors in their partner in the years after the wedding. Eating isn't the only ritual that synchs up. Researchers have found that spouses influence each others' exercise habits, doctor visits, and use of alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana.

Soul mates can even develop the same afflictions over time—a condition in one spouse often places the other at increased risk for the same disorder. This may be true for cancer, stroke, arthritis, hypertension, asthma, depression, and peptic ulcer disease. One study shows that a person's hypertension risk doubles when their spouse is diagnosed as hypertensive.

That's probably because commitment typically leads to shared meals, activity patterns, financial resources, and social networks. Couples may also find themselves true partners in health by means of social control, in which one spouse tries to keep the other wholesome, and mood contagion, where one partner's anxiety washes over the other and even takes a toll on his or her body: Men whose wives are upset by their work are nearly three times more likely to develop heart disease.

"Individuals don't live in a vacuum," says Gregory Homish, an epidemiologist at the State University of New York at Buffalo, who conducted the newlywed study. "Everyone who's in a relationship should be aware that they're making some physically relevant decisions based on their partner's influence," he says. Our doctors should be noting it too. "They'll ask about your family history, but not about your spouse," Homish says. As a result, they might end up missing obvious risk factors for disease.

Sid + Nancy

While some research shows that marriage is good for well-being, there are many ways in which it can have the opposite effect. It's not uncommon for lovebirds to trade vices such as smoking, drinking, and drug use. "They often serve some adaptive function for the relationship," says Michael Rohrbaugh, a professor of family studies at the University of Arizona. "We'll hear, 'We have our best talks, or good sex, when we smoke together.'" Rohrbaugh believes that addiction interventions including both partners are much more likely to succeed than individual counseling sessions.

You may feel betrayed if your partner wants to drop your shared illicit pleasure, and you may take out your frustration in passive-aggressive ways since it would be taboo to directly discourage his robust goal. "The dynamics are sometimes covert," says Rohrbaugh, "and the cessation effort in such cases usually doesn't succeed."Leaving open packs of cigarettes around the house could easily break your partner's resolve to quit.

On the other hand, if your man keeps lighting up or downing pints of Ben and Jerry's, you could pay a price, too. A study of Korean women found significantly higher risks of lung cancer and breast cancer among those whose husbands smoked, most likely from the effects of secondhand smoke. And wives of men with heart disease are more likely than other women to have cardiac risk factors.

There are even sneakier forces at work between partners. Think of a wife kept awake by a husband's insomnia, or a guy whose girlfriend noisily leaves for work at 6 a.m., robbing him of his morning rest. "Sleep problems can screw up a person's physical and psychological well-being even more than eating and exercise," says Barry McCarthy, a couples therapist and a psychology professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

The tone of your love nest factors into your medical status, too. Women in marriages full of hostility have more coronary artery disease than those in warmer relationships, while men in more controlling relationships (whether they are the dominator or the one getting bossed around) have more coronary artery disease than those in egalitarian marriages. Both situations likely activate stress responses, which are known to contribute to, if not cause, an array of ailments.

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