Ah, love. . . on the television and in the movies, we all are addicted to watching those beautiful, young couples fall in love and eventually live happily ever after (at least that’s what we hope for). But does romantic love just promise happiness for the young? What about finding love in our older years? And is there such as thing as “happily ever after?”
Well, these may seem strange questions to pose when we’re discussing health, but one medical researcher believes that the topic of love and health has great significance in the medical realm.
Dr. Norm O’Rourke, a Canadian researcher, is currently conducting a three-year government-funded study into “marital aggrandizement.” Basically, this term refers to when a person idealizes the state of their relationship with their significant other, only recalling the good aspects of their lives together instead of the bad.
Dr. O’Rourke discovered this type of idealized love in a 1996 study on depression among people caring for a spouse with dementia. For obvious reasons, anxiety, stress, and depression are all common in those caring for an ill partner. However, some of the caregivers who were studied seemed to be doing fine, without showing any symptoms of depression. He found that these subjects frequently had only happy memories of their marriages prior to the dementia.
This finding put Dr. O’Rourke on the path toward the answer to a new question: “Could this tendency to idealize relationships have a positive effect on people’s health?” He also wondered how it was that these people could only remember the good parts of their relationships, but not the bad parts.
Dr. O’Rourke has already identified a certain personality type that seems to make people more prone to marital aggrandizement. He has also determined that it’s possible for one person in a relationship to have this rosy point of view, meaning that the other person in the relationship thinks about both the good and bad aspects. Moreover, it doesn’t seem to be more common in either men or women.
The most recent portion of this ongoing study will take place in a lab, which is made up to resemble a living room. O’Rourke plans to study the interaction between older couples as they attempt to resolve their contentious relationship issues. You know — the usual bones of contention between spouses — finances, sex, the kids, in- laws, etc.
The subjects will be monitored for body language, facial expressions, and the content of their “argument.” In addition, the researchers will check their stress levels by measuring the cortisol in their system at various points.
At this point in the study, O’Rourke has already noticed one thing among the couples that includes at least one person having the tendency to idealize their love relationship: they don’t really fight. Rather, they calmly discuss a problem and listen to each other’s point of view.
This is extremely interesting within the framework of O’Rourke’s research, because it means that the cortisol levels of these particular subjects remain low. This means that because of the way the “ideal love” couples discuss their issues, their stress levels remain low.
As you already know, stress is extremely toxic to your system. The higher your stress (i.e. cortisol) levels are the greater your risk is for developing many health problems, including heart disease and emotional disorders.
So, it seems that people who idealize their partner and their relationship might have more than just one good thing going: they have a healthy relationship, which might just help them sustain good health into their later years. Romantic love is not just for the young, after all. It should be interesting to see what else O’Rourke can uncover about the link between love and well-being.