According to a new study led by Bert N. Uchino of the Department of Psychology and Health Psychology Program at the University of Utah, ambivalent interpersonal relationships cause telomeres, chromosomal structures that maintain a person’s biological balance, to shorten. Short telomeres have been linked with increased risk for heart disease, infection, and decreased cellular life. Research has supported the theory that negative relationships are directly related to increased stress and blood pressure, but this new study is among the first to closely examine the link between ambiguous relationships and telomere length. Ambivalent relationships may not have the detrimental consequences of negative relationships, but the ambiguous nature of the relationships can cause unpredictability, stress, and anxiety. Additionally, almost half of the relationships people have are considered ambiguous, raising the question of whether or not these relationships should be evaluated more closely.
Uchino and his colleagues interviewed 136 participants and evaluated their relationships using the social relationships index, and telomeres were measured through blood samples. The researchers discovered that the participants with the highest number of ambivalent relationships had the shortest telomere lengths. Additionally, the cellular aging of those participants was much farther advanced than the cellular age of those with less interpersonal ambiguity. Uchino also realized that the women in the study had more ambiguous relationships than the men and, overall, had shorter telomere length. Further examination showed that those relationships were usually with family members, friends, or acquaintances, which comprised the majority of relationships for the participants. Uchino said, “Although there may be some psychological and behavioral benefits to ambivalent friendships, the present study suggests these friendships may come with ‘hidden’ physiological costs, especially for women.” He believes his findings underscore the importance of examining every aspect of personal relationships, positive, negative and neutral, to understand how each affects an individual’s psychological and physical health.
Uchino, B. N., Cawthon, R. M., Smith, T. W., Light, K. C., McKenzie, J., Carlisle, M., Gunn, H., Birmingham, W., & Bowen, K. (2012, January 9). Social Relationships and Health: Is Feeling Positive, Negative, or Both (Ambivalent) About Your Social Ties Related to Telomeres? Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026836
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