For most people, relationships with friends, with family and with significant others are a big part of what it means to be human. They change how we feel about ourselves and—for me at least—provide a substantial part of the meaning in our lives. But far from just being touchy feely stuff, it turns out that our relationships have a tangible affect on our sense of well-being, and even on our physical health.

This is the focus of The Best Medicine? The importance of relationships for health and well-being, our recent research in partnership with Relate. (Also see our research into relationships in old age for Relate).

When we did the research, it was not a surprise to discover that the strength of an individuals relationships has a bearing on people’s health. Indeed, it is a widely held view. According to the Office of National Statistics 89% of us believe our relationships are key to our well-being. It was a revelation, however, to find out just how unequivocal the evidence is, and how powerful the effect of relationships on health.

Our research highlights that strong relationships make it less likely that individuals will suffer from serious illness and speeds their recovery where they do. And it works both ways—serious illnesses put relationships under strain, and people with poor relationships suffer more illness. The report details the evidence we reviewed, including:

  • Those in a good relationship are half as likely as those in poor quality ones to experience depression.
  • They are 50% more likely to survive a life-threatening illness.
  • Half of stroke survivors experience relationship problems, and report that changes in social factors have a more profound affect on their well-being than the physical disabilities they suffer.

On the one hand, we have strong evidence of the importance of relationships. On the other, we know that the healthcare system is struggling to keep up with demand, and this will only increase as the population ages. We also know that a purely medical fix is neither sufficient nor desirable. It was good to see that the social determinants of health were clearly emphasised in The Marmot Review and the NHS Five Year Forward View. But relationships have played only a peripheral part in the debate so far. This feels like a missed opportunity.

What the doctor ordered

So how can our healthcare system help to strengthen relationships? Of course, no-one wants the state delving into their marriages, friendship networks or other relationships, and there are limits to what healthcare professionals will be equipped to do directly. But our research underlines what is at stake and why the NHS should look seriously at how it can successfully address relationships.

Relate’s The Best Medicine campaign offers a number of suggestions for next steps, including better coordination within central government and Relate is working with partners to ensure the report’s recommendations are acted on. This is a great example of an area where the voluntary sector can help public services to adapt to new challenges. Charities often have a different type of relationship with the end user, which can make it easier for them to navigate touchy subjects—and they have expertise in doing just that. It is also a place where innovation happens and new approaches can be tested, as initiatives like Family Nurse Partnership show.

We need more practical solutions like these and we need them more widely available, alongside efforts to build the evidence base of what works in relationship support, and underpinned by a policy environment that is actively supportive. That may move the healthcare system a little out of its comfort zone, but relationships matter too much to let that stop us.

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