“Our romantic partner can affect our health behavior in many ways, some of which often surprise people!” says Chloe Huelsnitz, a U of M graduate fellow in psychology.
Huelsnitz offers three tips for you and your partner—
#1 Don’t go to bed angry. Stress caused by conflict in a relationship can absolutely affect your sleep, which then spills back into the relationship. Research shows that disagreements or verbal fights are related to getting less sleep and worse sleep. And on days after poor sleep, we are less likely to resolve conflicts. To prevent this negative cycle, work with your partner to come up with strategies. For example, active listening techniques are a great way to improve communication and understanding in your relationship.
#2 Notice how your partner’s health goals affect yours. We are often unaware of the ways in which pursuing our own health goals can affect our partner, or vice versa. A large study found that when one partner changed to a healthier behavior, such as quitting smoking or becoming more active, their partner was more likely to make a positive health behavior change. Making a behavior change together can help make it “stick.” You might talk to your partner about health goals and find ways to engage in a healthy behavior while spending time with each other. For example, try out an exercise class or a new sleep routine such as drinking decaffeinated tea before bedtime and listening to a guided sleep meditation.
#3 Aim to support—not control. It’s natural to want your partner to be happy and healthy. Sometimes, however, this desire can manifest in attempts to control your partner’s behavior, which could result in conflict. Rather than showing negative emotions or making your partner feel guilty for their behavior (say, smoking), try to be mindful of ways in which you can be supportive. Research shows that “controlling” actions not only aren’t effective in improving each other’s health behavior, they can actually lead partners to engage in worse health behaviors. Have a conversation with your partner about the best ways you can support each other’s health goals. You may find that the kinds of support you each seek are not what you expected!
Chloe Huelsnitz is a social health psychologist who investigates how close relationship partners—friends, family, and romantic partners—affect each other’s health behavior. Huelsnitz recently accepted a postdoctoral position at the National Cancer Institute, where she will focus on how relationship partners affect cancer prevention and control. “My ultimate goal,” she says, “is to design behavioral interventions for couples that can both improve their health behavior and strengthen their relationship.”