If Netflix and chill is your go-to activity for bonding with your partner, there’s both good news and bad news. The good news: you may feel closer to each other. The bad news: it could be ruining your health.
A new study from the University of Zurich found that couples who engage in unhealthy behaviors together, such as drinking, smoking cigarettes and binge-watching TV, felt closer to each other the following day compared to couples that engaged in healthy activities.
The study is an example of symptom-system fit theory, which suggests that “problematic behaviors are maintained by the social system (e.g., the couple relationship) in which they occur because they help promote positive relationship functioning in the short-term.”
“The heart of an intimate relationship is two people creating their own little world together,” explains Dr. Alexandra Solomon, therapist, author and host of the podcast Reimagining Love. “A couple’s system becomes a sort of microculture and there are rituals, traditions and language that create the core of the ‘we.’ The relationship itself is almost a third entity. Nothing creates a more powerful sense of ‘we’ than things that are transgressive or secretive, or things we do together, but the rest of the world probably shouldn’t know about.”
Researchers analyzed data from three daily life studies of unhealthy behavior in couples. In the first, they found that couples were “more likely to report high closeness and relationship satisfaction on days on which they smoked more cigarettes together.”
In the second study, participants used an activity monitoring device and researchers learned that those who demonstrated more shared sedentary behavior were “linked with increased closeness and relationship satisfaction in inactive couples with excess weight or obesity.” However, the third study, in which participants recorded the food they ate each day, did not find any differences in daily closeness of relationship satisfaction on days on which couples reported more or less shared unhealthy food consumption.
“There is an element of pleasure involved in indulging together or escaping together,” says Solomon, who was not part of the study. “If we see that as the core of the ritual, I think that couples can work together to figure out what other avenues are available to co-create the experience of pleasure or leaving the rest of the world behind.”
To do that, Solomon encourages couples to spend time discussing what they were initially seeking in those problematic behaviors, whether it was an escape, pleasure or avoiding roles and responsibilities by being more playful in nature. Once they’ve discerned the origin of their behavior, they can work together to discover new, healthier activities that may fill that void, such as exploring new elements of their erotic connection or new physical adventures, such as rock climbing, hiking or taking a ballroom dance class.
“From there, it creates a wide open space of possibility,” she says. “They can work together, which is the heart of intimacy, to create something fun and different that serves them better.”