Simply being in the physical presence of your romantic partner may offer powerful health benefits, according to new research set to be published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. The study found that people who spent more time with their romantic partner had lower levels of inflammatory marker C-reactive protein the following day — regardless of their relationship quality.
Social relationships offer powerful physical health benefits and may even lower a person’s mortality rate. While some scholars have theorized that the quality of one’s social relationships plays an important role in this connection, the research evidence for this is unclear. Researchers Tatum A. Jolink instead proposed that time spent in the physical presence of a close connection might be a more important factor.
It is often speculated that the link between social relationships and improved health can be attributed to reduced inflammation. On that note, there is evidence that simply being in the presence of a close partner enhances physiological regulation of nervous system pathways that impact peripheral inflammation. Jolink and her colleagues conducted a study to test whether time spent in close proximity to a romantic partner would influence markers of systemic inflammation.
The researchers recruited a final sample of 100 adults in romantic relationships. These participants completed three lab visits in the course of a month, where they provided blood samples to be tested for inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP). At each visit, following the blood work, participants completed surveys that included a question regarding the amount of time they had spent in the physical presence of their partner in the past 24 hours. This included being in the same room as their partner, whether awake or sleeping.
The results revealed that participants who reported spending more time in the presence of their partner in the past 24 hours had lower CRP levels. These results were significant after controlling for various sociodemographic and health measures, like race/ethnicity, anti-depressant use, exercise, and sleep quality. When the researchers tested the opposite pathway, they found that CRP was not a significant predictor of time spent with a partner in the past 24 hours.
Interestingly, similar results were found when looking at weekly fluctuations in time spent with one’s partner. When participants spent more time with their partner in the past 24 hours compared to their average across the three time points, their CRP dropped significantly.
This link between time spent with one’s partner and lower CRP held when controlling for three frequently studied explanations — the quality of one’s relationship, the hostility felt toward one’s partner, and feelings of loneliness that week. This suggests that simply spending time physically near a romantic partner was consistently associated with lower CRP, regardless of relationship quality, hostility, or loneliness factors.
“We sampled CRP on three different days across time, and found evidence suggesting merely being together with a romantic partner was beneficial in the form of lower CRP,” the study authors write. “By identifying this proximal biological pathway through which being with our closest others may facilitate better health outcomes, these findings reveal yet uncharted avenues for addressing the mechanisms through which close relationships affect long-term health.”
In light of their results, the authors suggest that health researchers should consider instances within relationships that tend to occur the most often, like laughing together or moments of calm. The cumulative impact of regular moments like these might improve health through biological mechanisms. For example, affectionate touch during moments of proximity or physiological attunement during sleeping might offer physiological benefits.
The study, “Everyday co-presence with a romantic partner is associated with lower C-reactive protein”, was authored by Tatum A. Jolink, Baldwin M. Way, Ayana Younge, Christopher Oveis, and Sara B. Algoe.