How love, friends and a healthy sex life support mental health

[4 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • It’s Valentine’s Day this month! We explore with a Swedish psychiatrist how love and relationships can affect our mental health.

  • Healthy relationships of all kinds can support us in stressful times and bring out the best in us. 

  • Romantic love, platonic love and sex affect our mental health in different ways. It’s important to have balanced relationships that we maintain over time if they make us feel good.

February is here. With Valentine’s Day, we have love on the brain. And for good reason. Love – not just romantic love but all types of love – has a big effect on our mental health.

Expert advice on relationships and mental health

To learn more, we sat down with Susanne Weber, M.D., a psychiatrist at Swedish. Dr. Weber offers insights on how love, friendship and a healthy sex life support our mental wellbeing.

Q: When most people think of mental health, they first think of therapy, meditation and perhaps medication. Why is it important to consider how healthy relationships affect mental health?

A: Good relationships, both friendships and romantic relationships act as a buffer during stressful times. When we’re alone, it’s easy to get stuck in our own heads, thinking that things are better or worse than they really are. Loving relationships can provide that reality check that “Yes, things are really tough right now” and/or “No, it’s not the end of the world.” Good relationships can also provide a fun distraction from us repeating the same worries over and over.

Q: What does a healthy relationship look like?

A: A healthy relationship is a two-way street, with positive emotions and support going both ways. There are times when one person needs more help than the other, but the helper role should flip back and forth.

In healthy relationships, people feel like they can voice their frustrations or concerns about the relationship without being dismissed or put down. Aggression and violence do not have any place in a healthy relationship.

Q: Do romantic love and platonic love affect mental health in different ways?

A: Yes, different types of love can create different brain reactions that affect us physically and emotionally. With romantic love, the infatuation stage is almost like being on a drug. People feel a rush of rewarding neurotransmitters when they see their new partner, so they can almost become obsessed about when they will see them next. This reaction calms down over time. Most successful long-term romantic relationships are supported by a healthy dose of platonic love too, which we associate with friendship.

Friendships can be more durable because there isn’t the expectation that we will continue to feel a specific type of love towards our friends long-term. Also, there are fewer cultural expectations placed on friendships, making them more flexible.

Friends can connect every day or once a year. They can talk about their deepest emotions or just baseball. Friends often tolerate differences that they may not accept with a romantic partner. Friendships can also reinforce our values and ideals. Different types of friends and different types of friendships can make life richer.

Q: Why is Valentine’s Day a good day to celebrate BOTH types of love?

A: Both types of love are beautiful. These relationships support us and can bring out the best in us. Having someone to share in life’s successes can make them sweeter. Having someone to share the low times can make them more bearable. Romantic love can spin us to euphoric heights, and platonic friendships can be a steady ship on the sea.

Q: What about sex? How does a healthy sex life (with a partner and without) support mental health?

A: When someone is anxious, their fight-flight-freeze system is activated. They are physically on “high alert.” But enjoying sexual activity requires us to relax, which can decrease that physical feeling of anxiety. Sexual activity also allows us to connect with ourselves and others in an intimate and vulnerable way. It affirms that we deserve to give and receive pleasure, which challenges depressing thoughts.

Q: Any advice for people on developing and sustaining healthy relationships – especially during a pandemic?

A: When starting a new relationship, whether a friendship or a romance, make the choice to take the pressure off. Just spend a little time together and see how you feel. If you feel good and like spending time with someone, spend more time with them. If you don’t like them or how you feel when you are with them, then move on.

With long-term romantic relationships, I’m a proponent of regular date nights. It’s easy to let life fall into a routine that doesn’t include time for kindling your romantic feelings or intimacy.

For any long-term relationship, I’m also a fan of maintaining some level of politeness. Just because you can take someone for granted, doesn’t mean you should. Continue to show gratitude by saying, “thank you.” Continue to respect the other person’s time by keeping your plans and being on time. Show little kindnesses like holding the door or giving a compliment. Keep those positive feelings going back and forth.

I don’t think that the advice around starting or maintaining relationships is different in spirit because of the pandemic, but how we connect may look different. We may have first dates and friend meetups over video chat instead of at a restaurant. We may limit the size of our get-togethers or wear high-quality filtration masks (N-95 or equivalent) around people who are not in our “bubble.”

Q: What else should people know about love and mental health?

A: Remember to give yourself the same love and compassion that you give to your loved ones. People will say awful things to themselves, judge themselves harshly, or have unrealistic expectations for themselves that they would never put on a friend or lover. Love yourself. Be your best friend too.

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Learn more and find a provider

Our behavioral health experts offer virtual and in-person consultations to bring you convenient, confidential mental healthcare options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a physician, caregiver, or advanced care practitioner, you can use our provider directory.

Related resources

A healthy social life is good for your health

When to talk to your doctor about sex

Finding inspiration during Mental Health Awareness Month

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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About the Author

Our philosophy for well being is looking at the holistic human experience. As such, the Swedish Wellness & Lifestyle Team is committed to shining a light on health-related topics that help you live your healthiest life. From nutrition to mindfulness to annual screenings, our team offers clinically-backed advice and tips to help you and your loved ones live life to the fullest.

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